Arabic music... where to begin? The Arab World (generally loosely defined as the Arabic-speaking regions that cover most of North Africa and the Middle East) is a land of huge cities and tiny, isolated villages; of modern ingenuity and ancient spirituality; and most certainly of rich artistic traditions that go back millenia. That is to say, it's really too big to boil down to a short list. Still, if you want to listen to Arabic music, you've got to start somewhere, right? These ten exemplary CDs are not intended to be an all-inclusive survey (that's nearly impossible), but each of them is wonderful and important, and will get your Arabic music collection started nicely.
Oum Kalsoum (also spelled "Umm Kulthoum," "Omme Kalthoum," "Um Kulsoom," and any number of other variants) is a legend of Egyptian music, and is generally considered the greatest singer that country ever produced, and perhaps the greatest Arabic female singer in history. With her tremendous range, her powerful vocal chords (so strong that she had to stand several feet away from the microphone), her passionate delivery, and the way she combined her classical training with her natural talent for improvisation to create hour-long (or longer) masterpieces of live performance. It's hard to go wrong with any of her recordings, but this collection primarily includes some of her shorter-length recorded songs, making it an ideal CD for a first-time listener.
Algiers-born but living in France, Rachid Taha is a bit of a bad boy who speaks to the difficulties of modern life in the Arabic diaspora, and who is thus a favorite of younger Arabs, particularly those who are living as immigrants in non-Arabic countries, but also in North Africa and the Middle East. His music blends the sounds of Western rock and grunge with modern Algerian rai, and is very accessible to both Arabic and Western ears. This collection, which includes "Barra Barra," which some may know from the Black Hawk Down soundtrack; Taha's version of "Ya Rayah," which has become an anthem for young Arab immigrants; "Rock el Casbah," a cover of The Clash's Algiers-referencing hit, and a number of other hard-driving recordings.
Tucked away in tiny mountain enclaves and desert oases throughout North Africa are small tribes of people with unique and isolated cultures that often pack an artistic wallop. Some of these groups are still being "discovered" by world music fans, but the Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar were one of the first to make the international rounds. They somehow landed on the radar of Brian Jones, guitarist for the Rolling Stones, sometime in the late 1960s, and he introduced them to the world. The band members are part of the Ahl-Srif tribe, who've lived and played music in the Rif mountains of Southern Morocco for well over 1000 years, at least since the arrival of the Saint Sidi Ahmed Sheikh, who used the village of Jajouka as his mountain hideaway. Their music is hypnotic and trance-inducing, and is particularly complicated -- only a few musicians from each generation are trained to carry on the tradition. Have a listen -- this is great stuff.
Rahim AlHaj is a renowned Iraq-born oud player who studied under the master Munir Bashir. He holds a degree in Arabic literature from Mustansiriya University and a diploma in composition from Baghdad's world-renowned Institute of Music. During his years of study, he was a vocal political activist against the regime of Saddam Hussein, and in 1991, he was forced to leave Iraq. After living in Jordan and Syria for several years, he emigrated to the United States and is now a U.S. Citizen. When the Soul is Settled garnered AlHaj his first of two Grammy nominations, and is a sophisticated representation of Iraqi oud music.
Marcel Khalife is a brilliant Lebanese oud player whose outspoken political stances have gained him both international praise (he was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace in 2005) and serious criticism. A song from Arabic Coffeepot called "Ana Yousef, ya Abi" ("I am Joseph, O Father") was based on a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and it referenced two lines from the holy Qur'an. Khalife was brought to Lebanese court on charges of blasphemy for using lines from the Qur'an in an unholy context, but was ultimately acquitted, despite serious objection from a group of Sunni Muslim clerics. Khalife's music has also been banned in Tunisia. As always, any artist whose work is important enough to ban is clearly important, relevant, and generally much beloved by the people.
Hamza El Din was an oud and tar player from Nubia, a region of Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan. The Nubians were not Arabized until the 16th Century, and had a well-developed oral and musical tradition that later merged with Arabic traditions. Therefore, Nubian music has a distinct sound with both deep African and Middle Eastern roots. Hamza El Din was a particularly beautiful player and singer whose music was admired by a number of American folk and rock artists, including the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, and he eventually emigrated to the United States. His hometown, and much of the Nubian region, was flooded when the Aswan Dam was built, making Nubian music a potentially endangered genre -- a real shame considering its incredible beauty.
Fairuz is the best-known singer in the Arab world and is probably the most famous woman in Lebanon. Her impressive command of a song coupled with her angelic voice are easy to love. She was born into a Syriac Christian family, and later converted to Greek Orthodoxy upon marrying. She does occasionally perform Christian-themed music, but more often, her lyrics revolve around secular Arab themes, and talk about love, travel, nature, beauty, loss, and more. Eh... Fi Amal is her most recent album, and the music is composed completely by her son, Ziad Rahbani.
Cheikha Rimitti (sometimes spelled "Remitti") was known as the "Godmother of Rai." Her own style of the Algerian music was a pioneering one, and broke down boundaries for both male and female singers from the beginning of her career to the end. As early as the 1950s, her lyrics dealt frankly with the issues and vices of poor Algerians, and she touched on drinking, smoking, and even sexuality, causing much consternation from authorities, and after many years of being a beloved troublemaker and rabble-rouser, she was eventually legally banished from Algeria. Fearless, however, she returned to Oran, Algeria (the home of Rai music) to record N'Ta Goudami, her final album, released in 2005. She died on May 15, 2006, two days after performing to a crowd of 2500 at the Zenith in Paris's Parc de la Villette.
It would be neglectful to create a list of Arabic music starter CDs and ignore the huge Arabic pop music scene, of which Amr Diab is the reigning king. He's an unrivaled celebrity in his home country of Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Every time he releases a CD, it goes platinum within days. It's thematically fairly standard pop heartthrob stuff, with both Western and Arabic musical elements, and it's cleanly produced and easily likable by anyone who enjoys pop music, and even many of those who may not. This album was one of his first big breakthroughs, and contains duets with both Rai star Khaled and Greek songstress Angela Dimitriou, and it has a distinct pan-Mediterranean feel.
Le Trio Joubran are a trio of oud-playing brothers from Nazareth, a city in the Palestinian territory. They're virtuosic players and composers, and their music a really nice example of the modern school of classical composition that exists throughout the Middle East. It's a good starter album for anyone who is a fan of Western classical music in particular (you'll appreciate the compositional prowess) and for anyone who loves string music of any kind.