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The Middle Eastern And African Playlist By John Doran
John Doran , February 23rd, 2016 09:29

John Doran presents this month’s playlist of Turkish funk, Egyptian mahraganat, Iranian synaesthetic techno and classic Moroccan field recordings

Two years ago, those fine folk over at Guardian Music commissioned me to compile a regular playlist of tracks, videos and mixes from the Middle East and North Africa. The initial reservations about the idea were actually from me because I didn’t have any specialist knowledge of the region, musical or otherwise. However, thanks to exposure to a number of very different artists over the last decade and a half such as Omar Souleyman, Islam Chipsy, Oum Kalthoum, Konono Nº1, Tamikrest, Sadat & Alaa 50, I was persuaded that an unbridled enthusiasm for learning and digging would hopefully make up for my inexperience.

The column ran for two years ending this December just gone. Although well received there was one initial - and fully expected - criticism, in the form of the following comment:

”I m getting tired of the constant categorisation of muslims in a single block. The above is outrageous, what is the common denominator between all the artists/musics conveniently lumped together? Would you ever create a "European playlist" including folk songs from Corsica alongside bagpipe music from Scotland, A Kazakh metal band and a Swedish rapper? Why is it ok to completely miss the specificities of local cultures? An Iranian and a Tuareg have extremely little in common for instance. The issue here is that no attempt whatsoever is made to understand the specificities of non European cultures. So North Africa and the Middle East are a homogeneous culture or at least a cultural continuum. Similarly people talk of African culture in a boring reduction of the diversity and wealth of that continent.”

I actually agreed 100% with the spirit of this criticism and genuinely felt that in some respects it didn’t go far enough. I wouldn't even seek out a single country playlist for England let alone Europe, so why stop there? My feeling is that it's insane to talk about a 'Mali-style' of music, as the culture of the sub-Saharan north of the country bears little resemblance to that of the south. In fact the musical diversity on show in Mali is actually currently much wider in terms of homegrown styles and traditions than the UK - all the way from the hectic beats pumping from street corner Balani soundsystems to the deepest riffs of their psychedelic desert rock scene.

But there were still several reasons why I felt a playlist was a useful device. Firstly, I should say that yes, if someone else put it on, I would happily sit and listen to songs from Corsica next to bagpipe music next to a Kazakh metal band but I would replace the Swedish rapper with some Swedish electronic pop music, by Karin Park say, for purely aesthetic reasons - no offence Swedish hip hop crews. After all, this is essentially how we listen to music now in an age of YouTube and Spotify playlists, shuffled MP3 collections and collections of individual tracks sourced from iTunes or blogs.

Secondly a playlist like this column simply reflects certain practicalities of irregular access to new music in such countries as Saudi Arabia… not to mention the difficulties certain types of musicians face in simply playing, recording and releasing music in the first place because of social, religious and political reasons. Compiling a regular column, featuring Syrian music would have been a slightly easier prospect before 2011 and there was simply much more music being produced openly in Iraq before 2003 for example. (There is also an issue of common sense; no matter how righteous a monthly column on the music of Eritrea was, I can guarantee you that no one would read it.)

Another problem that an English speaking listener can face when exploring the current musical culture of a region such as the Middle East, if they don’t speak and read Arabic, is the language barrier. The record labels of most European countries see America and Britain as potential markets, or simply regard English as a useful second language to translate their websites etc. into. There is a lot less contact, on some levels, between Europe and the Middle East, in terms of record sales, than there is between Europe and America because of this. And there’s not much muddling through with Arabic script in my experience, as there might be with French or German. And when there is translation it tends to be in very Europe-facing genres such as indie, metal and jazz. (It is flat out wrong to assume that the music business in, say, Egypt, bears any resemblance to that of the UK. A lot of electro chaabi artists bypass labels altogether and distribute via Mediafire and YouTube, because their lyrical content would never pass official state censorship if released via what we consider traditional channels.)

These are of course, interesting times to be exploring music from around the world however as the internet continues to completely alter the global musical landscape. Three years ago I spent a week in Cairo reporting on the then emergent electro chaabi phenomenon. I went with my pal Joost Heijthuijsen after discovering YouTubes of the amazing keyboard player Islam Chipsy on line. However, if Joost hadn’t spent hour after painstaking hour, translating YouTube comments written in Arabic via Google Translate, and chasing down links and phone numbers to associated artists based in Cairo, El Salam City and Alexandria we simply wouldn’t have discovered about the burgeoning electro chaabi scene as next to nothing had been written about it in Europe at that time.

