Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Iranian popular music

I just found this interesting article (April 22, 2007) from Martin Hodgson about the popular music scene in Iran. I've not heard the bands discussed here--but I've been able to find music from rock band O-Hum (available from emusic for listening and downloading), rap band Hich Kas (download here), and folk singer Mohsen Namjoo. I figure it's something we need to pay attention to, since we may be at war with the country soon. And an alternative image of Iran to circulate.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Algerian Chaabi

Interesting AFP story about Algerian chaabi, undergoing a kind of revival. I got this from the Daily Star. I'm glad to see that Damon Albarn is involved in promoting this. I met briefly him in 2003 through Anglo-Algerian d.j./producer U-Cef, and it seems that Damon is seriously interested in Arab and especially North African music.

One important dimension of chaabi that the article below fails to discuss is the importance of Algerian Jewish musicians. Luc Cherki, Rene Perez, and Maurice El Medioni, are all Algerian Jews, and are all terrific. Read on!

"Love, loss and mandolins: Algerian folk music goes global"
By Agence France Presse (AFP)

Friday, September 07, 2007

MARSEILLE: Singing tales of love and exile to the trill of mandolins and the beat of Arab percussion, 40 masters of Algerian chaabi, a century-old folk music tradition, have been reunited after decades for a four-nation tour that started on Thursday. Dubbed "El Gusto" - slang for high spirits - the tour is to be followed with an album in October produced by Damon Albarn, lead singer of the British pop band Blur and a long-standing fan of world music, and a film to be released next spring.

It was first dreamt up by Safinez Bousbia, an Irish-Algerian woman, after she was introduced to the genre three years ago by a musician in the Casbah in the Algerian capital Algiers.

Seized with curiosity about the musical tradition, which saw its heyday in Algiers in the 1940s and 1950s, she decided to set out in search of the artists who made it famous.

"I just wanted to put them back in touch. The idea of the film and the album came later," Bousbia says of her project - a North African version of Ry Cooder's mission to reunite the members of Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club.

As with the Cuban adventure, most of the artists involved in the chaabi tour, which kicked off Thursday in the Mediterranean port of Marseille before heading to Paris, London, Berlin and New York, are now in their 70s.

Many of the musicians who flew in from Algiers and Paris for the Marseille concert parted ways four decades ago.

"The greatest pleasure is simply to meet again. It's going to be extraordinary to make music together," says the singer Luc Cherki, who was recently reunited with old friends and fellow musicians Ahmad Bernaoui, Rene Perez, Abdelkader Chercham and Maurice al-Medioni.

Chaabi - which means "popular" in Arabic - first appeared in the late 19th-century, inspired by vocal traditions of Arab Andalusia, the home of Flamenco music.

A typical song features mournful vocals in Arabic set against an orchestral backdrop of a dozen musicians, with violins and mandolins swelling and falling to a piano melody and the clap of percussion beats.

While it shares many themes with flamenco - love, loss, exile, friendship and betrayal - chaabi is part of a deeply conservative tradition, its lyrics often carrying a strong moral message.

"This music is part of the culture of Algiers, it cannot be separated from everyday life there," says Al-Hadi Halo, the show's conductor and son of the pioneering chaabi musician Hadj Mohammad al-Anka.

"Even though it doesn't get a lot of media attention, it is everywhere: weddings, circumcision ceremonies, religious festivals," says Halo, who teaches a new generation of chaabi musicians at the Algiers conservatory.

In recent years, chaabi has been largely overtaken at home by rai, a spicy North African brand of pop music with often explicit references to sex.

The genres overlapped in 1998, when rai superstar Rachid Taha scored a hit at home and abroad with a cover version of "Ya Rayah," a 1970s song about exile by chaabi artist Dahmane al-Arachi, who died in 1980.

