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Sif Safaa: New Music From the Middle East


The Islamic world may not seem particularly fond of the West, but the sounds of popular music in places like Egypt, Kuwait, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and even Iraq provide an interesting glimpse of how Western fashions have seeped into ancient traditions. Sif Safaa: New Music From the Middle East, a recently released compilation, offers a terrific, though relatively haphazard, sketch of the current melding of Western pop and inherited music in these five countries.

Cairo remains the dominant city of the Middle East, so it's not surprising that most of the music on the collection is Egyptian. The country's pop music was significantly transformed in the 60s, as the nation faced industrialization and the Nasser era came to a conclusion. Nasser had stressed Pan-Arab unity, but the masses who flocked to the cities for work ended up being exploited and ghettoized. In response, the music called shaabi ("the people") was born to celebrate the identity and experience of the workers. Building upon folk motifs, the movement introduced a new rhythmic sexuality and grew away from traditional Egyptian music while retaining its instruments, most notably the oud (the classic lutelike instrument with a piercing, melancholy sound), violins, and percussive instruments like the duff, cigat, and riq, all hand drums loosely resembling the shape of a tambourine.

Until the 1970s, Egypt's greatest star was Umm Kalthum, whose sway over the citizenry matched that of heads of state. But the rarefied, ornate songs of Kalthum and her contemporaries often got their lyrics from classical love poetry, while shaabi music employed more daring rhythms and lyrics that emphasized the rigors of everyday life. An excellent 1990 compilation of Egyptian pop called Yalla--Hitlist Egypt (Mango) provides a superb, lucid delineation of this transformation. With Kalthum's death in 1975, shaabi ascended as a true pop music form, with no single star towering above all others.

Around the same time, many young musicians who found shaabi too sober and issue-laden were fed up with hearing Western pop sung in English. They forged a new style called al-jil ("generation"), which employed modern instruments like electric guitar, synthesizer, organ, and drum machine. For the most part al-jil music dispensed with substantial lyrical concerns; banal songs about love and dancing became de rigueur, as did music with a blatant sexual emphasis. What's particularly interesting about al-jil is the tension between Western technology and Middle Eastern tradition. The breathtaking vocals retain the beauty of Islamic music through soaring, soulful vigor, complicated phrasing, and the nearly tactile sound of Arabic.

Sif Safaa doesn't purely concern itself with this stylistic scheme. Its seemingly random collection of songs demonstrates that a wide range of Middle Eastern pop was influenced by the West. Baghdad-born Kazim Al Sahir's "Anta Al Hakam" is one of the most traditional sounding entries on the CD, with its lush, driving violin section, propulsive Middle Eastern rhythms, and pungent oud accents undergirding phenomenal vocals that are rife with intricate phrasing, quivering, soulful inflections, and an elastic elongation of notes. Standing in stark contrast is Mohamed Mounir's "Sif Safaa." A Cairo-based al-jil singer of Nubian descent, Mounir is among the region's most sophisticated artists. The track that gives the album its title seamlessly and gorgeously fuses electric guitar, organ, horns, and dub production tricks, wrapping the elaborate multiculti instrumental melange around the singer's exquisitely delicate but forceful voice, which softens Arabic consonance with rare grace and subtlety.

Between these two extremes lies plenty of variety, from the elegant traditionalism of Hamdi Ahmed, an Egyptian who favors an oud-dominated sound fleshed out by serpentine lines played on the nay, a reedless flutelike instrument. Hanan is an exuberant singer whose "Matajarahnish" sets her emphatic youthful voice against spare rhythm-based support; the steadiness of the backing nicely contrasts her dramatic swoops and excited squeaks. Saudi Saleh Khairy's "Agulak" is one of the highlights of the CD, resplendent in hypnotic rhythms, descending sheets of shimmery violin, and terrific call-and-response vocals. Khairy sings with deceptive calm while a chorus answers his fear of unrequited love.

There's no confusing the music on Sif Safaa with anything Western; Middle Eastern flavor dominates. The clash of Western culture with Middle Eastern traditions provides only a fascinating tension, an organic sort of juxtaposition. While the long arm of the West continues to flex its muscle anywhere there's money to be made, it's refreshing and exciting to hear the sort of cultural fusion on this CD, one that allows progress without surrendering identity. Most enthralling, however, is that beneath wide cultural gaps, language barriers, "exotic" instrumentation, and different tunings, soulful expression remains universally potent and pure.

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