So there is a further problem in navigating past self-appointed tastemakers and gatekeepers. And this is because the types of writers who do spend their time attempting to “understand the specificities of non European cultures” when it comes to music, tend to simply dismiss emergent scenes like electro chaabi. To Westerners who operate in the arena of ‘World Music’ these brand new scenes are too chavvy; they are too working class; they are too digital and too electronic; the main musicians are too in awe of Western pop cultural figures like Shaggy, Snoop and Bob Marley; they are not obviously part of a clearly defined historical musical continuum; they have a keen interest in Western forms of pop music such as dancehall, grime and hip hop; they are not politicized to a great degree; this music doesn’t immediately loan itself to pseudo-academic sleevenotes and essays… All of this means it’s near impossible to impose a convincing narrative onto them. (Although it doesn’t stop people from trying - nearly every article I’ve read on electro chaabi over the last few years has chosen to present the form as being part of the so-called Arab Spring, despite there being little in the way of proof for this.) When you come across a bunch of young people wearing nice trainers, branded ganja leaf T-shirts and expensive baseball caps etc. who essentially look like they could be from Peckham or Salford, it becomes very hard to present them as the “exotic other” - the stock trade of World Music.

But perhaps most of all, when we try to dig too deep for cultural significance in music we can end up applying an inappropriate narrative to it, especially when it comes to politics. The politics of many regions in the Middle East and Africa often have a direct influence on how the music is made or distributed but sometimes it just has no bearing on the actual music - any more than neo-liberalism or austerity politics has a direct and obvious influence on US indie rock or UK pop. (For direct examples of this see electro chaabi and, below, Siavash Amini's comments on the Iranian experimental electronic scene.) And then again, sometimes it is very germane. (See the example of Ash Koosha below.)

This playlist is designed exactly to challenge the notion of a homogenous Arabic or African sound - not just within the regions themselves but within individual countries such as Turkey and individual cities such as Timbuktu. I may not have the word count to go massively in depth on each country's musical history (a subject which would take several volumes of books per nation) but I do link out to secondary sources and would like to point out that not everyone necessarily wants to listen to black metal (even if it comes from Jerusalem) or power electronics (even if it comes from Iran) - let alone read 10,000 word articles on them. Hopefully a more detailed picture of various scenes and locations will instead build up over a period of time. (Most of my previous columns for the Guardian can be accessed here for an example of this.)

(The only other criticism I've had of this column is that it's "problematic" but as this most cowardly of modern weasel words doesn't really mean anything, I can't say anything about this. I'm certainly not going to stop writing about this stuff because it makes a handful of readers feel queasy in a way they can't accurately describe.)

After Motown Chartbusters Three my favourite compilation ever is 300% Dynamite on the Soul Jazz label. I bought this excellent collection spanning big hits and deep cuts from the fields of Jamaican ska, soul, rocksteady, funk, roots reggae and dub when it first came out in 1999 and it was essentially my gateway into popular music released in that country in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The record - which I still listen to today - was perhaps not designed with the already very deeply knowledgeable in mind given that it contained Wayne Smith’s ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’ and Althea And Donna’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ but in the space of 15 short songs it did drive home to clueless wingnuts like me that there was a hell of a lot more to this isle than Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Bob Marley. From 300% Dynamite grew a deep interest in various aspects of this music - dancehall more than lover’s rock, Jamaican funk more than ska - which will probably occupy me on and off for the rest of my life despite it stemming from a source that no doubt would have been regarded as patronisingly reductive by some aficionados.

Initial contact with the disparate and sometimes only loosely connected sounds of Syrian dabke, Egyptian choubi, Algerian rai and Malian desert rock in more recent years is having exactly the same effect on me now. All I’m trying to do is to present sounds - some very traditional, some very inauthentic, some very popular, some extremely underground, some very much influenced by Western music, some completely divorced from it, some very new, some very old - from a variety of sources worldwide. These are mainly just selections of music I’m enjoying myself that I’m presenting in the form of a very basic primer. I hope you enjoy some, if not all, of what you hear in this column and that it brings you into contact with musical ideas that you want to explore further yourself.