Organizers hope the tour will help introduce Algerian chaabi to a wider audience, as "El Gusto" travels from Marseille to Paris on September 29, followed by London on October 10, Berlin on October 31 and New York next year. - AFP

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Lebanese "post-punk": Scrambled Eggs

From the Daily Star, a useful account of one of Lebanon's most prominent rock bands, the post-punk Scrambled Eggs. Go here for some photos of Scrambled Eggs playing last summer at an event called, "Musicians against Monsters," during Israel's murderous bombing campaign. Go here for more info and to listen to a couple of their songs. Their myspace page is here.

The photo of Scrambled Eggs (thanks Jim) is Ousama Ayoub, and from AFP. The caption: Young Lebanese revellers gather inside a bar in the Gemmayze area at the heart of Beirut late 04 July 2007 as part of a campaign to revive night life in the fashionable area not far from where anti-government opposition parties have been camping for the past eight months. Gemmayze, once vibrant with shops and cafes, is now struggling to cope with a drastic fall in passing trade and diving sales. The area has been abandoned by revellers in favour of roof top bars to which Beirutis have flocked for fear of recent bomb at attacks at street level. AFP PHOTO/OUSAMA AYOUB

A luta continua!

Here's the Daily Star article:

"Scrambled Eggs on the back burner: Beirut's post-punk pioneers take five (months or so)
Members will use hiatus for studies in America, possible shows in Europe, new material"
By Bojan Preradovic
Special to The Daily Star
Friday, August 31, 2007

BEIRUT: When the local post-punk outfit Scrambled Eggs took to the stage at Basement last week, it was to play their last show in Beirut for some time to come. The band, made up of vocalist and guitarist Charbel Haber, guitarist Marc Codsi, bassist Tony Aliyeh and drummer Malek Rizkallah, is putting itself on self-imposed hiatus for the next few months, pending Rizkallah's return from studying in the United States.

Scrambled Eggs has been a prominent member of Beirut's alternative rock scene for a solid decade now, and, despite the band members' taking a much-needed break, there seems to be no end in sight as far as their creative antics are concerned.

"The band will pick up again around January," Haber says, "but we may do some concerts in Europe in the meantime."

Haber and his bandmates are generally delighted to offer a long list of obscure, experimental ambient-electro artists as their influences, but they are also equally careful to mention that most of their writing is done through improvisation, evocative of the technique spearheaded by jazz legends such as John Coltrane.

The members of Scrambled Eggs are, however, renowned in Beirut as partisans of now-classic acts such as Sonic Youth, who, among other New York groups in the 1980s, pioneered the so-called "no wave" movement in art and music (a special brand of indie underground music permeated by a re-evaluation of punk rock credos).

The band's love affair with experimentation, improvisation and, more notably, with atmospheric resonance and feedback, seems interminable, at least for the moment. In addition to those shows in Europe, Haber has his record label Those Kids Must Choke to think about, and it is likely Scrambled Eggs will take advantage of some down time to start assembling material for the band's next album.

"I am too busy right now to even think about the label," Haber admits, "but I can do 500 records, and they'll all be the same twisted underground stuff," he says, laughing. "I don't want it to grow beyond that or diversify - that's the spirit of the label and that's what I'm sticking to."

In terms of the band's music, he explains: "We are currently heading in the same direction, but at the same time, we never know for sure where the next album will take us.

"It should feature the familiar punk vibe, with our own brand of ambient, but again, the way we compose in rehearsal is by improvisation, which obviously implies unpredictability, so you never know.

"I draw the inspiration for the lyrics from human relationships and the spirit of the times - the songs are about people you love, those you hate, and those you don't hate," Haber says.

When asked what he is currently listening to, Haber exclaims, with a mischievous smile: "Nothing, zero!"

Scrambled Eggs' concert last Thursday began more than an hour behind schedule, but the band's repertoire for the night certainly lived up to its reputation: Aliyeh drove his fingers across his bass for the improvised opener, generating a haunting, oriental-sounding melody, which was repeatedly drowned out by the howling feedback from Codsi's and Haber's guitars. If those in the audience who had never been to a Scrambled Eggs show before were at all thrown off by the plush sonic sounds that filled the room as the band sank deeper into the proverbial maze produced by their instruments, the entrance of Haber's vocals dispelled any doubts with respect to these musicians' punk credentials.

