Sunday, May 31, 2009

More on Lebanese rap. Plus Ahmadinejad's kufiya.

I ran across this article on Lebanese rap from the Christian Science Monitor only recently. It gives the great Rayess Bek his props as the godfather of Lebanese hip-hop. (If you click on the link, you can listen to some of his terrific new tracks.) It also discusses other artists, some of whom I knew little about: RGB, Malikah, and Katibe 5, who are from the Palestinian refugee camp Burj al-Barajneh. (And about whom I've posted previously, on my mepop blog.)

OS Loop [of Katibe 5] recalls a concert American superstar 50 Cent put on in Beirut in 2006, before the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon that killed more than 1,200 Lebanese. A native of Queens, New York, 50 Cent often raps about how he survived being shot nine times. But OS Loop isn't overly impressed with that – or the commercial turn that 50 Cent's music has taken.

"Now Snoop is coming, and Akon is coming [to Lebanon], but for me they are all commercial," he says. "I wish 50 Cent stayed in Lebanon for the war," he adds with a laugh. "I wanted to tell him what's the true meaning of gangsta."

And check this out, from Jon Lee Anderson's recent New Yorker article, "Letter from Tehran," which focuses on Ahmadinejad.

When President Khatami took office, in 1997, he removed [Ahmadinejad] from the governorship [of Ardabil], and Ahmadinejad returned to his old university [Iran University of Science and Technology] to teach. He received a Ph.D., in traffic management, that year.

“At the university, Ahmadinejad was very active in the Basij organization, and when the reformists came to power in 1997, with Khatami, he used to make problems for the professors and come to class with a kaffiyeh, to show his solidarity with the Palestinian cause,” [Nasser] Hadian [professor of political science at Tehran University and childhood friend of Ahmadinejad] said.

Let's tease this out a bit: the holocaust denier, using his kufiya as a sign of solidarity with Palestinians, as well showing that (a) he's down with the paramilitary Basij, who function among other things as a kind of morals police, and (b) is politically opposed to the Khatami-led reformist movement. Palestinians really need friends like this...

Overall, Anderson's article was informative, but given that Dennis Ross is Secretary of State Clinton’s special adviser on Iran, I'm rather more nervous about the prospects for US-Iran diplomacy than Anderson. (Ross, as is well-known, tilts too close to the Israeli position on Iran.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Misc. 4.765: North African Autotune. Graffitti on the Wall. Gaida

1. Jace Clayton has penned a nice piece on Autotune for Frieze. I have noticed of late that all contemporary rai vocals coming out of Algeria seems to be 'autotuned.' It drove me crazy, but more recently, and thanks largely to Clayton, I now see the virtue of its uses. Clayton discusses Autotune as a global phenom, and discusses its ubiquity in North African pop. Here are some excerpts--but I urge you read the entire article.
The most important piece of musical equipment of the last 10 years is not an instrument or a physical object. It’s called Auto-Tune and is used on roughly 90 per cent of all pop songs...Auto-Tune bends off-key notes into pitch perfection...
After joking about vocalists who ask him to ‘make their voice robotic’, Moroccan producer Wary says: ‘Sometimes you have great singers who don’t know how to use Auto-Tune and it sounds really bad.’ Traditional singing chops aren’t so useful in Auto-Tune’s world. It’s neither a fight with technology nor love of it; it’s more like glossy coexistence, a strange new dance of give-and-take.
T-Pain’s R&B isn’t the only example highlighting the ‘impassioned melismas’ that Rosen says ‘powered black popular singing’ before Auto-Tune messed everything up. Melisma is equally if not more prevalent in Maghrebi music. This explains the plug-in’s mind-boggling success across North Africa. Contemporary raï and Berber music embrace Auto-Tune so heartily precisely because glissandos are a central part of vocal performance (you can’t be a good singer unless your voice can flutter around those notes): sliding pitches sound startling through it. A weird electronic warble embeds itself in rich, throaty glissandos. The struggle of human nuance versus digital correction is made audible, dramatized. Quite literally this is the sound of voice and machine intermodulating...
At his home studio in the Parisian suburbs, Wary explained that Auto-Tune hit the Arab world with a single in 2000 by Algerian Chaba Djenet (below). Since the start of this decade, it’s been hard to find an album of North African Berber pop where the Tamazight dialect vocals don’t have full synthy Auto-Tune (it’s surprising how much a female voice can sound like a violin on these recordings)...

