World music label Putumayo has explored the Arabic milieu before, with collections of pop, dance music, and electronica from the Arab world. Its new compilation, Acoustic Arabia, shows a softer side of that set of traditions – quiet, but not without variety and pulse. "Arabic" music spans a wide range of flavors, voices, and languages.
For example, the CD includes Algerian music sung in French (by Les Orientales), a jazz-inspired Sudanese song sung in classical Arabic (by Rasha, who is based in Spain), and an instrumental with shades of Europop by Lebanese oud player Charbel Rouhana and pianist Hani Siblini.
Just reading Putumayo liner notes can provide a political and cultural education. The group Tiris, for example, is named after the Western Sahara region whose indigenous Sahrawi people became refugees after annexation by Morocco in 1975. The area remains in political flux; the musical group represented here was actually formed by an NGO called Sandblast.
The members of Zaman, for their part, are unable to travel to many Middle Eastern countries where their music might be appreciated, because they are Palestinian Arabs with Israeli passports. Their song here, "Batalti Eli" ("You Are No Longer Mine"), sounds closer to Spanish and gypsy music than to much of what we think of as Middle Eastern music. Meanwhile, Mousta Largo goes back to ancient (but still relevant) politics with "Les Larmes de Boabdil," which commemorates the 1491 departure of Granada's last Arabic king.
Westerners who associate Arabic with Islam, and Islam with repression of women, might be a little surprised to hear a fair number of female voices here. There is also a collaboration between Jewish-Algerian pianist Maurice El Medioni and Cuban percussionist Roberto Rodriguez, which brings to mind the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. And Syrian-born singer Zein Al-Jundi, whose mournful song of absent love closes the disc, is based in Austin, TX, a city famous for music yet surely not of the Arabic sort.
Given the varied backgrounds of the artists on this CD and the wide range of influences on their styles, truly it is a collection of "world music." What does it say about the world, however, that so many of these excellent artists are based in Western countries?
People from poorer regions of the world often seek a better life in more affluent societies, of course; political dislocation and religious repression often come into play as well. The results can give one mixed feelings. It's sad when artists (and others) have to leave their native lands to pursue their dreams. However, intermingling of cultures, notably through the arts, can build needed bridges. Western peoples, for example, are being exposed to relatively unfamiliar, positive aspects of Chinese society through watching the Beijing Olymics right now.
It's somewhat fashionable to disparage the term "world music" as an emblem of homogenization, and there is no shortage of bland, toothless music out there from many lands. Putumayo, however, is excellent at compiling songs that are representative, musically interesting, and pleasing to the Western ear. This disc is no exception.