Haber's meaningful yet somehow sarcastic wails signaled a break from the singing style he employed on such Scrambled Eggs releases as "Human Friendly Noises" from 2002. But at the same time they positioned him clearly as an heir to the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten.

Haber's lack of inhibition in expressing his sensitivity as a songwriter comes out in lyrics such as "I don't want you to see me cry," displaying a covert vulnerability parallel to a show of strength, itself synonymous with the brave face most young Lebanese performers have had to put on during these taxing times the country is enduring.

Haber reinforced that point with a defiant allusion to Lebanon's current situation: "See you in Beirut, whatever happens," he said, before launching into a song bearing the same name, showcasing an industrial-sounding mid-section and a twisted, anthemic chorus.

During the instrumental sections of songs, Codsi shredded what appeared to be a Fender Stratocaster, a guitar typically played by puritan rock and punk musicians. The simple yet overwhelmingly potent single-note guitar solos, played at a pace reminiscent of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, supplemented each song with an appropriately authoritative closing statement.

"Murder" opened with an organ sample that sounded like a musical excerpt from a horror flick. Then Rizkallah took over the rhythm section. The drummer's startlingly simple set-up - consisting of just the basic toms, snare drum and one or two cymbals - reverberated throughout the club in a sequence that most accurately resembled the sound of war drums.

The band rolled through the night's musical menu, with songs such as "Bleeding Nun," "Salt and Sugar" and "Lightning Bolt" finding their way onto the set list. "Russian Roulette" featured a straightforward two-note progression in the verse played by Aliyeh, with Codsi occasionally harmonizing to Haber's vocal lines.

Offstage, Haber lamented the intractability of some members of the audience: "It's difficult to move them, and I would attribute this to the 'culture' of the audience and how in touch with rock music they are, as well as how many live shows they've been to.

"It wasn't always like this, but generally, the younger people in the crowd are the ones jumping around," he adds with a smile.

Iran: Mohsen Namjoo

I'd never heard of Mohsen Namjoo until I read this article. It's pretty easy to "google" him and find some mp3s to download and some youtube vids to watch. I've not yet had the time to listen closely, and have not yet formed an opinion, although I certainly find the music interesting. But why must Bob Dylan be the gold standard of "cutting lyrics" and cultural "daring"? (I love Bob, but couldn't Fathi also be the Fela Kuti or the Bob Marley or the Woodie Guthrie of Iran?)

New York Times, September 1, 2007
"Iran’s Dylan on the Lute, With Songs of Sly Protest"
By Nazila Fathi


He plays the setar, a traditional Persian lute, and is a master of classical Persian literature and poetry. But the sounds he draws from the instrument, along with his deep voice and his playful but subtly cutting lyrics about growing up in an Islamic state, have made Mohsen Namjoo the most controversial, and certainly the most daring, figure in Persian music today.

Some call him a genius, a sort of Bob Dylan of Iran, and say his satirical music accurately reflects the frustrations and disillusionment of young Iranians. His critics say his music makes a mockery of Persian classical and traditional music as he constantly blends it with Western jazz, blues and rock.

Mr. Namjoo, 31, is a singer, composer and musician, but most of all, his fans say, he is a great performer.

“I wanted to save Persian music,” he said in an interview at one of his studios in Tehran. “It does not belong to the present time and cannot satisfy the younger generation. The fact is that Persian music is very close to other styles, and it is possible to mix in other styles with a little shrewdness.”

His blending of Western and Persian music produces unexpected moments that jar the traditionalists but are thrilling to his fans, who are mostly young artists and intellectuals. His music sounds Persian, but the melodies take away the melancholy that often suffuses classical Persian music.

But it is Mr. Namjoo’s lyrics, his fans say, that make his music so important. He sings old Persian poetry, such as works by the 13th-century mystic poet Rumi or the 14th-century poet Hafiz, with its connotations of love and lust. But with his mastery of Persian literature, he is able to write his own lyrics into the accepted forms, adding layers of meaning.

