Music for the Weekend #010 — Night Boat to Cairo
The Clash – Rock the Casbah
David Bowie – Yassasin
Led Zeppelin – Kashmir
Velvet Underground – Venus in Furs
Bangles – Walk like an Egyptian
Jefferson Airplane – White Rabbit
Foxy Brown – Hood Scriptures
Rolling Stones – Paint it Black
Jay-Z – Big Pimpin’
The Pussycat Dolls – Buttons
Siouxsie And The Banshees – Cities in Dust
Britney Spears – Toxic
The Chemical Brothers – Galvanize
Truth Hurts feat. Rakim – Addictive
Doce – Ali Babá
The list is too big to fit here so I just decided to pick from pop’s songbook 3 hands full of anthems that have eyes set on Mecca and ears tuned in the direction of Jerusalem. Supposedly always scared of the moor, the West never hid its fascination with the “oriental” and in music many reflections of that exist. In Classic or Exotica the fascination with what’s distant from us obscures the real notion that one could already have of the places invoked, their odours and temperatures left to the imagination of those listening to Rimsky-Korsakov or Martin Denny. But what interests me this weekend is this closer Middle East but, logically, I’ll have to include the north of Africa and all the side of that continent where the sun rises because it has a strong Arab influence.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe went through a few centuries of darkness, where the church took the reins of education, fighting all ideas outside its sphere under the pretext of a combat on paganism. Thus the little musical expression that remained was incorporated into the religious services and the Gregorian chant that was used to captivate and subdue the populations to the Church’s purposes. It is only from the 10th century onwards that we can observe the knowledge in medicine, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and arts flourishing in the Continent by the hands of the Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula, mainly in Andalusia. In Portugal, fado is perhaps the greatest proof that “they” were here, had we been “colonized” by Vikings and certainly that our most popular music would have been death metal. As if on purpose somewhere in this selection I leave the corroboration of all this in Simon Shaheen’s interpretation of the theme Bortuqal, a classic by Mohamed Abdel Wanab, a prominent 20th century Egyptian composer. Hear it and if you know anything about fado try and spot the differences…
אם ננעלו דלתי נדיבים דלתי מרום לא ננעלו
Im nin’alu daltei n’divim daltei marom lo nin’alu
Even if the gates of the rich are closed, those of Heaven are always open. Thus begins the Hebrew poem written in the 17th century by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi and which was set to music in its best known version by Ofra Haza, an Israeli singer of Yemeni ancestry. Shortly before having to do compulsory military service, she premiered the song in 1978 on a television program. But it would only be ten years later that Im Nin’alu would reach the European charts in such a way that soon afterwards Coldcut would produce a remix of Paid in Full by the duo Eric B. & Rakim where they “sampled” the original from Haza. The sale of over 3 million copies was the beginning of the world music crossover to the mainstream top lists.
Gone were already the days when at the Fnac of Les Halles in Paris to find the French edition of the first album by Portuguese rock band Heróis do Mar one had to look in the folklore record section. Those were other times because today it is easy to have access to almost all of what is done around the world. Even so and logically discounting all the soft house garbage that you hear on discs like Café de Anatolia (a possible muzak soundtrack of the halal section of El Corte Ingles if such a thing existed), discovering good music in the language of the Koran is not an easy task.
So this week I start this hike in the desert not with the obvious choice of Oum Kalthoum, because everything I have from her is way too long and I have no desire to mess with her by doing an edit (something that Hello Psychaleppo in his record Gool L’ah shows not being a problem for him). Discover Kalthoum, it’s worth it. So I could only start with the Lebanese diva Fairuz. The fascination with Arab music is here immediately apparent in its superlative arrangements served by a extraordinary voice. However, in our stroll through these places we will understand how reciprocal is as well the fascination with Western musicality in an ornate tapestry of winks and abundant bows of gratitude. So there will be snippets of jazz, disco, funk, house or ambient as well as a time and place for orchestras as well as soloists who produce their strange prayers on a MacBook Pro somewhere on the outskirts of Tehran.
Place for artists such as the beautiful and talented singer-songwriter Yasmine Hamdan who in the 90s was part of the duo Soapkills and who is, apparently, a great polyglot because in AL Jamilat, her latest of originals published by Crammed she sings in her native Lebanese but also in Egyptian, Palestinian, Kuwaiti and in Bedouin dialect, thus revisiting all the places where life has already taken her. Or the “dandy in exile” Mohamed Mazouni, who recently had reissued some of his greatest hymns to freedom. This feeling of liberation that I find circumscribed and well underlined in almost all 40 themes of this M4we, from the female condition to the recent Arab Spring or in the outlander feeling of these migrants in other countries where they end up doing without embarrassment what they always aspired to accomplish despite the “mandatory distance” to their territorial origins. Or even a whole list of great figures of this hypothetical 1001 nights such as Tinariwen, Mim Suleiman (who lately always has the help of Maurice Fulton in the production of her records) or some roster from Disco Halal, a German label firmly grounded in the most electro-advanced that Tel Aviv has to offer and that doesn’t shy from a little belly dance once in a while.
Anyone who follows weekly all this knows that I am fond of the so called pescadinha-de-rabo-na-boca effect and that’s why I end up with Rachid Taha, a brilliant Franco-Algerian “sonic adventurer” who specialized in the ménage a plesieurs of punk and techno mixed with Raï and Chaabi. He died two years ago a few days before turning 60. In a crazy cocktail of sheiks who plow the desert “in their Cadillacs” and “cartoonesque” commentary on how the West deals with Middle Eastern affairs it culminates this playlist in a full circle as the Clash themselves may well have been influenced by Carte de Sejour, Taha’s first band when they conceived the classic Rock the Casbah.
An habibi weekend is my wish for everyone. Insha’Allah.