Spotlight on Arabic music

Acoustics, vocalists, electronica, and a tribute to legendary Egyptian singer Om Kalsoum.

Courtesy of Putamayo
Courtesy of Harmonia Mundi
Courtesy of Hollywood Music Center
Courtesy of Hollywood Music Center
Courtesy of Hollywood Music Center

Natacha Atlas & the Mazeeka Ensemble: 'Ana Hina'

This Belgium-based diva dedicated to Muslim mysticism has transitioned from alternative rock to an acoustic flavor of Egyptian pop music. Adding vocal mannerisms transferred from Celtic and Latin music, this is an astonishing album (by World Village) of vintage Arabian love songs, both sacred and earthy, performed with panache. She can transfuse her longing into a near-sob, every note a tear about to fall, then within a few measures summon steely determination. Her orchestra lyrically matches her every dramatic turn empathetically. If you think an Édith Piaf or Billie Holiday could never happen again, listen.

Various Artists: 'Ultimate Arabian Dance Hits'

What belly dance albums did to popularize Arabian pop music a half century ago, this Caravan compilation culled from dance clubs in the Middle East and beyond does in the 21st century. There are a lot of synthesizers and drum machines putting down a polyrhythmic frenzy that might drive even a double-jointed belly dancer mad. Soaring over a thick bed of electronic big beats and bleeps are brash vocalists singing in Arabic in the spirit of "Let the good times roll." The high point is an uproariously entertaining, daredevil, sung call-and-response between veteran Algerian superstar Cheb Khaled and Lebanese diva Diana Haddad.

Various Artists: 'Arabian Pleasure: Sensual Grooves – Exotic Dance

It's as techno-tricky and electronically electrifying as 'Ultimate Arabian Dance Hits," but the emphasis in this dreamy Caravan collection is more on ambient, atmospheric, after-the-dance-frenzy-is-over music. Traditional acoustic instruments central to Arabian music, like violin and oud (Arabian lute), solo between lush layers of synthesized strings, creating a deeply tranquilizing sound in spite of an insistent background of computer-generated percussive chatter. Of particular note is the Italian electronica star Giacoma Bondi, whose "Garden of Eden" delivers the title's promise sweetly.

Ahmad Al Hafnawi & the Om Kalsoum Orchestra: 'The Grand Melodies of Om Kalsoum'

The pinnacle of vocal genius in modern Arabian music was achieved by the Egyptian contralto, Om Kalsoum (1904-75). A superb songwriter and actress as well as singer, she was a daring improviser, placing challenging demands upon her superb orchestra. This tribute to her by her 1970s orchestra was led by Ahmad Al Hafnawi, arguably her most gifted accompanying violinist. His solos on this inviting album (by Hollywood Music) come as close as any instrument ever could to paralleling her ardent singing.

Various Artists: 'Acoustic Arabia'

Contemporary Arabian pop music collections with a purely acoustic sound can be harder to locate than the electronic dance club variety these days. But this Putumayo assortment of gorgeously eclectic and tastefully sequenced gems from the Middle East and North Africa rewards any search. Particularly attractive is the synthesis of jazz and Arabian melodies created by oud player Charbel Rouhana and pianist Hani Siblini. And the spicy blend of Cuban and Arabian riffs in the swinging piano performance by Maurice El Medioni makes musical globalization an enduring delight.

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