Available for the first time outside of the Middle East, Guitar El Chark is a good way to see what the fuss was all about with Omar Khorshid.
The music of Egyptian guitarist Omar Khorshid sounds quaint to our ears nowadays. In addition to the passing of time since his recording heyday, we have also long been accustomed to mixing together whatever musical styles we wanted while suffering little to no cultural backlash. An electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival? We all got used to it. Pouring hip-hop into jazz or vice-versa? Let Gramps grumble all he wants, that was the birth of our "cool". When young westerners rock the musical boat, we get a little finger-wagging. Back in the Middle East of the '70s, things were much more complicated. The conservative culture of countries like Egypt still had a stranglehold on the youth and their perceptions of sex, religion and politics. At the same time, the youth were feeling the pull of the free love revolution and its inherent message to question authority. As the conservatives doubled down in their attitudes, the younger sect escaped to nightclubs and listened to (perceptibly) dangerous music. Rather than coexist, these two worlds clashed, building friction and unrest that continues to feed headlines today. And if what Omar Khorshid was doing with the electric guitar in the '70s wasn't dangerous, it certainly was risky. You just didn't storm the entertainment business playing modern Arabic music set to mimic both Western and Middle Eastern traditions while incorporating the state-of-the-art technology of the time...unless you were really good at it.
Khorshid's story is a multi-faceted one with artistic promise, virtuosity, celebrity, musical eccentricity and tragedy. Young Omar was born with musical aptitude and eventually found his way to the guitar after first studying violin and piano. He showed remarkable intuition for the instrument and followed its vibrations into beat bands around the city. Khorshid's reputation grew and soon found himself staring down the barrel of an offer to join Abdel Halim Hafez's orchestra, an opportunity that most Middle Eastern musicians could only dream of having fall in their laps. Omar actually balked, thinking that the sound of his electric guitar would be out of place in an oriental orchestra. But when Hafez promised to enlist Baligh Hamdi to handle arrangements, Khorshid bit. His arrangements guaranteed that the electric guitar could easily mix into the ensemble. From here, Khorshid's fame only increased, even becoming a minor star of the silver screen in Egypt.
Sensing that he was truly coming into his own, Omar Khorshid relocated to Beirut, the culture happening Mecca of the '70s. The music from Guitar El Chark draws from his productive time there; 1973 to 1977. It proved too good to last as Lebanon broke out into civil war. Khorshid relocated to Syria in hopes that the violence would blow over. But the writing was on the wall and Khorshid once again packed his bags, this time going back to where he got his start - Egypt. It was in 1977 when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat invited the guitarist to perform at a White House summit. To him, it was probably another gig. To President Carter, it was an attempt to bring peace to a politically fragile part of the world. To all the hard-lined conservatives back home, Omar Khorshid was now seen as a traitor, aligning himself with the Zionists of the west. Death threats and bomb scares ensued. Omar Khorshid's life came to an abrupt end in 1981 when a suspicious car accident killed him and injured his pregnant wife. She, as well as many others, remained skeptical that the episode was no accident despite the police reports.
I go into these details because it actually helps to frame the music. It's the 21st century and we've heard too many world music mock-ups to count by this point. Historical context emboldens Omar Khorshid's music; it helps the listener to understand that young Arab musicians were playing with fire in the '70s. And if the west's gift to Omar and his ilk came in the form of Beatles and Elvis records with sharp guitars and raucous fun, then his gift back to the west was "belly dance" music. Arab musicians knew that the belly dance was an exotic phenomenon for which people on the other side of the world would pay top dollar to see, and they knew what they could do with it. And with that Omar Khorshid gave a Dick Dale spin to the belly dance. Reverb and rapid picking is prominent on Guitar El Chark, making numbers like "Hebbina Hebbina [Love Us Like We Love You]" sound cavernous. At other times, the snap of the recoil spring overtakes the sound of Khorshid's guitar completely, like it does on "Sabirine", likening Khorshid's string-raking to splashing water. And if these attributes weren't enough to make people's heads spin at the time, along come the electronics. Guitar El Chark's opening track actually begins with, not a guitar, but a piercing synthesizer at the mercy of a descending pitch bend. "Rahbaniyat [Rahbani Variations]" gives the impression that the guitar and the keyboards were contending for the lead, with the latter coming across like a Lebanese Rick Wakeman.
Containing 28 tracks, ten of them bonuses appended to this reissue, and lasting for two hours, thirteen minutes and 45 seconds in length (actually, the last track is just a one-minute radio promo spot), parts of Guitar El Chark are more compelling than others. By the time you make it to the second disc the assuming nature of the music is dialed down considerably. This is less an indictment of the compilation and more of a suggestion on how to approach it. To get a glimpse of Omar Khorshid the maverick, the first half of Guitar El Chark will do the trick. The second half, save for a few tracks, gives you Omar Khorshid the romantic. Taken altogether, it's both comprehensive and just the slightest bit numbing. But taken in small doses, Guitar El Chark can take the listener on miniature vacations to the Middle East at a time when creativity was flourishing and the electric guitar was caught gazing into a bright future.