“World music,” defined as “a marketing term describing the products of musical cross-fertilization between the north — the US and Western Europe — and south,” [1] attracts a growing audience in the US. Since the mid-1980s, this term has come to incorporate just about any music of non-European origin — both “hybrid”-sounding pop and “traditional” music — as well as local but “other” traditional musics (like Celtic or zydeco), that is marketed in the West. [2] The first music from the Arab world heard on the world music scene was rai music from Algeria. A number of rai releases hit the US market in the late 1980s and early 1990s, both collections such as Rai Rebels and albums from major rai stars Cheb Khaled, Chaba Zahouania, Cheb Sahraoui, Chaba Fadela and Cheb Mami. Although US rai sales have never been remarkable, rai did help open up the US world music market for a whole range of other Arab musics, both hybrid pop and the offerings of more acoustic and “traditional”-sounding artists. [3]

It has sometimes been claimed that world music is merely one more exotic commodity by which cosmopolitan North Americans define their individualized and distinctive tastes, one more set of ethnic products for hip yuppies to sample, like so much sushi or biryani or falafel. Might Arab world music also serve to displace prevailing images of Arabs as terrorists, religious fanatics, or exotic and antithetical “others”? Could it present alternative, more appealing images of Arabs, images that make them appear less foreign, more sympathetic and human, because people in the US could somehow relate to their experiences?

Rai Rebels

Such hopes have certainly motivated researchers (including me) in the past. [4] First, there is rai’s hybrid sound, its incorporation of Western instruments like the electric guitar, drum machine and synthesizer with North African vocals and rhythms. These hybrid textures, constantly highlighted in world music publicity, have indeed made inroads into the US market for rai. The distinctive Arabic vocals sound exotically different, while the guitars and synthesizer, and the disco, funk and rock borrowings, make rai seem just familiar enough not to be forbiddingly alien.

Incorporations of “foreign” musical instrumentation are hardly remarked upon by the Algerian press, because they are simply taken for granted in the Algerian pop scene. [5] Indeed, musical borrowings and cross-fertilizations — sometimes termed “Moroccan roll” — are entirely routine throughout the region, even if they frequently are condemned by cultural nationalists. Musical incorporations, moreover, are not just the result of “north-south” flows. Oran, the port city that gave birth to rai music, was extremely cosmopolitan, and one hears in rai’s textures not just a mix of “Arab” and “European” elements but also Jamaican reggae, Indian film music, Spanish flamenco and South African jive.

Part of the appeal of the exotic commodity of “hybrid music” is the excitement of finding reflections of the West in “other” places, and the reassurance that “others” are becoming more like us. Rai, purely at the level of sound, appears to produce a picture of the “hybrid Arab,” the good Arab. In some senses this is a hopeful development, if rai can produce a positive image of the Arab.

Rai’s Real Context

Virtually all the world music publicity, including the record jackets, concert and album reviews and academic articles, has presented rai in this fashion. But it is erroneous to claim that rai simply replicates the Western musical experience. For instance, rai artists and audiences are typically compared to youth subcultures in the West. Rai is presented as Algeria’s version of the music of Elvis, The Beatles, the punks and the associated struggles of Western youth against staid, straight, mainstream Western society. While this image wins sympathy in the West, it disguises some very real contextual differences between Algerian rai and Western rock. There are very few rai concerts in Algeria. Instead, rai music is performed “live” almost exclusively at wedding parties or at cabarets, the latter being much too expensive for most youth to frequent. “Youth” are not even the exclusive audience for rai, which, according to Danish ethnographer Marc Schade-Poulsen, is “not perceived as a form of opposition to the parental generation.” [6] Rai songs are mostly not “composed” by singers — as per the romantic Western model of the individual author/protest singer — but are stitched together through rearrangements of well-known, formulaic verses. Solidarity with the Algerian rai scene because it is “rebellious” is purchased on the basis of misrepresentation.

