A musical Arabian night

Glimpsing another world of hit music at the MGM

Syrian singer Assala performs at MGM.
Photo: Ron Koch
K.W. Jeter

The cultural disconnect between the U.S. and the Arab world seems to be growing wider now, despite the billions-to-trillions we’re pouring into the region. We’re not as likely to get as much as Britain did from its collapsed imperial adventures. London’s full of great Indian restaurants; there aren’t many Afghan—or even Iraqi—restaurants popping up in American strip malls. That’s a shame, and not just because we’re missing out on a new ethnic cuisine on our plates.

The music heard at the Sahra concert last Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, a fundraising event for the Arab American Medical Association, would seem tailor-made for painlessly widening non-Arabs’ horizons. All three headliners demonstrated a cross-cultural embrace of everything they could usefully lift from their European and American counterparts. Their bands included not only traditional goblet-shaped dumbeks in their percussion sections, but also timbales-and-conga workouts that would have done Tito Puente proud. A border-crossing highlight of the opening set from Rida Al Abdullah, a basset-eyed Syrian ringer for Russell Crowe, was the interplay between his melismatic tenor voice and saxophonist Wisam Khassaf.

The international club-music scene is at least familiar with five-second clips of female Middle Eastern singers, spliced into the routine drum programming to create a quick rush of mood-setting exotica. Getting to hear Syria’s rising star Assala roll out at full length her intense, spiraling vocal lines (broken with an occasional shouted “Hey! Hey! Hey!”—it is pop music, after all) was a pleasure.

Algerian “King of Rai” Khaled was the undoubted star of the Sahra show, though. Formerly known as Cheb Khaled, he’s dropped the prefix (meaning “young man” or “kid”), no doubt seeking a more mature image to fit what his music has become. If no longer quite the fiery quasi-punk taking a fundamentalist-disapproved musical style (due to naughty words and political stances) to as close to crossover status as any Arab musician has gotten, Khaled still has more than enough stage charisma to pull an entire arena audience to its feet.

Actually, the concert seemed from its start more like a championship soccer match, with ongoing eruptions of flag- and scarf-waving, all-male seat dancing and coed sing-alongs. (It’s always a culturally broadening experience to be the only person in the crowd who doesn’t know the words to what are obviously hit songs, something that last happened to me sitting through the Miley Cyrus concert movie.) Better than a soccer match, really, since there was no score to keep (or settle), but instead a one-night “peace, love and music” pan-Arabic Woodstock.

The only ones who lost out were those for whom this music—or any music outside the USA’s territorial limits—hasn’t sparked their personal radar. We’re well into our second generation who consider themselves multicultural merely because they’ve sat through some “diversity training” program and have a bong with Bob Marley’s picture on it sitting on their coffee table. Meanwhile, those “other” people are singing—but we’re not listening. Or at least not yet.


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