Sawt El Atlas | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader


If you have any doubts left that the world is shrinking, Sawt El Atlas ought to erase them. France has long been a hotbed of hybridized African music, but this group, led by two singers of Moroccan descent, takes the practice to extremes. On its second album, Donia (recently issued stateside by Tinder), the default musical mode is rai, the gritty, soulful working-class pop of Algeria. But Kamel El Habchi and Mounir Mirghani sing with a frothy Top 40 sensibility--I've heard them called the Moroccan Backstreet Boys--that softens the nasal edge of traditional Arabic music, and their voices are occasionally treated with that annoying synthesizer effect you've heard on recent records by Cher, Madonna, and Daft Punk. They sing in Arabic, French, and--on the flamenco-driven "Andalucia"--Spanish. The album was recorded in Paris and Cairo, and you can hear the tension between Western facility and Arabic classicism, nimble beat programs and those timeless Egyptian strings; accents are drawn from reggae, funk, hip-hop, and Latin music. Sawt El Atlas delivers what the worldbeat bands of the 80s couldn't: instead of being grafted onto native forms, the Western elements are seamlessly incorporated. This show is the group's Chicago debut; I saw their first U.S. appearance, at South by Southwest this spring, and they're a terrific live act. Saturday, July 14, 10 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.


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