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One of the most interesting new trends in popular North African music has been the proliferation of blends between Afro-Cuban son and salsa with rai and Middle Eastern rhythms. With Alamtini, Moroccan singer Rhany moves the salsa-rai fusion from novelty to front stage. Recorded in same studio in Havana where the legendary Buena Vista Social Club albums were produced, Alamtini joins Cuban and Arabic music to create a unique new sound. While at times this blend seems forced and disjointed, when it works, it really works.

In some ways, the fusion makes sense, as there are circuitous cultural connections between North African and Cuban music. While the West African elements of Cuban music receive the most attention, there are equal amounts of Spanish influences in the melodies, instrumentation and song structures of Cuba. Spanish music is itself a melange of different cultural traditions, including that of the Arab World. Indeed, Spain was ruled for centuries by North African Moors, and the Southern Spanish city Grenada was a center of Islamic art and music. Ironically, the same year that Columbus stumbled across the Americas, the Moors were forcefully ejected from Spain, but the cultural influences they left behind still resonate. The Spanish language is peppered with Arabic words and phrases, such as the popular expression "ojalá" which today means "I wish" or "I hope," but stems directly from the Arabic "oh Allah." The same is true for music, and Arabic influences are apparent in much of Spanish music, especially in southern Spain where many of the Spanish sailors and journeymen who migrated to Cuba were from.

As with previous musical reunions such as Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder's blend of American and African blues, or Africando's soulful reclamations of Latin music, Rhany's rai/Cuban blend works because there are deep cultural connections that allow both forms to work well together. The song "Un Mot De Toi" (which reflects the recent trend of North African artists to sing in French to enhance their appeal to a wider audience), is a pulsing, acoustic dance piece that fuses North African percussion and oud riffs with a swinging Cuban piano montuno and subtle trumpet punctuations. Tasteful and understated, the track successfully unites two disparate genres without calling overt attention to the blend. "Dik Alila" begins with a Cuban tres that would sound right at home on a 1930s Septeto Habanero son, but Rhany's flowing Arabic vocals and the percolating North African percussion leave no doubt that this is a far cry from your grandfather's Cuban music. Rhany even succeeds in creating a pleasant and unique Arabic version of the horribly overplayed Compay Segundo classic "Chan Chan."

Not every song is a standout, and there are a few unfortunate moments on the album. But there are many phenomenal tracks that are great for dancing and repeat listening. The success of Alamtini portends a new trend in world music, and the salsa-rai fusion is an appealing and welcome genre that might truly have legs. - Jacob Edgar

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