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Reissue Of The Week: An Eclectic Selection Of Music From The Arab World 2
Malvika Padin , August 13th, 2021 07:57

Malvika Padin explores the latest Habibi Funk release and considers the thorny issue of diversity in compilation curation

What does diversity mean? This is a question I often ask myself. In music, diversity has come to be seen as an umbrella term for sounds and identities beyond the mainstream, beyond traditional white art. But as a South Asian in music journalism, the idea that the intricacies of history and culture are allowed to fade out in pursuit of a unified "diverse" sound which appeals to the Western idea of “world music”, is an irony that gives me pause when tackling compilation albums such as this.

Pulling at the strings of any art form is often thought to unravel a deep cultural significance, a notion reflected in the perceptions of music particularly from the Middle East or Africa. This perceived socio-political influence in world music is one of the major reasons for criticisms of compilation albums which appear to put forth an idea of a homogenous music that fails to take any sense of deeper history into account.

Given the narrative of unification within diversity that listeners often try to tack to the wide range of musical styles that make the meat of compilation albums such as this, what Berlin-based label Habibi Funk is doing with An Eclectic Selection Of Music From The Arab World Part 2 is to offer a collection of songs that span a variety of Middle Eastern musics not with a goal of historic reflection of a homogenous Middle Eastern music scene, but with one of highlighting various niche musics of the Arab world where they collide with Western culture.

From the lively reggae soundscapes of Libya to the disco influenced dance of Morocco plus the organ funk of Egypt, volume two of this compilation series establishes that bringing different sounds together under a loose umbrella doesn’t take away the history behind it. By flitting across various musical styles without delving into the finer details of any specific popular sound, the album acts, perversely, as an example of the diversity – not homogeneity – of often overlooked Middle Eastern artists.

As much as politics can influence the making of Middle Eastern music, the actual sounds on offer here do not have any overt political significance – drawing inspiration much like any other genre from the experiences of quotidian life and celebration. Even the cover photo of the album, which depicts Algerian composer Ahmed Malek, who features on the compilation with the disco-influenced, sprightly horn arrangement of 'Casbah', at an ice cream bar during his stay in Japan for the World Expo in Osaka, 1970, can be seen as an allegory of the sounds on this culture-spanning compilation. The photograph serves as a reminder of how culture impacts sound, with Malek’s visit to Japan and his exposure to manga, shaping his own music – the cover image being the visual representation of how diversity isn’t confined simply to singular narratives of culture, politics or history.

For the label, Habibi Funk, who have built a reputation in an increasingly popular niche of reissuing lesser-known records by artists, focusing on those from north Africa and the Middle East, this second instalment includes pearls such as the Moroccan singer Douae Mitten whose Arabic cover of the French tune, 'Parlez Moi de Lui', formed the beginning of her career.

Bringing in another facet of Arabic music which marked the making of a new sound, prevalent in the late 60s and 70s, is Magdy al-Husseini’s pioneering Arabic organ technique on 'Music de Carnaval'. Being part of a generation of musicians who facilitated a shift into more contemporary Arabic sound influenced by Western instrumentals, the track was Husseini’s first-ever original composition, recorded in 1972.

Fadoul – an important figure in Habibi Funk’s history, first discovered by the label through his James Brown cover 'Sid Redad' – whose Casablancan funk explores such topics as drugs and depression, appeared on the label’s first Eclectic Selection compilation in 2017, and reappears here with 'Ahl Jedba', showcasing his signature James Brown-esque throaty vocal backdropped by a raw, energetic funk.

In another nod to Western popular music, this time pointing to Bob Marley’s lasting influence on Libya’s music scene, is Ibrahim Hesnawi’s 'Tendme', which highlights the similarities between reggae and Libyan folkloric music through an artistry that pairs Jamaican-influenced keys and guitar melody with the rhythmic Libyan folk genre of zimzamet. His music – and this track in particular – is a suitable example of how Libyan reggae can be a sublime synthesis of elements of both musical cultures.

