A splendidly diverse introduction to one of the most influential and intriguing musical families of the East.
2007 has been altogether the worst year for new music that I can remember. And my memory goes all the way back to 1976. To be fair, though, I did black out for most of 1989, so maybe that was worse? Let me have your arguments by the end of the week, use both sides of the paper, and there will be extra credit for comparing Avril Lavigne with Tiffany.
Of course, when I'm dissing this year of Our Lord, I'm only talking about Our Music: Western music that speaks English (or an approximation thereof), watches reality TV, and pretends that big budget stadium concerts offer an effective cure for both Global Warming and the Tragic Death of Saint Diana the Immaculate. Take away Cassadaga and Wincing the Night Away, Emily Haines' Knives Don't Have Your Back and Amy LaVere's Anchors & Anvils, and the New Pornographers' forthcoming Challengers, and the best the West has offered us this year has been the continuing rebirth of Graham Parker (age 56) and the reunion of 55-year old Peter Perrett's Only Ones, who last recorded together 27 years ago. So, hardly a year to write home about.
Fortunately, there's a whole other world out there. Faced with the relentless onslaught of mediocrity and worse from the bedrooms and luxury studios of the West, I've spent much of this year taking a succession of cheap and completely undiscerning holidays in other people's cultures. Clever, well-read city intellectuals will probably sneer, but I've made no effort to understand these musics, or the cultures and politic histories behind them -- though I'm not ruling it out in the future. Instead, I've simply immersed myself in their sounds and textures, seeking some kind of sanctuary or respite in their otherwordly charms and beauties.
Qawwali, Raï, Cumbia Villera, and a plethora of both Brazilian and Russian pop musics have each in their turn enlightened my personal annus horribilis, but I've spent most of my year swimming in a cobalt-blue pool shaped after the entirely separate and in-no-way entangled nations of Lebanon and Syria. Performers such as Asalah Nasri, Nawal Al Zoghbi, Nancy Ajram, and Amal Hijazi have enriched my daily commutes and enlivened my pool parties in ways that Patrick Wolf and the Kaiser Chiefs can't even dream of.
Although none of my favourites grace The Rough Guide to Bellydance Cafe, not even Shakira, these 18 tracks offer a splendidly diverse introduction to one of the most influential and intriguing musical families of the East.
With the single exception of Mayodi, a Moroccan who now lives and works in Paris recording Egyptian music, the artists featured here span the coast of the eastern Mediterranean from Egypt to Greece and landlocked Macedonia. The styles range from Egyptian baladi (literally "country music"!) and the Syrian strophic singing known as qudud halabiyya, to the Greek styles of mikrasiatika (Turkish music!) and rebetika (the Greek blues), and no doubt touch a hundred or so points in between. While the instruments employed include such non-Gibson-made joys as Egyptian oboes, zithers, lutes, and tabla, as well as flutes both Persian (the long-necked saz) and Egyptian (the nay which -- ahem -- dates back to the age of the Pyramids).
Should I ever find both the time and inclination to research the history behind this raqs sharki or Oriental Dance, there's clearly a wealth of fabulous tradition, culture, and even political history for me to assimilate. But for now, I'm content to play the ugly tourist. And you know what? This music works wonderfully well on those terms.
When you walk into this Bellydance Cafe -- all Madras shorts, McDonalds belly, and camera round your neck -- you realise immediately that you're not in Kansas anymore. The air is thick with evocative flavours, the lighting rich with mystery and romance, and the atmosphere hangs heavy with something none of these performers would ever term an ambient feel.
Opening the floor show, the Jalal Joubi Ensemble's "Marmar Zamani" begins with an extended zither (I'm guessing, it could be a gypsy violin) instrumental, pauses, and then lurches into a classically rich oriental rhythm decorated with solos I can't help but associate with Depression Era jazz. Jalal Joubi teaches zither and music theory at the Aleppo Conservatory in Syria. Remarkably, the second act at the Bellydance Cafe is the Nazareth Orchestra. Formed in 1990 to promote Arabic music and encourage local talent in Israel and Palestine, the Nazareth Orchestra includes Christian, Muslim, and Jewish musicians. And singer Lubna Salame, a Christian Arab from western Galilee, has depth, power, and emotion to spare. She's also been known to perform with members of Radiohead.
As you pass the night in the Bellydance Cafe, you'll also encounter Sami Ali and the marvellous Glykeria. While Ali is a simple Egyptian purveyour of synthesiser-driven baladi who's been banned in his homeland for being too "provocative and sensuous", the Macedonian Glykeria ("The Sweet One" in Greek) is worth a movie or two in her own right.
Having risen to stardom in Greece in the early 1980s, Glykeria somehow became officially Huge in Israel during the 1990s. The biggest selling foreign performer in Israel, she recorded with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, became an honorary citizen, a platinum album seller, and the darling of Israel's leaders and celebrities alike. In 1998, she was the only foreign artist invited to sing at a special memorial event for Yitzhak Rabin, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who'd been assassinated three years earlier by a right-wing Israeli radical for his role in the creation of the Oslo Accords. An event with just a little more substance than even a Concert for Saint Diana.
Honestly, Glykeria (like Lubna Salame, Nancy, Asalah, Nawal et al) could be singing "(Hit Me Baby) One More Time" for all I know, but the language barrier between us means that I don't have to care. Instead, I can simply soak and luxuriate in the sounds. And such sounds they are. From the the Upper Egypt Ensemble's duelling oboes (or mizmar, plural mazamir) to the three brief offerings from Syria's Salatin El Tarab Orchestra, whose Andalousiyyat or Mouwashshahat stylings represent a classical Arabic form whose roots go back to Andalusia in Spain, and beyond, there's nothing here that will not repay you handsomely for your time. And how many of this year's white-boy rock records or second-rate hip-hop CDs can you say that about?