Secondly, the image of the “rai rebel”is constructed against the image of the bad Arab. Westerners can identify with rai because its proponents appear to be struggling against the forces in the Arab world that we particularly dislike, in particular, patriarchal Arab tradition and Islamist extremism. The image of the rai rebel took on special significance with the onset of the bloody Algerian civil war in 1992, which drove most of Algeria’s well-known rai musicians to take refuge, and resulted in the assassination of noted rai singer Cheb Hasni and rai producer Rachid Baba in 1994. But rai is not necessarily fundamentally opposed to traditional “patriarchal” values or to Islam. While doing fieldwork in Oran between 1990 and 1992, Schade-Poulsen encountered “no one [who] contested the basic values structuring the moral organization of the Algerian family.” [7] He also found that, despite official efforts by the Islamist opposition, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), to limit rai performance, some members and affiliates of FIS listened to rai. Rai audiences and singers overwhelmingly considered themselves Muslims and not “secular” in any Western sense of that term. Some rai singers have made statements critical of FIS, but this appears to have been motivated by an effort to appeal to a liberal Western audience. When interviewed in Algeria, the same singers declined to take a position. [8]

World music publicity about rai in the US acts as if rai has been produced over the last 10 years in Algeria, when in fact most of the major rai singers are now based in France. The core audience of rai in the 1990s has been the North African community in France — a community facing appalling problems of racial and economic discrimination — but this has been hardly noted in Arab world music publicity in the US. Inside the US, it seems easier to sell artists like Khaled and Chaba Fadela as opponents of Islamic fanaticism than as artists who are helping to enlarge the socio-cultural space for Arabs in France, where anti-Arab racism is endemic.

“The Oldest Music on Earth”

“Traditional” music from the Arab world — music that mostly uses acoustic instruments — is also an important constituent of the Arab world music scene. This music sounds more “authentic,” more “folk,” than the fusion musics. Significant examples include various Gnawa musicians, who are mostly descendants of former African slaves in Morocco, the Master Musicians of Jahjouka from Morocco, the Musicians of the Nile from Isna in Upper Egypt and Sheikh Yasin al-Tuhami, the Sufi munshid from Asyut province in Upper Egypt.

Today a number of recordings featuring Gnawa musicians are available on the US market. The appeal of Gnawa music comes from its West African origins, which it shares with much of US popular music. The deep rumblings of the Gnawa sintir, a three-stringed instrument that sounds like an acoustic bass, thrills many listeners, magically transporting them through time and space to the primeval cultural origins of all humanity. Collaborations between prominent Gnawa musicians and major US black jazz artists like saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and pianist Randy Weston have underlined these presumed affinities. Gnawa singer and sintir player Hassan Hakmoun, who settled in New York City in 1987, is responsible for even more interesting “fusions.” Hakmoun’s albums run the gamut from the austerely authentic to the wildly syncretic. Most notable is his remarkable collaboration with jazz musician Don Cherry (plus Adam Rudolph and Richard Horowitz) on Gift of the Gnawa. Hakmoun has also put out recordings with his electric funk band Zahar, in which he sings (and even raps) in Arabic and plays sintir, as well as “traditional” Gnawa recordings. New impetus for the consumption of Gnawa music can be attributed to continuing growth in the US market for products having to do with spirituality. [9] A new selling point for the Gnawa is that they specialize in trance-inducing healing rituals.