HOWEVER!

The main difference between this column and the Guardian version is that occasionally I will be inviting guest writers to go into much more depth about specific scenes, whether that be the Lebanese disco craze of the 1970s or the current flush of gqom in Durban.

Also, I should add that the primary motivation to do this is a love of music but there is a secondary reason as well. (Whether this is gauche or pointless is not for me to say but I lay out my reasoning in very simple terms in the introduction to this interview with Mark Gergis of Sublime Frequencies which I carried out for the site a few years ago, if you’re interested.)

I’m going to try and produce a new column every month and I’m expanding the remit to include all of Africa as well as the Middle East, simply because there’s a lot of fine music out there which probably wouldn’t get covered on the site otherwise. And, well, simply because I can. If you want to suggest inclusions for future columns please email me at John@theQuietus.com.

IRAN

Ash Koosha - ‘Mudafossil’

London based Iranian electronic musician Ash Koosha has trailed his new album for Ninja Tune I AKA I, released on April Fool’s Day this year, with this striking track.

The young Ashkan split his early years between Tehran and Frankfurt because of his father’s work in the printing industry. Despite it being difficult to access music when he was younger, Germany was a great source for smuggled in cassettes and then there were always illicit MTV sessions and black market copies of Rolling Stone when he was back home.

The availability of the internet in the late 90s brought with it a flood of music listening opportunities and fed both his love for electronic and rock music. However he says he found his “calling” after reading an essay on the MIT blog about microtonal music and granular synthesis. He studied composition Tehran conservatory which placed emphasis on both Western and Persian classical tradition, while being the only student on the course to work predominantly with computers.

It’s probably/thankfully impossible for most of us to imagine what the life of a musician trying to create work under such circumstances but I’ll let the facts speak for themselves. Ash’s indie band Font had a show in Tehran raided by armed commandos and he ended up spending three weeks in jail. After his next band, Take It Easy Hospital were featured in Bahnman Ghobadi’s film about the Iranian underground scene, No One Knows About Persian Cats, their drummer was arrested and beaten severely by police and the Iranian-American co-writer of the film was charged with espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison. Koosh was in the UK playing gigs when this happened and was forced to seek asylum. (Three members of another band, Yellow Dogs, who were also featured in the film, were shot dead in Brooklyn by another Iranian exile.)

The music from I AKA I follows on from last year’s Guud, released on Olde English Spelling Bee, and is influenced by its creator’s synaesthesia and a desire to treat sound “like a physical matter which can be broken down, liquified, rescaled or spatially positioned.”

EGYPT

Islam Chipsy - Live On Rinse FM

Appearing on the mighty Rinse FM last month we had three old friends of this column in one place at one time. Islam Chipsy’s incendiary EEK trio popped into Rinse to appear on the station’s podcast while Jack Adams, aka Mumdance, interviewed EEK drummer and 100 Copies Cairo boss man, Mahmoud Refat about mahraganat. It’s a really meaty section which kicks off at about the one hour mark. If you haven’t been lucky enough to catch Chipsy in full flow live yet, this smoking session will at least give you some kind of idea how much he’s pushed his sound forward over the last two years.

TURKEY

Radio Martiko Mix - Son Sistem Çiftetelli ("Turkish special" voor de Gentse 'Tapijtendokter')

I met my new pal, Fred Kramer of Radio Martiko, while on a digging expedition to Utrecht last November. While I was shopping for Middle Eastern funk at his stall, he promised to do us a mix… and here it is.

They’re a bunch of Belgian DJs, label and record collectors based in Ghent, playing a commendable mix of “Brazilian beat, Armenian rock & roll, French mambo, Iranian surf, Egyptian funk” etc.

Fred says: “Over the years many Turkish 45s and albums have gone through my hands and I thought it was about time to make a personal top selection. Most Western compilations of Turkish 70s sounds have always focused on occidental based grooves and flavours from rock, progressive, pysch and funk. The pioneers of Oriental 'Now Sound', like for example Pharaway and Fortuna are doing a great job by introducing artists like Aris San and the great Kamuran Akkor with a repertoire which reflects a more pure form of oriental dance music, driven by belly dance rhythms (çiftetelli).

