As Amiri Baraka so poignantly noted in his latest collection of essays, Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music, if you're standing in California, then Asia is west. This seemingly simple observation sheds light on many of our habitual appointments, the term "Middle East" being one of them. I recall studying "Ancient Near Far Eastern Religions" in college, as if an even more perplexing configuration needed to be concocted. The problem Americans currently encounter with the Middle East -- predominantly journalists, that is, who supply the rest of the country with information -- isn't necessarily geographical as much as cultural: Who in what country is our friend this week? What country needs a new government now? Which is allowing us to use their land as a surveillance base? These terms seem to switch quicker than you can say freedom fry.
The problem is not only with us, however. I've met Iranians who prefer calling themselves Persian, to keep away from association with Iran, while I've met other Iranians who consider Persian to be a derogatory term. I've met people with Gypsy blood that wear it like a banner, while others prefer the term "Roma." More often than not, I've met too many people who think "gypsy" is a cute nomadic term and apply it to the most inane circumstances, usually in the marketing of their latest incense, organic clothing line, or terrible "world fusion" album.
Point being: directions switch, like Istanbul bludgeoning Constantinople, for which I can thank They Might Be Giants (and not the Four Lads, personally) for informing me, or Mumbai routing Bombay. Right now, or perhaps for the last 4,000 years, the Middle East has been a hotbed of activity for more reasons than Jarred Diamond could probably cite. So for the moment, while the media focuses on the pronunciation of a Puerto Rican's judge's last name, I'll take this lull in Mid-East activity to highlight an aspect of this regionless region that deserves credit: the music. In fact, I only want to focus on one album, Six Degrees of the Middle East, as it was Six Degrees Records that hooked me on the electronic music of this region (or, better put, predominantly the music of ex-pats and fans of the music using Arabic instruments in their electronic recordings, as that comprises the bulk of this genre).
1. "Iman" by Niyaz. I liked Azam Ali in Vas, her previous collaboration with percussionist Greg Ellis, and I also dug her solo album, Portals of Grace. Yet it was meeting former Axiom of Choice member Loga Ramin Torkian and producer Carmen Rizzo that really made me fall in love with the music she was producing. This trio has created two exceptional albums thus far, propelling the traditional songs and poetry of Iran into a modern context with Rizzo's tasteful array of beats. "Iman" is one of their more "acoustic" tracks: no beats, just a backdrop of ambiance for Ali to be featured over. Like all of her work, that instrument alone will leave you spellbound.
2. "Sayat Nova" by Jef Stott. San Franciscan Jef Stott has indulged himself in the music of the Middle East for some time. He studied oud with Hamza El Din, and if there ever existed one man you'd want to study oud with, my money is on him. He founded Embarka Records and has produced a commendable array of records, including Algerian emcee MC Rai, Lumin, and Stellamara, the latter featuring a very Azam Ali-ish nature. Saracen was his Six Degrees debut, and while "Sayat Nova" was not on there, this downtempo gem was probably culled from those sessions. A beautifully sorrowful track.
3. "In 5" by Another Fine Day. Originally on the 2000 release Salvage, this is a dancefloor building track, something you drop when you are getting the crowd ready. Tom Green is a UK-based composer who dabbles in electronica, with this being a fine example of his work: heavy on the horns, a nice, rolling percussion, steady beat in the backdrop. The slightly synthesized sounds sound it, which is the only pitfall in an otherwise solid track.
4. "Exodus From Sonapur" by Tal M. Klein. I was a bit worried when logging onto the San Francisco-based Tal M. Klein's MySpace page. Their blurb states them as "Drunk Funk Champion Sound," which immediately made me think of Hoboken bar bands. And yes, it appears that most of their music is funk-based (albeit better than on the streets of North Jersey); perhaps this track was an experiment in Middle Eastern percussion. Whatever it was, they nailed it -- the kick and bass alone merit accolades. This is a huge midtempo dancefloor crusher with plenty of space and bounce, and will gladly be worked into my DJ sets.
