World-music label Putumayo has had more success with 2001’s “Arabic Groove” compilation than any other release in its near-20 years, so it’s a wonder it’s taken them this long to revisit the theme with “Arabic Beat.”
Although it may be dismissed as mere belly-dance music by those who give it only a cursory listen, “Arabic Beat” is a varied soundscape with a rhythmic-centric focus that non-Arabic ears can easily enjoy.
The 10 artists on “Arabic Beat” have roots around North Africa and the Middle East, and many are transplants to other nations (i.e. the Marseille-based Watcha Clan and the Barcelona-based Nour). And their back-stories are also diverse. For example, Zein Al-Jundi — who sings on the “raks sharki” (belly dance), accordion-driven “Ajmal Gharam” — was a child star in her native Syria before going to school at the University of Texas (and ultimately moving to Austin). Meanwhile, Jalal El Hamdaoui — who sings on the undulating, exuberant “Sidi H’bibi” — is a native of Morocco (and emigrant to Belgium) who specializes in Berber-rooted wedding music.
The arrangements on “Arabic Beat” likewise vary, with everything from the heavily Western-influenced R&B “Itim” by Ahmed Soultan to the more traditional-sounding “Lala Torkia” by Cheb Amar. Outright successes include the invigorating sing-along “Kifach Hilti” by Djamel Laroussi and the soulful/vibrating “Lirah” by Ali Slimani, while Samira Saeid’s erratic “Saab Alyia” and Choubene’s cheesy “Rai Mtelefni” are considerably less engaging.
Still, rhythm is at the heart of all of these songs, and it beats with universal appeal.
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of five)
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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