Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The fate of art in the Middle East: two comments

"One day, the war will end and I will return to my poem" 

Not sure who the artist is for this one

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Chaba Fadela (and Cheb Sahraoui), "N'sel Fik"

I'm trying to work out the history and trajectory of "N'sel Fik," by Cheb Sahraoui and Chaba Fadela, one of the first rai recordings to be released in Europe -- in 1986 on the Paris label Attitude, and in 1987 (October) on -- if you can believe it -- the famous Manchester label Factory Records, as a 12" single. Yes, Factory: the company that released all those great recordings from Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays, The Durutti Column.

Here's the story of how that Factory release came about: It was "selected after Pickering heard the exotic Arabic-disco hybrid at Mark Kamins' Harem club in New York. 'Mark talked Tony into licensing Fadela and I remixed it,' says Pickering."

Mike Pickering was Factory's A&R Chief. Tony Wilson was part owner and manager of Factory.

As for Mark Kamins, the legendary New York producer and DJ, here's the story of Harem, in his own words:

I went to open my own club, which was called the Harem, and I rented out a belly dance studio in Time Square at 48th Street and Eighth Avenue. God, why did I leave? I just think I got fed up. Well, actually, I started getting a lot of work in the studio and I wanted to DJ something new. I started this club called the Harem where I had five Turkish musicians behind me who played live with instrumental house tracks that I would play. It was completely spontaneous. It was about me being more of an artist than a DJ. There was an English band came down – “pump up the volume, pump up the volume, dance” – remember those guys?...

M/A/R/R/S, OK. They came one night with a white label. And I played the white label, and then I would play an Egyptian singer, a cappella on top of M/A/R/R/S. So they went back to London and remixed it with my Arabic a cappella. That’s when I made my record United House Nations, which was one of the first releases on Circa, where I took house beats and I sampled music from all over the world. So I took that hiatus, I would say, for one year and the Harem became the hippest club in New York. We shut it down after we did a party for New Order. We shut it down after one year, at the peak.

"Pump Up the Volume" from M/A/R/R/S, you may recall, samples Dunya Yunus' "Abu Zuluf" from the album Music in the World of Islam, 1: The Human Voice. You can check this out here.

The one "Middle Eastern" recording that you will find on Kamin's United House Nations LP is "Muhammad's House" by Sheik Fawaz, released in the US in 1988. I in fact purchased it back then, there wasn't anything else much like it coming out at that time. Check it out:

Here is the jacket for the Factory release of "N'sel Fik" (You Are Mine). Like all Factory products I've seen, it has a great design. But...(and thanks to Geir for making me notice this) Fadela is spelled incorrectly in Arabic. It should be فضيلة  and not  فظيلة

Although credited to Fadela, the track in fact is by Chaba Fadela and her husband Cheb Sahraoui (the couple married in 1982). I believe that this is the version that Factory released (the discography says the Factory track is 7:10, and this one is 7:09 -- close enough).

Below is perhaps the first recording of the song, off of a 1982 cassette. Note the spellings here: Chaba Fadila, and "N'sal Fik." According to maghrebunion, who posted in on Youtube, the male singer on this recording is Cheb Hindi, and Cheb Sahraoui is on the accordion.

I presume this is not the version recorded by producer Rachid Baba Ahmed. According to Abdi and Daoudi (1995), Rachid Baba's recording came out in 1983, and it was, they say, the first rai international hit. They say that Rachid wrote it, but other sources credit it to Cheb Sahraoui, and I believe the latter is correct. I guess that when they say 'hit' are referring to its release on Attitude (France), Factory (UK), and then on two very influential and groundbreaking rai albums put out in the West, in the earliest wave of the world music rai phenom: (1) Rai Rebels, released on Virgin in the UK in 1988, and on Earthworks in the US in the same year. Although this LP features a photo of Khaled on the cover, the opening track is "N'sel Fik," credited here to Fadela and Sahraoui; (2) You Are Mine, a Chaba Fadela album put out in 1988 by Mango in both the US and UK. Since "N'sel Fik" is translated as You Are Mine, that makes it in fact the title track of the album. Interestingly, the recording here is credited to Chaba Fadela, although her husband of course also sings on it. 

The jacket for Rai Rebels provides a translation of a few lines of "N'sel Fik," and as far as I can tell by checking other translations, these seem about right:

Cheb: Looking to God, waiting, you are mine
Chaba: I saw you in the dark and my heart stopped
Cheb: I didn't say a word, but her eyes said it all
Chaba: You are mine, your body and your soul
Cheb: In the evening we go to her place and spend the night

Based on the evidence of the video below, clearly shot in a studio in Algeria, it would seem that the version of "N'sel Fik" that was exported abroad was basically the same as what was released in Algeria -- in 1983, if we are to believe Abdi and Daoudi. The vid shows Fadela and Sahraoui doing the song and Rachid Baba on the mixing controls. 

Here's the vid:

On the other hand, if you check out this vid, of a TV show tribute to Rachid Ahmed, one might think that the 1983 version was somewhat different. Rachid in the interview footage says that Sahraoui brought in his wife to the studio, when he was to record "N'sel Fik" for a cassette to be put out by Rachid et Fethi, his company. Rachid had not met Fadela before. He suggested to them that they sing the song as a duo. They did it as a trial, and it was perfect the first time, did not need to be re-recorded. The version you see them do here, however, is a bit different from what was released on Factory in 1987. Check it out, Rachid speaks about the song starting at 7:13.

Rachid Baba Ahmed and his brother Fathi fronted a band called Les Vautours (The Vultures) and then went on, in the early 70s, to enjoy some modest success with rock recordings released under the name, Rachid et Fethi. (Check out some footage of them here.) The brothers went on to open a very advanced, 16-track studio at Tlemcen (their home town) as well as a record label (Rallye). In 1976, a rai cassette producer sent Rachid a young rai singer Cheb Sahraoui. At that point Rachid had no interest in rai, but was instead into the synthesized pop of the likes of Jean-Michel Jarre. Rachid commenced to work with rai singers, recording their vocals and them sending them off as he and his studio musicians laid down the instrumental tracks (see Abdi & Daoudi 1995). I believe that Rachid is the one who is primarily responsible for really changing the sound of pop-rai (I posted earlier about pop-rai's seventies origins) both through this production method and also by the heavy use of synthesized keyboards, electric guitar, and the like. Baba was assassinated in February 1995, probably by militants of the Armed Islamic Group.

Rachid produced many, many great pop-rai tracks, but "N'sel Fik" remains one of the greatest.