The Master Musicians of Jahjouka hail from a village near Tangier, Morocco. Virtually unknown in Morocco (except locally), they owe their fame to a story told about them by artist and writer Brion Gysin, and elaborated by William Burroughs. According to Gysin, the annual festival at Jahjouka, held on the occasion of the Muslim ‘Id al-Kabir, is in reality a reenactment of the ancient Roman Rites of Pan, and the featured character of the festival, Bou Jeloud, is Pan himself. So when you listen to the Master Musicians of Jahjouka — the Pipes of Pan — you are channeling into “primordial” music, “the oldest music on earth.” The Master Musicians become “a 4,000 year-old rock ‘n’ roll band,” as Timothy Leary put it in a celebrated formulation that was often repeated by Burroughs. [10] It was not so much Gysin’s myth about Jahjouka that ultimately won audiences for the Master Musicians as the fact that Gysin and Burroughs were able to convince so many other “hip” cultural figures to believe the myth. The most luminary convert was Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, who visited Jahjouka with Gysin in 1968 and whose recording, Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka, was released posthumously. Shortly after Rolling Stone critic Robert Palmer published a famous article about Jones’s visit to Jahjouka, noted jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman visited Jahjouka in 1973 along with Palmer, Gysin and Burroughs, and recorded with the Master Musicians. (Samples of Ornette Coleman’s collaborations with the Jahjoukans can be heard on the soundtrack to the film Naked Lunch.) Other important scenesters who have hung out, jammed and smoked hashish in Jahjouka include Chris Stein of Blondie, the Rolling Stones and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. Philip Schuyler observes that “it is probably this isnad (chain) of glitterati…that draws audiences to Jahjouka concerts and persuades them to buy their records.” [11] Especially important for the fame of the Jahjouka has been the allure of William Burroughs.

Although the Master Musicians’ legend predates the development of the world music scene by decades — Gysin began his involvement with Jahjouka in the early 1950s — world music has given the Jahjoukans a new lease on life. The Jahjoukans are today among the most recorded musicians on the Arab world music scene. Notable releases include 1992’s Apocalypse Across the Sky, produced by Bill Laswell, One Night @ the 1001, recently discovered recordings made by Gysin in the 1950s (1998), and The Master Musicians of Jajouka featuring Bachir Attar, recorded with British-Asian dance music maestro Talvin Singh (2000).

“Gypsies” and Sufis

The Musicians of the Nile are another “traditional” group to make it on the world music scene. They were “discovered” by Frenchman Alain Weber in 1975, when he lured them away from the state-sponsored Egyptian National Folklore Troupe. Being attached to the world music label has won them a much larger audience. Led by Mitqal Qenawi Mitqal, the Musicians of the Nile produce raw, hard-core Sa‘idi music, singing backed only by rabbaba (a stringed instrument), tabla (drums) and mizmar (a flute-like instrument). This genre is generally shunned by educated circles in Cairo, but is famous in the Isna-Luxor region and among the urban lower classes. The world music success of the Musicians of the Nile appears to be due in part to the fact that they are marketed in the West as “gypsies.” They perform at international gypsy festivals, appeared in the celebrated film about gypsies around the world, Latcho Drom, and their last CD was even entitled Charcoal Gypsies (1996). Gypsies, known as ghagar, are indeed found in rural Egypt, but the Musicians of the Nile are emphatically not gypsies. However, they participate willingly in this myth and thereby benefit from the exotic aura of gypsi-ness. [12]

Sheikh Yasin al-Tuhami, Egypt’s most renowned munshid — a singer of praise songs to the Prophet, his family and the saints — comes from the village of Hawatka, in Asyut. Sheikh Yasin performs non-stop on the circuit of mulids (saint days) and public hadras (Sufi gatherings) throughout Egypt. His performances at the major mulids in Cairo and elsewhere are always eagerly awaited and attended by thousands of devotees, and he has recorded over 30 cassettes in Egypt. Despite his large following among the Egyptian masses, Yasin is mostly ignored or dismissed by educated Egyptians, secular and religious alike. Sheikh Yasin recently made his entry into the world music scene (another “discovery” of Alain Weber). He has played at “spiritual” festivals in Europe and the prestigious Festival of Sacred Music in Fez in June 1999, and released a CD called Music of the Sufi Inshad (1998). The appeal of Sheikh Yasin is rooted, in large part, in the increasingly important interest of world music fans in “spirituality.”