In the 1970s, Libya witnessed a period of immense political change which was reflected in a distinct shift towards a traditional Arabic Libyan music identity. This attitude toward westernisation saw many musicians look outwards beyond their borders for fresh musical influences. One such artist was Najib Alhoush, whose song 'Ya Aen Daly', continues the album’s reference to Western influence with a funky rendition of Bee Gees 'Staying Alive'. Free Music Band was Alhoush’s endeavour to explore new sounds and incorporate them into Libyan music merging funk, disco and rock sounds with Libyan Arabic poetry and lyricism.

Whether it be Alhoush’s joyful rendition of the Bee Gees or a thread of up-tempo artistry combining English and Arabic verses on Sal Davis’ 'Qaboos', these songs are an example of sonic migration, a sampling of cross-cultural musical identities in existence long before digital globalisation.

In a reflection of what he saw as the political, economic and social stagnation in Lebanon, Munir Khauli intended to use music as a political vessel, evolved from several years' worth of immersion in albums such as Dark Side Of The Moon as well as the classic rock of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, plus a fresh approach to the idea of break-up songs. This culminated in the release of his first cassette, Heik Ha Nishtghil? in 1986. While most of the compilation steers away from exploring the political, the ideologically vocal Algerian composer Aït Meslayen made music speaking out against injustice even if the theme of his work was ostensibly rooted in the poetic romanticism of topics like love, separation and exile. With lyrics drawn from the tradition of Kabyle poetry, Meslayen, who generally sang in Kabyle, also occasionally sang in Arabic – 'El Fen' being a prime example of linguistic and lyrical preferences.

This compilation is neither completely traditional nor fully Western in its sonic influence. For instance where Moroccan artist Ouiness always aimed to produce “modern music” dealing with the topic of love, he wrote 'Zina' in 1979, in a picturesque ode to the beauty of Cairo. Meanwhile, politically vocal Algerian musician Zohra’s 'Badala Zamana', produced by Frenchman Joël Hannier, is an excursion into pure 70s disco. Only having previously released one record carrying her real name, Zohra Aissaoui, before changing her name to Dihya and beginning to sing only in Chaoui, the track is a reminder of the singer’s short-lived yet impactful period singing in Arabic.

Amid this talk of influences, it would remiss not to mention the often overlooked role of experimentation in Middle Eastern music. For instance, Hamid El Shaeri whose track 'Ayonha' was featured on the first instalment of Eclectic Selection, is known for having created his own sound called Al Jil or Generation Music, with soundscapes that rely on synths and early samplers appearing over his 17 studio albums. On the track, 'Reet', an arresting mix of mid-tempo funk and melancholia Shaeri calls back to some of his finest experiments on Arabic music blended with modern soul, disco and boogie. Similarly, 'Free Blow', from Tony Benn Feghaly a track that found its way into Middle Eastern discotheques of the sixties, is another foray into experimental Middle Eastern artistry. From being drawn to music as a teen whose life was backdropped by Beirut’s turmoil, Feghaly’s mix of popular music with orchestral arrangements influenced by soul and R&B music, produced ambitiously in Arabic, Italian and English.

Whether the political songs of Lebanon, the experimentation of Al Jil, or the shadow of “western” sounds surfacing across the various genres within the Middle East, this compilation makes the distinction between diversity and variety. It may still have elements that lead listeners who have deep-rooted connections to the history of this music to rightfully critique its forceful attempt to unify eclectic soundscapes into one, making them question whether there really can be diversity in seeking homogeneity. However, the foundation of its appeal is the variety it offers - regardless of genre or period. A personal selection of songs handpicked by Habibi Funk, this compilation is based purposely in culturally rich obscurity, not coming from highly famous names but from the often unjustly overlooked.

An Eclectic Selection... is out now on Habibi Funk