The first Arabic music I heard was in its native habitat, while riding on gaudily painted buses through Turkey, Morocco and Syria in the 1960s. Before the drivers thrashed their busted-out transmissions into second gear, they were popping in cassettes of Lebanon-born Fairouz or Egypt’s Oum Khalsoum, the sirens who serenaded the entire Arab world.
The propulsive beat went with the bad roads, wild driving and free-form mix of human and animal passengers. Even the chickens, tied together at the feet, seemed to sway in time. The singing was rich and highly emotive, but what really captured me was the hypnotic pulse of the oud, the Arabic lute. With its short neck and deep body, the ten-to-twelve-string, plucked oud looks like a sawed-off, overweight guitar, but its beginnings–it might have originally been Sumerian, Egyptian, Persian or even Jewish–are shrouded in mystery.
It was certainly Arabs who popularized the oud and placed it front and center in a musical tradition that was, until recently, best appreciated in America as the soundtrack to belly dancing. But its potential for crossover appeal was soon apparent in the West. Like rock, Middle Eastern music–in infinite variations ranging from exuberant Algerian räi (a rough-hewn, boisterous and often-topical street music) and Egyptian shabbi (meaning “people,” an irreverent, rhythmic folk music with working- class origins) to meditative qawwali (the devotional Sufi music of India and Pakistan, exemplified by the late singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)–had a good beat and you could dance to it. In Arabic, the word tarab means state of ecstasy or enchantment, and it’s what the best musicians try to capture. Small wonder, then, that LP copies of Port Said: Exotic Rhythms of the Middle East Captured in High Fidelity, Music on the Desert Road and The Seventh Veil brightened the otherwise drab scenery in many a 1950s suburban rec room.
A decade later, John Berberian, an accomplished Armenian oud player from New York, helped penetrate the consciousness of the Woodstock generation with Middle Eastern Rock, a 1969 fusion album that included studio pro Joe Beck on amplified rock guitar and fuzz. But Berberian was thirty years ahead of his time.
Peter Gabriel’s World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) tours, launched in 1982, also helped make Arabic music “cool” in the West, particularly by presenting young artists like the London-based Transglobal Underground, which mixes dance beats, tape loops and samples into a world music stew. Also helping the crossover and performing on WOMAD was the onetime Top of the Pops performer Natacha Atlas, a self-described “human Gaza strip” of a singer and belly dancer who is half English, half Sephardic Jew and was raised in a Moroccan community in Brussels.