Erasing Islam

World music hype about these “traditional” Arab musicians tends to erase their Islamic context and make them artificially exotic. Publicity on Gnawa music generally focuses on its African roots, downplaying the fact that the lilas — the healing/trance rituals which are the main occasion for Gnawa music — consistently invoke Allah, the prophet Muhammad, his companions and family, and prominent Muslim saints, as well as spirits of West African origin. World music discourse stresses the African side of Gnawa culture, representing it as a Moroccan outpost of the African diaspora, in an effort to sell a cultural commonality with which world music fans can identify. At the same time, this publicity covers over the fact that Gnawa beliefs constitute a syncretic melange involving the propitiation of Arab/Berber Muslim saints and West African spirits. [13] Gysin’s myth of the Master Musicians of Jahjouka, which assimilates Jahjoukan rituals on the occasion of the major Muslim feast, ‘Id al-Kabir, to the pagan rites of Pan, performs a similar disappearance of Islam. Finally, the growing US market in things “spiritual,” which has gained audiences for both the Gnawa and Sufi singers like Sheikh Yasin al-Tuhami, tends to stress the universal and mystical aspects of Sufi music while virtually excising Sufism’s basis in Islam. [14] By concentrating on primordial-ness, African-ness or the expression of “universal” human experience such as mystical trances, world music discourse enables Western audiences to avoid the inconvenient fact of Islam, which is central to these traditional Arab musics. Hence world music discourse on “traditional” Arabic music enables dis-identification with mainstream Islam and Muslims. Listeners “connect” and identify with these Arab musicians, if they buy into world music discourse, at the cost of denying the musicians’ true beliefs and identities.

World music discourse on traditional artists also stimulates and trades on exotic images. It entices listeners with the notion that the Master Musicians of Jahjouka will transport them to the time of Pan and prove that Western rock ‘n’ roll is a 4,000 year-old tradition. Gnawa music thrills by conveying its devotees to the heart of Africa, allowing them to experience the authentic and deep roots of jazz, blues and soul. The Musicians of the Nile have the romance of the gypsy. Sheikh Yasin enchants Westerners with his “medieval” poetry, his incantations of Sufi poets Ibn al-Farid and al-Hallaj. These images inspire world music fans in the US to purchase recordings, but they distort the social context of these “traditional” musics as surely as do depictions of Cheb Khaled as an Algerian Jim Morrison.

Partying with the Other

What might be the effects of this publicity on real consumers of world music in the US? The world music audience is heterogeneous, and not composed simply of upwardly mobile urbanites seeking to distinguish themselves through the consumption and display of exotica. The audience includes progressive academics and professionals, who are interested in and have some knowledge about Middle Eastern cultures. It also encompasses Arab-Americans and Arab immigrants, who have a greater comprehension of the issues at stake in these various musical styles as well as a nuanced sense of the meanings of the lyrics. In addition, according to some accounts, world music audiences at concert events — at least in urban locales — are ethnically diverse.

At a Master Musicians of Jahjouka concert I attended in Seattle in the summer of 1994, the audience was surprisingly large for an Arab world music concert, perhaps three to four hundred people. This audience was hipper than the usual world music crowd, sporting more leather jackets than Birkenstocks, more body piercing and spiked hair than tie-dye. No doubt many were drawn by Jahjouka’s aura of hipness, associated with William Burroughs and Brian Jones, and by the promise of experiencing the rites of Pan. But what the audience actually heard, enjoyed, and danced and grooved and clapped along to, was music from an Arab village. It was regular old baladi music, what one hears all the time in rural North Africa. It was hard to imagine that this Seattle audience occupied what Edward Said calls the Orientalist position of “flexible positional superiority” in relation to the performers. Rather, a kind of momentary community was created. The audience experienced Arabic music, its unfamiliar vocal styles, modes and instrumentals, and these became less forbiddingly “other.” For the moment, these Arabs were humanized. We were partying with them.