From the US to Mexico, Jamaica, Africa, and beyond – Auto-Tune usage has splintered, with different approaches from scene to scene and artist to artist. (It remains the most sonically extreme in Berber Morocco.)...Rather than novelty or some warped mimetic response to computers, Auto-Tune is a contemporary strategy for intimacy with the digital. As such, it becomes quite humanizing.

The Chaba Djenet youtube video for "Gwit Galbi Wahdi" is a must-see, because it features the music of Chaba Djenet over a video of Lebanese "pop tart" sensation Haifa Wehbe singing. Hilarious!

2. Courtesy Time magazine, an interesting piece on the latest iteration of graffiti on the apartheid wall. (Thanks, Daniel)

Thanks to a group of Dutch and Palestinian activists, people can now immortalize their words on the wall without a passport or a can of Krylon. For $40, you can compose a message at, and a trio of Palestinian graffiti artists will spray your words on the wall and e-mail you a photo as proof. The only restriction: no messages of hate or anti-Semitism...

So far, the group has written 850 messages, ranging from the quirky (a falafel recipe) to the anarcho-romantic (JOIN THE RESISTANCE: FALL IN LOVE) to the sardonic (ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE IS NO MATCH FOR NATURAL STUPIDITY). But most are mushy love notes (M.L. LOVES HER FUNKY D). So one of the organizers, Dutch theater director Justus van Oel, decided to up the ante. He commissioned Farid Esack, a South African religious scholar and former antiapartheid activist, to write a 1,998-word letter, in English, to Palestinians urging nonviolent resistance to the Israelis. The work is now being painted in 2-ft.-high letters along a 1.6-mile stretch of wall near Ramallah. The writing will consume more than 400 cans of spray paint and has been paid for by private donations. The South African was chosen, says Van Oel, because "Esack gets beyond the anger. He is a reconciler." The letter, in part, reads: "Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? In your land, we are seeing something far more brutal, relentless and inhuman than what we have ever seen under apartheid."

3. Check out Syrian-American vocalist Gaida on her myspace page.

"Gaida’s forthcoming CD, Levantine Indulgence, a song sequence of alluring beauty, is steeped in the traditional music of her Syrian heritage, but also shows the eclectic worldview of a New York singer-songwriter," writes David R. Adler, in Timeout New York. I have to say I prefer the "traditional" songs to the more updated material--but check it out for yourself.

4. Finally, the new Narcisyst CD, P.H.A.T.W.A. is now available.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Various & sundry 2.753. Tripoli Rap. Invincible. Kronos Quartet & Ramallah Underground. Palestine's First National Rap Talent Contest.

More in the ongoing series of miscellaneous items I've come across and want to record own future use.

1. A report on hip-hop in Tripoli, Lebanon, from Jackson Allers,, reposted on the World HipHop Market blog, and focusing on Kimo and Balsam, of the group Mic-Rob. The two talk about their neighborhoods and do an acapella rap.

At least 90 people have died this year in the Tripoli violence that has mainly been between the rival ghetto youth from Bab al Tabaneh and neighboring Jabal Mohsen, wioch is dominated by the Alawites, an offshoot of the Shia branch of Islam.

“The problem is that the majority of the people doing the fighting are poor street kids who are looking for any excuse for a fight. No money. Fucked up families. And here they have guns,” says Balsam, who lives in the neighboring area of Bab al Rmeil...

and from their rap:

"They – the politicians
and the corrupted
Made us live
In a nightmare
that we can’t wake up from
We got no money or prospects
So our pockets are starving”

More from Mic-Rob at myspace.

