Music break (sort of): Ravid Kahalani

There’s a standard speech I give when people ask me about the Middle East, and in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict. I have shied away from writing on the subject in this blog for some time — it often seems that all the arguments have already been made, and every discussion devolves into a screaming match that brings out the worst of the blogosphere, which is tiresome.

But today, in light of the news and a recent musical discovery, I gently put forth the crux of my standard speech, which is: From a cultural perspective, it doesn’t have to be this way. The division between Arab and Jew is an inorganic one. The precolonial Middle East and eastern Mediterranean were dazzlingly diverse. Major cities contained the three “religions of the book” in equal parts, and among these were many sects. But identities had as much to do with the city one called home — Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Istanbul, Salonica, Jerusalem — as they did one’s religion. (I have written about this more here.)

And yet, the mainstream media constantly tells us or implies that the “Arab-Jewish” conflict is an age-old one. Not only is this inaccurate — it is a 20th century phenomenon — it’s a confusion of terms: Arab and Jewish are not exclusive categories. They are used to describe ethnicity and, in the case of the latter, ethnicity and/or religion that may overlap with many different ethnicities. One may take issue with the use of the terms in one way or another, but the thing is, we continue to have evidence that one may be both Arab and Jewish.

Take Israeli-Yemeni singer Ravid Kahalani, whose music I just found out about.

“Most of the people are like, are you Arab or Jew?” Kahalani says. “I am Arab, I am Jew.”

There. You. Go. (The link is from a February podcast on Kahalani by The World’s Marco Werman — I can never seem to beat him to an international music discovery.)

I could write a whole essay about what I like about Kahalani’s music, which a friend introduced me to a couple of days ago. There’s the lovely pentatonic scale; the combination of oud and darbakeh (Arabic drum); the evidence in his voice of his background as a synagogue cantor; that rolling trance-like feel to his rhythms that reminds me of Ali Farka Touré and makes me picture the desert. His album is called Yemen Blues.

Anyway. To bring my speech back to current events. I woke today to images of unarmed marchers setting out from Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank, attempting to to cross the border into Israel. Troops of the latter opened fire, killing at least a dozen and injuring scores.  Many of the protestors were reportedly Palestinian refugees — there are nearly 5 million of them in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

In my standard speech, I make my point about identity because I think, however one evaluates incidents such as these, it is important to remember that they are a result of political grievances that have their roots in the events of the last 100 years. (Specifically, many of those Palestinian refugees continue to carry the keys to the homes their families were kicked out of 63 years ago when Europeans escaping persecution wanted a place to live.) Age-old religious animosity does not really factor in.

I certainly do not have Kahalani’s permission to entangle his music in this argument, but as I sit back and listen to him sing “Um min al Yaman” (Arabic for Mother is from Yemen), I can’t help thinking — and hoping — that alive out there still, is another vision for the Middle East.

Sufferin’ in the land: relevant weekend jam

Taking you back here with a Jimmy Cliff tune that is oh-so-relevant considering the recent census revelations about American income gaps — at an all-time high. From the AP report:

WASHINGTON — The income gap between the richest and poorest Americans grew last year to its widest amount on record as young adults and children in particular struggled to stay afloat in the recession.

The top-earning 20 percent of Americans — those making more than $100,000 each year — received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line, according to newly released census figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.

A different measure, the international Gini index, found U.S. income inequality at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. The U.S. also has the greatest disparity among Western industrialized nations.


Photo credit: Franco Folini.

Weekend jam: Kare by P-Unit from Nairobi

Alright, get over the corny name. P-Unit has come out with one of the catchiest songs of the summer, as far as I’m concerned. Makes me want to pour up some Famous and tonic and peep the scene from a corner in Bacchus.

Apparently one of the singers is actually a doctor. He says so in the song: “mimi ni daktari.” (That he is a doctor in real life is completely unconfirmed, but I’m told this is reported somewhere.) You will notice that all the words rhyme with kare, which may be a colloquial way of pronouncing kali, which in standard Swahili means something along the lines of “harsh,” but in slang maybe means something along the lines of “hot.” As in, “Ooh, that’s hot.”

There are a lot of maybes in the attempted translation above because my sources are a little hazy on the exact meaning (I don’t speak Kiswahili, let alone Sheng). So if you’ve got a better idea, please let me know.

I’ve been criticized by some Kenyans (OK, one Kenyan) for blogging music that has already made the rounds on the Kenyan webosphere. Well, whatever… If it you don’t like me giving East Africa its propers, I can always move onto another region next week.

Until then, I’ll be bumpin’ Kare out of my personal listening device (no brand names will get shout outs here).

Weekend jam: Ashimba

Tanzanian music aficionados will complain that this selection is old news, but for the rest of you, I bet this is new: Ashimba.

