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Various Artists

Egypt Noir

(Piranha Musik; US: 26 Mar 2010; UK: Import)

I don’t know much more about the genre of music contained on Egypt Noir than the information gleaned from the label’s web site (the audio file I received contained no info on any of the artists). To wit: this is music created by member of Egypt’s Nubian population, that is, southern Egyptian Africans who share cultural traits with black sub-Saharans rather than with the Arab Maghrebi of Libya, Algeria, and Morocco. “Driven from their homeland when the Aswan dam flooded a great stretch of the upper Nile that once was the kingdom of Nubia,” the site reports, “these musical refugees hit Egypt’s big time starting in the 1960s as they fled to its cities…  These modern Nubians discovered new niches in Cairo, absorbing the vibrant cosmopolitan possibilities of everything from Cuban beats to James Brown.”


Little other information is forthcoming, which is frustrating, as I would like to have a better idea of what I’m listening to. On the other hand, the music itself is remarkable. Neither traditional in the mold of, say, Oum Khaltoum, nor the popular rai of Khaled or Cheb Mami, these tunes manage to convey the distinctive rhythms of North Africa, while bringing a heady dose of innovation into the mix in the form of varied instrumentation.


Kickoff tune “Gammal” features a rich bed of off-kilter percussion and strings either plucked or bent, overlaid with flourishes of harmonium. Vocals are by Ali Hassan Kuban and Salwa Abou Greisha, each of whom contribute solo tracks later. “Hager” by Fathi Abou Greisha mixes bright horns into the mix, while Alnubia Band’s “Kobana” introduces a funkworthy bassline, wah-wah effects, and squalling harmonica. 


The second half of the album keeps the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink variety going. Salwa Abou Greisha’s solo tune, “Galbi El Atouf”, opens with plucked oud (a traditional of North African lute) leading into a quiet, a capella intro. The effect is something like an Indian filmi song, and it is altogether enchanting. At the three-minute mark, drums kick in, but it remains a gentle, contemplative song. At nine and a half minutes, it is also the longest track on the record. The upbeat, somewhat funky groove returns with “Bettitogor Agil”. Despite the unwelcome synthesizer, Ali Haasa Kuban’s soulful vocals elevate the song above the ordinary. Another quiet interlude follows, courtesy of Aboud Saleh’s “El Zekra—Part 1”, with its tinkling keyboards and slow, wistful vocals.


By this point on the album it’s no surprise that each song features different instrumentation, and sets a different mood, from everything preceding it. This trend continues with “Elleya Misafir” by Hassan Abdel Aziz, perhaps the most typically “Arabic”-sounding song on the disc, with its chanted backing vocals, shrill violin flourishes, and lyrics that seem to have something to do with “habibi”.


A shehnai (the traditional snake-charmer’s instrument) introduces closing track “United Nations (Saidi style)” by Mahmoud Fadl. And why not? We’ve heard everything else, and if that distinctively nasal tone gets chopped and processed and reconfigured throughout the course of the song, that’s just fine. If Egypt Noir is indeed representative an overlooked (in the West) tradition of Nubian Egyptian pop music, then we should appreciate this collection for trying to set the record straight—and hope that there are more gems to be unearthed in the future.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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