2. Playlist is a terrific series, focusing on "fusion" music, from Al Jazeera English. I've not even watched all the episodes dealing with Middle Eastern music from this rich and varied series. I hope to post on them in future. Interesting, isn't it, that no US cable news network has tried to do anything remotely approaching what Al Jazeera English has done. Thanks to the Detroit rapper Invincible, who clued me into this episode (series 2, episode 10, part 2), where Playlist goes back to some of the "fusion" artists they had interviewed and asked them what fusion artists they were paying attention to. The Palestinian rappers DAM say, check out Invincible, and so, we get to see clips from Invincible's video, "People Not Places," from her album Shapeshifters. (I've written about the song previously, but had not seen the vid.)

Be sure to watch the whole segment--the kuduro group Buraka Son Sistema are not to be missed!

3. Kronos Quartet's latest album, Floodplain, is out, and it is, well, all Middle Eastern/North Africa and Balkan and Central Asian. Spinner explains its genesis:

The seeds for the Kronos Quartet's new album, 'Floodplain,' an exploration of the rips and seams of Middle Eastern, North African, Balkan and Central Asian cultures through the distinct Kronos artistic lens, started to sprout a decade ago in a Beirut marketplace. The group was there to perform concerts, and founder-violinist David Harrington asked friend and sometime collaborator Ali Jihad Racy, who was joining Kronos for these shows, to take him music shopping.

"He took me to a record store," Harrington reminisces. "I just wanted to get a sense of Lebanese music and basically he helped me pick out 30 or 40 representative albums. And in going through these later, I heard this incredible son sung by Fairuz, when she was a very young woman. It blew me away."

The song, 'Wa Habibi,' (a video of a later Fairuz performance is here) tantalized and mystified Harrington with repeated listening.

"It sounded like it could have been Jewish music or Islamic or Christian," he says. "It turned out it was a song for Easter time. And I asked [composer-arranger] Steve Prutsman to make a version of it for us to play."

And that piece became a staple of Kronos concerts about eight years ago -- not long after the events of 9/11 charged perceptions of the Middle East with the air of suspicion and fear. It was a perfect statement: music that sounded, to Western ears, Islamic but intended to convey a Christian message of devotion, acceptance and sacrifice.

I love it: inspired by a trip to Beirut (where I lived for nearly 11 years) and an encounter--mediated by the esteemed UCLA ethnomusicologist and buzuq and saz player Ali Jihad Racy--with the divine Fairuz!

And even better, Floodplain has a contribution from the Palestinian hip-hop ensemble, Ramallah Underground (as advertised previously on Hawgblawg). Spinner continues:

It was an entirely different marketplace in which Harrington found the seeds of another one of the album's key pieces.

"Eventually I was casting about on MySpace several years ago and came upon this band from Palestine called Ramallah Underground and I loved their music," he says. "It was something I'd never heard before. So I got in touch with them and asked them to write for us. And they did the track for 'Tashweesh.' "

It's a striking collaboration, with Kronos playing over the electronics assemblage created by the Palestinian group, a perfect representation of the title, explained in the liner notes as meaning "interference or static, and by extension miscommunication and not hearing or understanding correctly"...

Read the rest of the article here. And to listen to segments from each of the tracks on Floodplain, go here.

4. Palestine's First National Rap Talent Contest, sponsored by the Sabreen Association and the Palestinian Broadcast Corporation, is taking place in May and June, 2009.

Here's the notice of the event, courtesy HipHopf. (I've edited it just a bit.)

“HipHopKom“ is Palestine’s first national rap contest and climax of the previous held training courses and Hip Hop promoting events as part of Project Hip Hop Palestine. Rappers and Hip Hop fans all over Palestine are now waiting to prove their talents to Palestine.