His music sounds to me like a sort of cross between Aurelio Martinez and Nameless, if that makes any sense. Definitely keeping TZ on my mind on a beautiful late summer day in NYC. How I wish I could link to Ashimba’s song Usingizi, which is the most addictive one. But it appears that this is the only music video he made from the album. There’s a sample from Usingizi in the last moments in the video. You can download Ashimba’s whole album here.

PS, Is this becoming a music blog? Not my intention, but I am trying to bring a new selection every weekend.

Weekend jam: allez Décalé Chrétien!

Nairobi’s Daddy Owen has taken Coupé-Décalé, the Franco-Ivoirian dance craze, to church with his praise song, Kupe De Kalle.

The song is at least six months old, though NPR just picked it up, so it’s been making the Internet rounds a bit more in the last few days. (The NPR article is oddly incomplete in describing the origins of Coupé-Décalé — doesn’t even name the style, which is several years old. For that, read the Wikipedia article.)

This is interesting and unexpected to me for a few reasons.

  • The distance between East and West Africa often seems vast. It is usually cheaper and easier, after all, to fly from Nairobi to London than it is to fly from Nairobi to Abidjan. (Read about some of the shenanigans involved in intra-African flights here.) Thus, talking to some Kenyans, for example, one often feels that people sort of think of West Africa as the bizarro world on the other side of the continent where life is unpleasantly loud and in your face. This song is an example of the digital breakdown of that distance — something that is increasingly common with high speed web connections.
  • There is a mild East African flavor to this version of Coupé-Décalé. It’s hard to describe. It’s not quite as hard-hitting, but a little easier to listen to while kicking back, than those joints from the Jet Set.
  • And Coupé-Décalé is a style that epitomizes raunchiness, ridiculousness and excess — not the genre you’d expect to be mined for church music. (Cue comment from reader revealing that there’s been a gospel Coupé-Décalé movement in the Ivory Coast for the last five years that I don’t know about.)

Check it.

Of course, music has always been one of those things that crossed African divides — borders, languages, politics, religion, great distance — with relative ease. So maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. In any case, this is awesome. Makes me want to go put on some pointy shoes and spit some gibberish raps.

K’naan stole the show

Here I am rambling on about war, politics and depressing things — and one of the most awesome televised concerts I’ve ever seen just aired. Makes American Super Bowl halftimes look like a joke, and I think it rivaled Obama’s inauguration. K’naan stole the show (look, I know I can’t be considered unbiased about the guy by now, but this was great):

Also loved Desmond Tutu, Vusi Mahlasela, Tinariwen and Vieux Farka Touré. (Sorry, you’re going to have to Google those.)

Weekend jam: Melanesian Paradise

This song may have been commissioned by the Papua New Guinea tourism board, but that’s not keeping me from bobbing my head on this pre-Memorial Day Friday. Though I’ve never been to PNG, Solomon Islands, Fiji or the Trobriands, I am inclined — based on this song — to agree that, “with so many cultures living in peace and unity … we must all appreciate the Melanesian way.”

Anyone out there who can help with the pidgin (?) parts?

Thank you Haus Boi! (And HT to AK, who has been to the Melanesia paradise, and reports that is indeed pretty splendid.)

Some believe in Jesus, some believe in Allah…

Update: on the morning of 5/2 I woke to news of a terrifying attempted attack on Times Square. Whatever aesthetic criticisms I have of the place, I love the people who enjoy it and I’m disgusted and a little scared by the attempt. I thought of deleting this post out of respect, but instead I’m choosing to keep it – while adding this important paragraph.

The Egyptians left us the pyramids. The Romans, well… Rome.

Every time I go to Times Square (which is pretty darn infrequently), I think: This is what our civilization will leave for the ages.

To say I don’t feel particularly proud would be an understatement. Other civilizations worshiped gods and stuff. We worship … buying.

Here’s a sight from last night that I thought was especially salient in illustrating the rather pitiful combination of things our country sometimes stands for: a long chain of NYPD cars with flashing lights (show of force) parked beneath a preposterous array of energy-guzzling advertisements. Brute strength and consumption. Brilliant.

Had me thinking that maybe DJ Quik should’ve written our national anthem: “Some believe in Jesus, some believe in Allah, but riders like me believe in making dollars.”


Alsarah: music for the Sudanese elections

I just got tipped off to this rock-the-vote song and video by New York-based Sudanese artist Alsarah. The Sudanese elections are definitely a complicated issue. But whether, like Mia Farrow, you think that the elections are bad for the Sudanese people, or on the other hand if you think they are an important opportunity for Sudan to change from within, the excitement about the possibilities of the democratic process are palpable in this great clip featuring Oddisee.

Also, check out that link to Alsarah’s MySpace page — she’s an up-and-coming singer with a great sound whom I would be highlighting here even if she wasn’t a friend of a friend. She combines old Sudanese melodies with a contemporary, often Hip Hop feel in a way that’s part Fairouz, part Hashim Mirghani and part K’naan. Have a listen.

Hat Tip ST.