Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Arabic Revolution

Rough Guide tries something new, and mostly succeeds.

Various Artists

The Rough Guide to Arabic Revolution

Label: World Music Network
US release date: 2013-03-26
UK release date: 2013-03-25

…and the Rough Guide compilations just keep on coming. Besides the expected collections of African and South American music -- including The Rough Guide to Desert Blues and African Disco and Psychadelic Brazil -- we now have one for Arabic Revolution, a suggestion that the series is widening its scope a bit. No longer purely a collector of musical trends, this album seeks to document a historical moment as reflected in the tunes of the times; the audience and purpose of the music is as important as the musical style involved. It's an ambitious goal, and one that is largely successful due to the often-moving, occasionally powerful music included here.

It must be said, though, that the most vital-sounding songs here, to my ears at least, tend to be the ones most reflective of current musical trends. This is a long-winded way of saying that the hip hop is the best stuff here. And why not? After all, hip hop is, at heart, someone giving a speech, with all the added benefit of rhyme and meter and up-to-the-minute linguistic gymnastics. Given the political nature of this musical document, which seeks to reflect the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere in the Arab world, it makes sense that such unabashedly direct music should carry a unique urgency and power that reflects its performers' concerns.

And so it does. Palestinian rappers DAM offer up "Hon Enwaladet (Born Here)", an effective blend of spitfire vocals, dense beats, and a sweet chorus courtesy of the golden voice of Abeer Al Zinati. "State of the Nation" from El General manages to convey hope and fury in equal measure -- even if the lyrics are opaque to non-Arabic speakers. Perhaps the most powerful song on the record, Idn Thabit's "Calling the Libyan Youth", is a rollercoaster of dextrous vocals placed atop an irresistibly languid beat and guitar-bending samples. It's perfect blasting-out-your-car-speakers music, and not just for the streets of Tripoli. Too bad it's also the shortest tune here.

This isn't to say that the other songs are ineffective, but many do lack some of the immediate power held by the hip-hop tunes. Emel Mathlouti lends her sweet vocals to the heartfelt "Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free)", while traditional sounds and instrumentation inform a number of other tracks, including El Tanbura's "Heela Heela" and the two final, epic numbers, Mustafa Said's "Ya Masr Hanet We Banet" and "Et Nous, Nous Aimons la Vie" from Dal'Ouna. But there are some watery missteps too, including lite-rock "Sout El Horeya" from Cariokee and the egregious English-language "I'm Your Hope" from Sami Yusuf. No doubt, these songs are as sincere as any of the others, but needless to say, a song requires more than mere sincerity to be effective.

As with many of these collections, a bonus disc is included. This one features Ramy Essam, a protest singer in the classic mold: grizzled, acousic-guitar-strumming, inspirational. A veteran of the Tahrir Square protests, Essam built a reputation and a following in the months before the downfall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarek, and these tracks give an idea of why. Recorded live, the bonus disc showcases Essam's rough vocals and impassioned delivery, and shows that there's life yet in the old protest-singer-who-faces-down-the-tanks mold. Essam also provides the lead track to the compilation as a whole, the impassioned acoustic strummer "Taty Taty".

One caveat: I am not an Arabic speaker, so inevitably, much of the music's power is lost on me. I suspect this will be true for many western listeners. My Arabic extends to a few words picked up while living in Morocco for three years, but that was many years ago, and anyway, Arabic dialect varies wildly across North Africa and the Middle East. What is more important, though, is the extent to which the emotions in the songs do come across, just as a Spanish love song is comprehensible, on some level, to many non-Spanish speakers.

Rough Guide is to be commended for expanding the bounds of its musical series in this fashion. The label continues to turn out compilations that provide an ideal door for newcomers to expand their musical boundaries without an enormous outlay of cash or time. The extra discs routinely added are a generous and much appreciated bonus, while extensive liner notes provide background and context for the musicians included. For citizens of the world curious to get a different perspective on world events from what is routinely present on Fox News or CNN, this is a good place to start.

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