5. "Madh Assalhin" (Makyo's Zen Breaks Remix) by Cheb i Sabbah. I can't stand the way that Microsoft Word always autocorrects the letter "i" to a capital when I type this Algerian-born DJ's name. And I've typed it often over the years, as he is one of my favorite producers. The lower-case letter is fitting for the man who steps out of his own way when exploring the traditional music of India, Morocco, and his homeland; this track features the Berber singing troupe B'net Marrakech. (Morocco certainly stretches the definition of "Middle East," even though the North African countries do share a similar temperament.) Makyo has been holding down the global chill scene in Japan for years, and this, perhaps my favorite remix from the La Ghriba: La Kahena Remixed album, is rife with the hypnotic, spacey sound he has developed. A beautiful midpoint to this compilation, with its peak that it never quite reaches, leaving you wanting more.
6. "Sani" by Zaman 8 & Hafez Modir. I dig this track a lot until the saxophone comes in. It's not bad; it's just that the flutes were working so much better. Yet I felt much the same about most of their Six Degrees collaboration; jazz electronica is a very tricky thing to pull off, and while they do it pretty well, I'm left wanting more. It reminds me of what would happen if John McLaughlin found a Mac in the early '70s (humor me on this one). I like the beats, and I like the sax, but as separate components, which is essentially self-defeating. Highlights, certainly, though I never really arrive anywhere, and don't necessarily go back for the ride.
7. "Spring Arrives" (Transglobal Underground Remix) by Azam Ali. See number one for my assessment on Azam. As for the U.K.-based Transglobal Undergound, never have I liked and disliked a project so much. They have so much talent it's ridiculous, yet usually squander it on mediocre global electronica. For some reason, though, they are very dependable on the remix tip (a recent Watcha Clan retake is a dancefloor favorite), and this track is no different. While I lean towards the Bombay Dub Orchestra mix on the Azam EP, this double-time beat with its tasteful flourishes of percussion is a great take on an already excellent song.
8. "Whirling Within" by Desert Dwellers. The pairing of Rara Avis and Amani Friend has resulted in many blessed tracks and three incredible records on White Swan. I once asked Rara how he finally added the bass to what is touted as "yoga" music, something I so desperately craved, and he told me about his experiments in the desert with innumerable frequencies. The scientific mind meets the passionate soul -- these guys embody it. This upbeat percussive cruiser does work in my yoga classes, as well as on the dancefloor; their rhythmic aesthetic is astounding. My favorite track on the compilation.
9. "Mystic Whomp" (David Starfire Remix) by David Starfire. I've been able to appreciate Starfire's work on a production level, ever since I came across him a few years ago. This is one of his better tracks that I've heard, with great usage of darbuka and flute. The progressive bass lines don't do it for me, which is generally my gripe with his work in the first place. Still, that's a stylistic choice; he does what he does magnificently. This song has a nice build and plenty of kick, making it a great mid-set track to smooth out the floor.
10. "La Mujer De Terah" (Ben's Alternate Wisch Mix) by Continuo. This track has gotten some legs, appearing on 6D comps before. You can feel the decade of age in it (a souped-up Enigma sound), which is meant as a compliment, as it holds up. The vocals are gorgeous, and there is a soothing use of piano amid a nicely produced beat and steady bass line. A track I'd return to in many situations.
11. "Egypt By Air" (Bombay Dub's Ambient Cinematic Remix) by Bombay Dub Orchestra. A fine closer to a great journey. Bombay Dub has been continually blowing my mind since their two-disc debut on 6D a few years back, and this track, from their most recent, 3 Cities, was one of my favorites already. Taking away the beats and highlighting the oud turned the track into a classically inspired masterpiece. The string section is heartbreaking. Andrew T. Mackay and Garry Hughes have come to define the term "ambience," and I don't foresee (or wish for) any sign of that slowing.
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