Perhaps some in the audience have gone further in their explorations of Arab culture. Perhaps when those who experienced the Jahjoukans hear about US-led bombings and sanctions against Iraq, they are angered, because they regard Iraqis as human beings. But Arab world music will produce few tangible political effects without a significant political movement in solidarity with Arab struggles or more vibrant Arab-American political and cultural activity. In France, where rai musicians are part of a groundswell aiming to forge a livable space for the Arab minority, and where Franco-Maghrebis are able to control — at least partially — their self-representation, the music can and does make a political difference. In France, of course, rai music is increasingly “French” music, rather than the music of an exotic other.

Rai artist Cheb Mami’s appearance at the 2001 Super Bowl halftime show might illustrate some of the contradictions of Arab world music in the US. Cheb Mami has probably become the most well known Arab singer in the US, due primarily to his high-profile appearance on Sting’s Top Twenty hit “Desert Rose.” Sting did not merely use Mami as exotic sound, but featured him in the “Desert Rose” music video, toured with him and performed the song with him at the 2000 Grammy Awards (where Mami was backed by an Arab “orchestra” that included prominent Arab-American musicians Simon Shaheen and Ali Jihad Racy). Cheb Mami’s appearance with Sting at the Super Bowl, singing a medley of songs including a rai-inflected version of “Roxanne” (a big hit for Sting’s former band The Police), would seem to herald a grand entry of Arab culture into the US mainstream. But this Arab invasion was undercut by the pre-game appearance of Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the US forces during Desert Storm, for the singing of the national anthem, accompanied by flag-bearing soldiers and a Stealth bomber roaring overhead. At the Super Bowl, appreciation for Arab culture — properly placed, within the framework of Anglo-American rock ‘n’ roll — meshed perfectly with a celebration of US military might and the war against Iraq. The increasing presence of Arabs on the US music scene can be an opportunity, but if not aligned to active politics, it can easily be put to other, more regressive, purposes.


[1] Deborah Pacini, “A View from the South: Spanish Caribbean Perspective on World Beat,” The World of Music 35 (1993).
[2] By 1991, the market share of world music was equal to classical music and jazz. Timothy Taylor, Global Pop: World Music, World Markets (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 1.
[3] I want to be clear that I do not mean the first entry of Arabic music into the US market, but the first entry into the US world music scene.
[4] Joan Gross, David McMurray and Ted Swedenburg, “Rai, Rap and Ramadan Nights: Franco-Maghrebi Cultural Identities,” Middle East Report 178 (September-October 1992); David McMurray and Ted Swedenburg, “Rai Tide Rising,” Middle East Report 169 (March-April 1991).
[5] Marc Schade-Poulsen, Men and Popular Music: The Social Significance of Raï (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999).
[6] Ibid., p. 195.
[7] Ibid., p. 195.
[8] Ibid., pp. 32-33.
[9] New York Times, June 21, 1998.
[10] Tim Fuson, “Renewed Pandemonium: The Continuing Legend of the Master Musicians of Jahjouka,” Journal of the International Institute 3/2 (1996); William Burroughs, liner notes to Apocalypse Across the Sky by the Master Musicians of Jajouka featuring Bachir Attar (Axiom, 1992).
[11] Philip Schuyler, “Joujouka/Jajouka/Zahjoukah: Moroccan Music and Euro-American Imagination,” in Walter Armbrust, ed., Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).
[12] Katherine Zirbel, “Playing It Both Ways: Local Egyptian Performers Between Regional Identity and International Markets,” in Armbrust.
[13] Abdelhafid Chlyeh, Les Gnaoua du Maroc (Casablanca: Éditions La Pensée Sauvage/Éditions Le Fennec, 1998).
[14] See Jay Kinney, “Sufism Comes to America,” Gnosis Magazine 30 (Winter 1994), for a description of how Sufism entered the US as a universalist religion, not tied specifically to Islam.

How to cite this article:

Ted Swedenburg "Arab “World Music” in the US," Middle East Report 219 (Summer 2001).

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