The contest is based on the concepts of ”Star Academy” and MTV’ Arabia’s “HipHopna” and is a national contest, which will take place as an open public show and be broadcast on TV.

A locally based film crew in the West Bank and Gaza will follow the event outline and document the development of the day. This will be broadcast live from the venue and projected in the Gaza and Ramallah venues. The event will be broadcast on PBC 36 local tv stations, the satellite channel Palestine TV and the local radio network.

14 Palestinian groups/artists selected by a jury in two prior auditions in the WB and Gaza will perform live on TV presenting their contribution to the rap contest.

Based on prior advertisement Palestinian rappers residing in ‘48 and the West Bank will be invited to participate in an audition for the contest. 10 participants will be selected by the jury from the WB audition out of an estimated number of 200 participants. A second audition might be arranged according to the number of registered rappers.

All of the rappers of the Gaza Strip will be invited to participate in a closed audition for the contest. It is assumed that rappers from 12 Hip Hop groups will join the audition. A jury of two persons will assess the performance of all artists and select a maximum of 4 persons to participate in the final contest.

In case no foreign artists can enter Gaza Sabreen organizes an audition in Gaza and transmits the audition to Ramallah where the whole jury resides. There would be no training program for the Gazans, only in Ramallah. The 4 selected talents form Gaza would perform in the Ramallah contest via a satellite transmission.

The jury, consisting of Shadia Mansour - British-Palestinian rapper, Zaki, the Danish-Egyptian rapper, and Mazzi, the Iranian-American rapper and breakdancer, will give their critique and assessment of the contributions together with the local rap pioneers Saz (Ramle) and Dam (Lid).

Between the auditions and the show the selected talents will be invited to undergo training with the jury preparing their performance for the show.

Voting and selection:

The show in Gaza will be held in al Hilal theatre in Gaza City and the West Bank show will be held in al Qasaba.

The winner will be chosen via SMS sent in by the television viewers. The show will see live performance by professional rappers.

The winners will be given the opportunity to travel to Denmark and meet and perform with the established Hip Hop scene in July 2009 + record the winning song on a single.

The program will be financed partly by the Danish Representative Office, the Roskilde Foundation and private Palestinian sponsors.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Kominas, and -- DJ Rekha to play at Wakarusa (Ozark, AR)

Over the past three weekends I've traveled to NYC, DC, and Oslo. And I finished up the paper and exam grading for the semester. Now I'm deep into summer school teaching, which I started the day after I returned from Oslo. I think I'm still recovering from the jet lag. So there hasn't been much energy for blogging...

I just read this quite useful and illuminating post about the, I guess we should say, so-called taqwacore band, The Kominas, on the YellowBuzz blog. Here are some good excerpts:

The song [on the album, Wild Nights in Guantanamo] that brings out the best of the Kominas’ mixed influences, I would say, is “Par Desi.” It begins with a Bhangra-inspired, chromatic surf guitar riff. Basim sings about living in a social limbo between Pakistan and the U.S. “How'd I get here, from a land with long monsoons? / In Lahore it's raining water, in Boston it rains boots.” Following the second chorus is an 8-second analog sample of a live Bhangra percussion recording. This segment features fast striking on dhols, a two-headed drum used in Punjab, a region in the northern part of South Asian subcontinent. The syncopated bass accents in the sample suspend one’s attention on the 4/4 meter in the first part of the song and enables the transition a series of triplets interspersed by noise guitar. The sample, in short, seamlessly bridges the first and second part of the song, each with a disparate rhythmic articulation. I give these guys props for their compositional sophistication...

In the interview, the Kominas criticized how media pigeonholes them. Shahjehan explained, “Taqwacore is no more than just a few kids that talk online every now and then. People think it’s like we all hang out, we all live in a house. It’s not.” Apparently six of the taqwacore-associated bands have disbanded since the 2007 tour. Shahjehan continued, “Another thing that gets lost in the media angle of taqwacore within the book is that there are different people that have different relationships to Islam. Now within this band, there are different people with different relationships to Islam, or none at all.”

