The liner notes for this album start with a potted history of coffee. Coffee, they explain, came from the Middle East. A small bean. It was a stimulant not proscribed by Islamic law. Arab men came together in coffee houses to play backgammon and exchange ideas. Dervishes used it to stay awake during their all-night whirling sessions. It had never occurred to me that dervishes might drink coffee, and I sat there for a while imagining a dervish who started to spin around, forgetting that he was still holding his cup, leaving onlookers and neighbouring dervishes marked like Frisian cows by the blazing splash of his flying drink.
The music on the Rough Guide to Arabic Café is the music you might hear if you were sitting in one of those coffee houses, or so the notes tell me. Listening to the album, I realised that this is not the same as the music you would expect to hear if you were sitting in a Western coffee shop. It’s not soothing remixes, not the submarine murmur of jazz trumpets and pianos, not the soft background music that creates a pleasant hum while you go on with your conversation. The sawing angles of Louwi Tnnari’s Syrian kaman violin in “Baad al Khisam” and the tambourine rattle in Hamdi Ahmed’s “El Dawhaa” don’t retreat into the wallpaper, they come forward. There are long, melting notes in these songs, but there are shorter sounds as well. “Lamma Bada”, a collaboration between the Yugoslavian Gipsy Brass Band and the Lebanese singer Tony Hanna, introduces the squeak of a Roma trumpet. Marwan Mesho’s “Kifak Inta” echoes around a ringing dulcimer.
Then there are mellower sounds, saxophones and pianos. “Habibi”, croons Yasmina Joumblat, lingering over the central i. Habibi or habibti — meaning my dear, my darling, my good friend, my love, honey, depending on who is speaking to whom and why — crops up in the mouth of one singer after another. Different songs sound loving, mournful, contemplative or as if they are serenading an absence. The Palestinian singer Amal Murkus starts the album with “Ya Oud”, a plaintive song. Mahmoud Fadl’s “Ana Wehabibi” slides into your life with strings that slip and sidle, insinuating themselves. The song flirts with you, first teasing, then withdrawing, then teasing again.
The version of Abderrahmane Amrani’s “Ya Rayah” that they’ve chosen is not the familiar growly one sung by Rachid Taha, but an ungrowly version performed by Latif el Idrissi. “Ya Rayah” moves in half-hooped folds, and that looping rhythm runs through the whole album. It catches hold of you with a little motion like a hook, drawing you in, then contracting itself into the next hook, as though knitting a scarf.
All of this is enjoyable, but it doesn’t have the intimate scruffiness that the premise suggests. These aren’t musicians who’ve been found in Arabic cafés, they’re musicians who have been found on Arabic albums. The impression the Rough Guide leaves is that this is Arabic café music in the way that INXS is Australian pub rock: by the time the group was producing the sort of song that got included in international compilations they weren’t performing at the corner local any more. Listening to the Rough Guide to Arabic Café, I wondered if World Music Network should extend its Introducing … series to include locales as well as groups. You’d have Introducing … Harare, or Introducing … Port Moresby, the compiler being someone who knew the city well, and they’d go around to the bars and coffee houses or whatever was appropriate for the place, finding new bands and gathering their best songs together into a playlist. Unknown musicians are sometimes unknown for good reasons, as anyone who has listened to demo albums knows, but they can also be worthwhile, as Sally Nyolo from Zap Mama proved with Studio Cameroon. And oh, it would be nice to have an Arabic album that didn’t include yet another track from Oum Kalthoum. Yes, I know, she’s wonderful. She’s famous. Masses swoon. But someone else for once, please.