“The first time I listened to his music, I found it unexpected,” said Mahsa Vahdat, a 33-year-old singer. “It started with a laugh for me and ended with a cry. His music and his lyrics express the bitter situation of my generation, and they represent the society we live in.”

Defying Iran’s cultural police, he does not shy away from contemporary issues.

“What belongs to us is an apologetic government,” he sings in a song called “Neo-Kanti.” “What belongs to us is a losing national team.” Those are references to the widespread disappointment with the government of the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, and the constant losses of Iran’s soccer teams.

“What belongs to us, maybe, is the future,” he adds, in a voice that is more resigned than hopeful.

In another popular song he sings, “One morning you wake up and realize that you are gone by the wind, there is no one around you and a few more of your hairs have gone gray, your birthday is a mourning ceremony again.”

After throwing in an unexpected Western melody, he goes on in a lower voice, saying, “that you are born in Asia is called the oppression of geography, you are up in the air and your breakfast has become tea and a cigarette.”

Atabak Elyassi, a musician and a professor of music at the Music College at Art University in Tehran, said there was protest and satire in Mr. Namjoo’s music. “In the meantime, it is very Iranian,” he said, “because he constantly points to issues that are about the lives of Iranians.”

MR. NAMJOO was raised in the religious city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, where he started learning classical Persian music when he was 12.

As he grew older, he said, he listened to Western music and became interested in Jim Morrison, Eric Clapton and the Irish pop singer Chris de Burgh. He read philosophy and Persian literature, and developed a fondness for a strain of modern Persian poetry that stresses phonetics over the meanings of words.

But what changed his approach more than anything, he said, was his experience in the theater. When he was admitted to the University of Fine Art in 1994, he was told that he had to wait a year before starting classes. So he decided to pass the time studying theater.

“A musical instrument is a medium for a musician to play music,” he said. “So is the voice of a singer — it is like a medium to sing through it. But neither of them is involved in building relations with a living creature.

“But when I studied theater I learned to connect with my audience, and that was when my poems changed,” he said.

It is hard to gauge Mr. Namjoo’s popularity, for he has come of age in a time of intense pressure on Iranian music.

Most music was banned after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with only religious and revolutionary songs deemed appropriate. To this day, women are not allowed to sing. Over time the restrictions were eased, first on classical Iranian music and then, in the mid-1990s, on pop music. But after the election in 2005 of Iran’s current, conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, music came under a cloud once again.

The authorities canceled a concert of rock and jazz music in Tehran in July. In August, more than 200 people who attended a private rock concert in Karaj, 30 miles west of Tehran, were arrested. The public prosecutor in Karaj, Ali Fallahi, called the concert “satanic,” local news agencies reported.

Mr. Namjoo himself has not yet been able to give a live, public performance, and he has not received a government license to sell his CDs. But he is able to perform privately, his CDs are sold on the black market and, in an inexplicable twist, his songs are played on Iranian radio stations. As of early August, his manager said, 1.6 million people had heard his music on YouTube.

In July, he did receive an invitation to a government ceremony to sing a few songs in praise of Imam Ali, the martyred son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the man whom Shiite Muslims consider Muhammad’s legitimate successor. Yet, the room was filled with artists and musicians, rather than government officials.

BECAUSE of his cutting-edge style, Mr. Namjoo is under another kind of pressure. Most classical musicians are purists, insisting that the music not be altered in any fashion. They dismiss Mr. Namjoo’s music as absurd because of the way he has incorporated Western influences.

If you take Iranian classical music on one side, and Western music on the other, said one critic, Reza Ismailinia, who runs a small art gallery in Tehran, “then I think Mr. Namjoo’s music is like a caricature in between, or a kind of fantasy.”

But many disagree with Mr. Ismailinia.

“I think he will be remembered as a courageous artist who opened a window toward creating something new and for going beyond traditional barriers,” said Alireza Samiazar, the former director the Contemporary Museum of Art in Tehran. “I think his contribution to our music will be great.”

Undeterred by the critics, Mr. Namjoo says his next ambition is to study music abroad.

“I want to be challenged and get acquainted with Western music,” he said. “I was accepted too easily here.”