Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Arab Pop

In a world choking on bitter pills, the irony that 2001 has been the best year ever for Arabic-language pop in this united nation isn't especially hard to swallow. So is it too much to suggest that for world-music agnostics to try to hear what's there would be good for everybody's health? If Islam isn't the enemy, then cross-cultural North Africans can be our allies in secular cosmopolitanism--and if we let them, our teachers in the infinite variety of joy. . . . One man has made the flowering possible: former Sting manager Miles Copeland, whose Mondo Melodia imprint houses three of the year's four major Arabic releases. Forget Dellali, by raļ veteran Cheb Mami (rhymes with "smarmy," especially if you're from Boston). Those who must have Mami's Sting duet, "Desert Rose," should opt instead for the Desert Roses and Arabian Rhythms compilation, which mixes glitzy-to-effulgent tracks by such indefatigable fusioneers as Amina, Natacha Atlas and Trans-Global Underground with music in the raļ and sha'bi traditions (and is far tougher than Putumayo's competing Arabic Groove). . . . Copeland's true standard bearers are both bywords in Europe: Egyptian sha'bi king Hakim and French-Algerian dance-music star Rachid Taha. Hakim's The Lion Roars: Live in America is ninety-five minutes of exuberance that's endearing in its general spirit and stimulating in its formal specifics. Although not knowing just what this handsome singer is saying leaves the album's pleasures feeling a little partial, the runaway percussion toward the end of the nine-minute "Wala Wahed," for instance, could get anyone going. Taha's Made in Medina is only marginally more parsable (summary translations are better than nothing), but here, fusion is power. Although or because the beat isn't quite rock, no track released anywhere in 2001 rocks as hard as the opening of "Barra Barra," and that kind of intensity maintains even when the sound turns Mahgreb. The more you listen, the more you get off on the commitment of what is clearly a benchmark record. . . . Almost as impressive is Tea in Marrakech, a stronger sampler than Mondo Melodia's, which world-music polymath Trevor Herman oversaw for his Earthworks label. Herman has always believed in going in and finding accessible hits that aren't designed to clock Euros, and not one of these fifteen artists from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan and Egypt is on Copeland's collection. A few are folkloric, but none is a purist, and all have attracted Herman's attention with undeniable tunes and a fluent command of indigenous and international sounds. Catchiest of all is Youcef's opener, "Salam." As I hope you can guess, that means "peace." Wouldn't it be nice if it took the world by storm?

Rolling Stone, Jan. 17, 2002