The Wide Range of Middle East Musicianship

<i> Don Snowden is a regular contributor to The Times. </i>

Caribbean or African music heard for the first time can sound unusual, but you can hear some Western pop sounds in the styles. For a real test, step into a culture that doesn’t reflect any Western elements--like the world of Islamic music.

Jazz musicians and some rock artists have long been plugged into Middle Eastern influences, but a more widespread awareness has recently been spurred by the emergence of Algeria’s rai and Pakistan’s qawwali styles, by the modern fusions of Israel’s Ofra Haza and the German-Arabic band Dissidenten, and by the Islamic vocal influence on West African and Bulgarian music.

Traditional and modern styles from the Middle East are the jumping-off point for this edition of On the Offbeat, a periodic review of roots, ethnic and non-mainstream pop music from around the world. ***


“Yo Habib”

Real World

A “jump in the deep end” record. The Sabri Brothers play qawwali (Sufi) devotional music from Pakistan, making no attempt to entice Western listeners with the occasional pop element. The whole show is the Sabris’ spiraling voices over hypnotic harmonium (pump organ) accompaniment.




“Ghir El Baroud”

MLP import

Remitti was a major figure in the formative stages of Algeria’s rai music during the ‘40s and ‘50s and became a heroine to young female singers for singing about sensual pleasures and other taboo subjects. Remitti’s tough, guttural singing on this powerful album requires no cultural translation. Driven by insistent drum rhythms and nagging reed melodies, this is Algerian music before synthesizers and electric instruments created the modern pop- rai sound.



“Yalla--Hitlist Egypt”


“Yalla” features one side apiece of the pop styles that have developed among Egyptian youth in the past 15 years. Both the shaabi and al jeel styles mesh traditional Egyptian elements with the more universal sound of synthesizers and drum machines. Shabbi is cross-cultural music from the poorer sections of Cairo, sort of Egyptian blues with a high quotient of traditional elements. The al jeel side spotlights the smoother, high-tech sound of young, affluent Egyptians more attuned to European pop developments.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five (a classic).