Adding to the commentary, Arjun explicated how the press has blown up and distorted the story of the Kominas by presuming their liberal, diversified “Muslim punk” identity as an alternative to Islam as imagined by mainstream media in the U.S. and Europe...

I highly recommend following the Yellowbuzz, the asian-american music blog, btw. (Which links to me, I just discovered. Thanks, comrades.)

More Kominas/Taqwacore/MM Knight miscellanea: To keep up with the happenings of the taqwa, please follow the Taqwacore Webzine, which only recently started up.

And please check out this episode of Playlist, a great series on music from Al Jazeera English, which deals with taqwacore. Check out the whole series, there's much more of interest, including coverage of Palestinian rap.

Meanwhile, and still on the Asian-American music tip, DJ Rekha, the esteemed organizer of Basement Bhangra, a monthly, movable dance event in New York City, going strong since 1997, will be performing at Wakarusa. Started in 2004, this music festival was held in Kansas until this year, when it will convene in Ozark, Arkansas, June 4-7. I'm pretty excited that DJ Rekha will be performing, and I plan to go.

I highly recommend her album, Basement Bhangra. (If you want to buy it, don't get it from iTunes, which only has it available as a continuous mix. Amazon, and maybe other outlets as well, sell it as discrete songs.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

From the streets of the NYC: Kufiyas at Kate Moss's Topshop

My comrade Dave just sent me these photos, which he took on his iPhone. They are from Kate Moss's new store, Topshop, located on Broome and Broadway. 20 bucks. The only description on the tag, says Dave, is the color.

It's worth recalling that back in 2007, Kate Moss was involved in some charity kissing to raise money for Palestinian children, in an event sponsored by the Hoping Foundation. At the time, Topshop's Kate Moss line also featured kufiyas, marketed as "Tablecloth Scarves."

"You're not allowed to enter Egypt and bring a pig with you": Shaaban Abdel Rahim weighs in on Swine Flu

You must watch this video, courtesy of MEMRI.

"May God protect us from cats and dogs too."

(But in the interview, which you also should not miss, Shaaban admits that he loves dogs, and owns two.)

"So what if some pigs die?...It's better for people to be healthy, to hell with the pigs."

The first question from the interviewer, who treats Shaaban in a bemused fashion, is about his lime-green suit, which is truly remarkable. As Chris remarked to me, it's pretty clear that Shaaban is being used. A sha'bi ('popular') singer who expresses his support for the regime and its decision to slaughter all of Egypt's pigs. To the great dismay of poor Christians in the suburbs of Cairo who collect the city's garbage, sort it, and feed the edible materials to their pigs.

Read BBC's report on the events here. An excerpt:

Egyptian pig farmers have clashed with police in Cairo, as they tried to stop their animals being slaughtered.

Hundreds of people at the Manshiyat Nasr slum threw stones and bottles at police who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The government wants to cull all the nation's pigs, a move UN experts say is not necessary to prevent swine flu.

Egypt's pigs mostly belong to the Coptic Christian minority who say the cull has reignited religious tensions.

Shaaban, shilling for the regime...

Pope in Kufiya Drag

In case you missed it: (Thanks a mill to Waleed, who alerted me to this.)

Here's the caption for this photo, which I found courtesy of the Charlotte Observer:

In this photo made available Saturday, May 9, 2009, by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict XVI wears a traditional Jordanian "Kaffiyeh" during his visit to the Lady of Peace Church in Amman, Jordan Friday, May 8, 2009. Pope Benedict XVI expressed deep respect for Islam Friday and said he hopes the Catholic Church can play a role in Mideast peace as he began his first trip to the region, where he hopes to improve frayed ties with Muslims.

Note: a red kufiya in this context signifies Jordanian identity, and not Palestinian, not Hamas, not PFLP, not Communist.