various artists,
Africa North
(Hearts of Space, 2000)

I've had this CD for quite some time now, and I've been putting off reviewing it for some reason. I think it's because if I did, I'd have no good excuse for listening to it incessantly (which I do), and no good excuse when the neighbors walk by and look at me strangely for dancing around the living room to Cairo-born darbukka drums.

The fact is, this is easily one of my favorite CDs to date. From the first strains of Steve Shehan and Baly Othmani's "Amin Amin," a song based on the traditional oud (Arab lute) music of the Tuareg people that gets inside of you and forces you to sing along phonetically, to the last notes of Anouar Brahem's "Conte de L'Incrovable Amour," which has a sort of soft dramatic quality that hangs in the air after it's gone -- there isn't a bad song in the bunch. Which is pretty impressive, given the varied tempo and sometimes distant definition of what "music" constitutes.

Most of the music is based on traditional Islamic music, elevating the songs from the realm of the everyday, and raising the musicians to a position of being technicians of the sacred. It is intended to be a conduit to the ecstatic states necessary, and achieve this through trance induction and strong rhythm. They honor that purpose well in this collection.

Aside from the oud, which is recognizable to anyone who's watched the Indiana Jones trilogy or has seen The English Patient more than once, this disc will introduce the darbukka drum (a taut-skinned drum used in many Moroccan pieces), the Bedouin flute, and a frame drum called a "riq," which hits the lower registers at a more clear tone than any tympani. The tribal voices from Sudan and Cairo are intriguing and complex, and several of the songs fuse together both the past (with traditional rhythms and influences) with modern jazz -- you'll hear fretless bass, clarinet and violin at various points, coexisting with the traditional instruments with ease.

My personal favorite is track 8, by Rasha, a woman who keens Sufi meditations over simple accompaniment, with a mix of both African and Arabic influences. The song, "Aquis Mahasnik Biman" (literally translated as "With Whom Can I Compare You?"), is haunting and lasting, Rasha's voice dancing an eternal, traditional dance over bare melody from an oud. The words, in Sudanese, can be traced back to Rumi: "With whom can I compare you? A priceless pearl you are in the dark! Oh, God, light of my eyes, light of time! Have we ever seen the moon in a bracelet? Crowded lights! Safe on your checks. Shining from your mouth. Lightning over lightning smiles. Is the world an Eden? I saw an angel." Used as a wedding song in Sudan and Saudi Arabia, it has both secular and sacred elements that beg to be heard in any language.

If you're just beginning to get into world music, Africa: North is a good first step. You'll get a range of cultures and styles, and a solid collection that will whet your appetite for more of the same.

Don't miss this one.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

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