“This style - which was more popular at the time - I have tried to dig deep and have collected many 'Taverna' songs, which are mainly songs and melodies from the Greek, Armenian and gypsy tradition. Artists like Hayko, Zerrin Zeren, Rişar and Jimmy Abako (some with non-Turkish roots) were nightlife stars in bars of all social classes in Istanbul and the West coast of Turkey. The contradiction between the tormented, suicidal lyrics and the hip shakin' grooves is so fascinating and evoking. We can say it's the Rhythm & Blues from Turkey.

I have added storming instrumental belly dance tunes by Esin Engin (backed up by Süheyl Denizci Orchestra) and Hakki Mahfuzdur. Also some e-saz rockers by Şaki Öner and Yildiray Çinar and sweet velvet funky sounds by Gülden Karaböcek and the Opel sisters.”

MALI

Luka Productions - Mali Kady

Our pals at Sahel Sounds always have a ton of interesting music available. It’s only February and they’ve already reissued Mdou Moctar’s Afelan as well as the Tumastin LP by the Malian band in exile, Amanar. Get your fill of fresh, future facing autotuned hip hop/140bpm balani sounds courtesy of Luka, a native of Bamako and a host of local guest MCs. As rapid fire and digital as it is, this still exists in a Malian tradition, reimagined into décalé infused dance and Sahelian club bangers. Those wanting more current dance sounds from Bamako could do worse than check out the 100% Balani Show free download by DJ Sandji.

MOROCCO

Various Artists - Music Of Morocco: Recorded By Paul Bowles

I can’t say that I’m the world’s biggest fan of Paul Bowles’ most famous book, The Sheltering Sky, or the tedious film it inspired Bernardo Bertolucci to make in 1990. Its tale of bourgeois, proto-beat flakes and colonial soaks coming undone in the North African Sahara adds an existential twist to the unpleasant heart of darkness narrative but the book hasn’t really weathered the trip across the decades too well itself. Much more interesting is Bowles’ other creative pursuits during his lengthy residence in Tangier, which as well as composing and translating Moroccan literature into English, included making field recordings of traditional music.

In 1959, he spent six months taping traditional music for the Library Of Congress and the results are amazing. Dust To Digital are putting out a 4CD set, containing four hours of newly remastered material includes a 120 page book with liner notes by Philip Schuyler, field notes by Paul Bowles and an introduction by Lee Ranaldo.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

Konono Nº1 meets Batida - ‘Nlele Kalusimbiko’ (short version)

Konono Nº1 need no introduction but for the Kimmy Schmidts and other mole people of this world, I’ll provide one anyway. These fine musicians bestride the world like damn colossi. They create organic Congolese rave music from Kinshasa with amped up likembe (finger pianos) run through warmly distorting Tannoy speakers, leaning heavily on wild Bazombo trance rhythms that originate from near to the Angolan border. The band doesn’t operate along traditional Western lines, having been formed half a century ago by the now sadly departed Mawangu Mingiedi, it is carried on by his son, Augustin, as a kind of family franchise. There are many Konono bands in the DRC, it’s just that Nº1 are the uncontested heavyweights - the others have a variety of different numbers depending on how good they are. Belgium’s Crammed Discs have been long time supporters of the group and are about to release their new album Konono Nº1 Meets Batida on April 1, and as the name suggests, it’s a collaboration with the Angolan born and Lisbon raised dance music producer. Of all the amazing music that has come out of Kinshasa in recent years from Mbongwana Star to Kasai Allstars via Staff Benda Bilili, most of it owes Konono Nº1 a debt.

ALGERIA

Ahmed Malek - 'Omar Gatlato'

Our friend Jannis Stürtz from Habibi funk told me that the Algerian composer Ahmed Malek was one of the first Arabic recording artists he ever came across. And after getting a copy of Musique Originale De Films he has spent the last few years trying to track down family members in order to properly license the music for reissue and finally hit pay dirt. He wanted to become a musician at the age of 12, and after graduating school he studied at the Algerian Conservatory. He gained recognition for his craft from an early stage and won several prizes and medals nationally and internationally. (The "Premier grand prix des arts et des lettres de la composition" in 1972, the golden medal at the "Panafrican Festival" in 1976, and the "Prix du mérite national pour la composition musicale" in 1987.) Habibi Funk are reissuing Musique Originale De Films on April 29 this year but here is an early taster.

