Ali El Khencheli
Songs From the Aures
La Sulamiyya Ensemble
Sufi Songs From Tunis
The Simsimiyya Of Port Said
Andalousian Music From Fes
all titles IMA, Paris / via Harmonia Mundi
An increasing concentration of ownership in the recording and communications industries over the past decade has resulted in an intesified globalization of culture. Recordings, radio and television increasingly serving as conduits for a Euro-American mass culture. Local, ethnic and traditional cultures are pushed to the margins of visibility by the dominance of one privileged culture over others.
Yet the global-local confrontation isn't simply between the West and non-West. For even within the Arab world, there is an increasing tendency towards this cultural standardization. Beginning in the 1920s, the whole Arab world began to listen to the same music for the first time. The advent of radio produced a modern classical Arab music centered in Cairo and to a lesser degree, Beirut, with great writers and singers that became a cultural standard. In more recent times, in countries like Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, thanks to strong government support of the arts, state-of-the-art media and recording industries have produced a musical product that has crowded out folk and traditional music.
Local, ethnic and traditional cultures are rapidly disappearing from the public domain. Just how quickly this is happening can be seen thanks to the first in a series of recordings from the Paris-based Institut Du Monde Arabe (IMA). The Institut contains an important museum dedicated to the art of Arab and Islamic civilization from its origins to the modern day, a library containing over 50,000 works, and an exhibition hall that features regular programs of music, cinema and drama. Fulfilling part of the The Institut's mission to foster knowledge of Arab culture is La Collection Discographique De L'IMA. These recordings, made during live concerts, are based on age-old musical traditions that still survive in the Arab world.
The Aures Mountain region of Algeria is home of the Chaouila Berber tradition. The musical tradition is vocal, usually a solo artist or call and response with a unison chorus. The singers are accompanied by the gassab, a five or six finger-holed flute made of a straight piece of cane, and percussion, usually frame drum, tambourine and hand clapping. The traditional music was usually performed at dances held at weddings or other festive occasions. These days, the music is usually performed at private concerts. The themes on Songs From the Aures consist of love, poetry and patriotism (these songs were composed during the Algerian War). The album's singer-composer is 85-year-old Sheik Ali El Khencheli, whose career goes back to 1935. He is the keeper of a style that is fading; the Chaouila Berber repertoire has been overtaken by rai and other urban styles.
Sufi arts appear to be in a healtheir state. Sufi traditions derive from the interaction between the Islamization of North Africa and the Middle East and the pre-Islam local cultures. Under various turuq (Moslem brotherhoods), different Sufi traditions arose around various masters or saints, their teachings and traditions expressed in ritual, poetry and music. One of the oldest brotherhoods is the Qadiriyya, which dates back to 12th century Baghdad. This brotherhood spread to North Africa and particularly Tunisia where it begat the Sulamiyya brotherhood whose repertoire dates back to the 16th century. The Sulamiyya Ensemble, organized in 1958, specializes in a sacred repertoire. The musical tradition is vocal chorus backed by percussion instruments that provide specific rhythms to the brotherhood hymns. Although this particular style of music is not endangered, Tunisian Sufi music has not achieved the widespread popularity as it has in Islamic countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia. The performance on La Sulamiyya Ensemble's Sufi Songs From Tunis reminds us that underneath a layer of cultural "norms", most regions and villages still have their own sacred places and cultural roles.
A little-known style of music in the Arab world-and even in Egypt-is suhbagiyya (from sahiba, to accompany). It is essentially an urban music, popular in the Suez Canal region that dates from the time the canal was first constructed. In the 19th century, suhbagiyyas were professional groups of musicians who entertained at parties. But they appear to have been outsiders both in their social customs (they were apparently drug users) and in musical performance style; they were more inclined to collective rather than individual performance.
Many of the workers in the early construction of the canal were from areas that bordered the Red Sea, where the simsimyya, a traditional five string lyre, was originally played. In the old days, it was believed the simsimyya had the power to make the winds blow. Thus simsimyya players were often found on dhows, the single-masted sailboats that traveled along the Red Sea.
At the turn of the century, the tradition was incorporated into the entertainment of the crews who labored and lived along the canal. The repertoire is secular, with most of the songs about love and nature. The Ensemble Al-Tanburah is a professional group. Wearing every day clothing and committed to a local audience, the ensemble maintains a particularly close dialogue with their audience. Think of Ensemble Al-Tanburah as an Arabic version of the Grateful Dead. Unfortunately, this style of music is completely unknown outside the Suez Canal zone.
Andalusian Music from Fes is a double CD reissue. Since 1962, the Moroccan government has supported efforts to preserve, study and promote Arab-Andalusian music. The Ministry of Culture initiated and completed a project to preserve the 11 nubas (suites) that make up the classical repertoire of this music on 75 CDs. Originally, this music was sung with instruments at weddings and other celebrations, but has become the classical music of Morocco. In modern times, because of the size of the ensembles, numbering from 12-20 musicians, the music is increasingly being presented in concert halls. The majority of the texts come from secular poetry written between the 8-15th centuries in classical Arabic. The themes are usually about nature, love, drink and nostalgia for Andalus.
Abdelkrim Rais and Orchestre Al-Brihi are one of the finest ensembles performing and recording this style of Andalusian music. Rais, troupe director and master on the rebab (two-string violin), stopped performing in 1996 so this CD is of particular historic value. But this type of music is certainly flourishing and enjoying particular interest in non-Arab countries such as Spain. There, young musicians look to their roots to find musical languages that speak against a growing cultural globalization in Europe. Among European and American lovers of this music, there is a realization that, once upon a time, there was a golden age of mutual tolerance and cultural cross fertilization between Arab and non-Arab. It's a spirit that many people hope will return in the future. Aaron Howard