ETHIOPIA

Mikael Seifu - How To Save A Life (Vector Of Eternity)

Mikael Seifu’s album Zelalem, which comes out on March 4 on RVNG Intl., is both a celebration of and complete break with Ethiopia’s glorious musical history. He is, arguably, the most prominent proponent of Ethiopiyawi Electronic (well, he came up with the genre tag, so no surprises there), a group of likeminded musicians working out of Addis Ababa and combining traditional and modern techniques. He studied music for a few years in New Jersey so perhaps it doesn’t feel that weird to him to have a collaboration with the rapper LA slap bang in the middle of the album - I’m not sure what I make of it myself, but then I’m sure Mikael’s not losing any sleep over that. (I think the rest of the LP is fantastic, for what it’s worth.)

EGYPT

Carl Gari & Abdullah Miniaway - Darraje EP

Will Bankhead’s Trilogy Tapes took one foot off the dancefloor recently with this fantastic East/West collaboration, which arrived in the UK via Honest Jons a few weeks back. Carl Gari are a Munich based trio who specialise in thrillingly caustic and psychedelic, This Heat and dub influenced jams and they teamed up with Egyptian “chanter”, composer and multi-instrumentalist Abdullah Miniaway of Madinet El-Fayoum for this engaging four track EP. Is an album too much to wish for we wonder.

IRAN

Siavash Amini - 'Fading Shadows Of Dusk'

Siavash Amini is fast becoming an old favourite, having appeared in this column several times before as well as Tristan Bath's Spool's Out. Here he crops up on a new compilation of Iranian experimental music called Absence. As sketched out above - sometimes it is important to consider the political situation in a country like Iran before talking about the music and sometimes it simply isn't. I guess my rule of thumb is to be pragmatic and to try and take each example on a case by case basis instead of getting locked into some pre-determined course of critical action.

This is what Siavash Amini himself has to say on the subject: "Faced with the task of writing about artists from Iran it is tempting to oversimplify and go with the easiest way to address them -- the way most western media has always treated art coming not just from Iran but from middle east in general. This approach places artists exclusively within the political context presented by the mainstream media, and only shows you the day-to-day politics of governments in the region. This biased approach means artists' works are only interpreted in relation to a reduced conception of the political context. By seeing things this way you only have a handful of artists addressing certain issues with enough exaggeration to be newsworthy.

"It would be terrifyingly ignorant to think that day-to-day politics in Iran has no impact on artists, but on the other hand it is too simplistic to see the wide range of artistic practices of Iranians though this narrow context.

"The tracks collected for this compilation are a perfect example of art that is not 'newsworthy'. And in this way they act as a gateway to the ignored and overlooked landscape of experimental electronic music in Iran. It is helpful to listen to all of the pieces in this compilation in contrast to the established language of what is now an Iranian musical mainstream. This Iranian mainstream is not that disconnected from the global mainstream, and the philosophy, politics and the lifestyle this manifests. The mainstream in Iran is not only what the government endorses but it also consists of very shallow imitations of various musical genres, cleared of any signs of cultural or political resistance, backed and released by private labels and companies.

"The artists presented here, including myself, are people who are constructing our musical language as part of our lives – a project which is no less of an experiment than the music itself. We are the voices who choose to be absent from the news and the musical mainstream (and in some cases from the city of our birth) in order to express the complex range of emotions and ideas which make up our lives, as honestly as we can.

"What is the good of this absence? An endless world of exploration and experimentation, a life of vast possibilities and new forms of cultural and political resistance."

UGANDA

SK Simeon & Yaw Faso - Maskya EP

New banger! New banger! I don’t know much about this lot other than the fact that Simeon was born in Uganda but currently resides in Melbourne where he records futuristic dancehall with Yaw Faso for Big Dada. Their very satisfying flow - turn it up loud, makes you want to punch a horse - is righteously matched by Machinedrum’s serrated, armour piercing riddims. New banger! New banger!

Send ideas for future inclusions to John@theQuietus.com. Thanks this month go to Michael Hann, Harriet Gibsone, Jim Johnstone, Jack Adams and Fred Kramer

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