Music from the Arab world has traditionally been a minor player within world music, the marketing category encompassing a wide variety of international music that emerged in the late 1980s. Aimed at an NPR listening “adult” audience, world music has a small market share of roughly 2-3 percent (comparable to classical music and jazz), but its audibility increased during the 1990s. Rai music from Algeria and Algerians in France — the most important Arab presence in world music — opened the way for other Arab artists to enter the scene during the 1990s.

But Arabic music never boomed in the US the way Cuban, Celtic or Brazilian music did. Records were released and sold, and some Arab artists did modest US tours, but there were no hits. By the summer of 2001, however, it looked as though Arabic music was finally on the verge of breaking through. What some critics call the “Arab wave” was temporarily halted with the September 11 attacks, but nearly a year later it has kept on rolling.

Arab music is an important element in the complex picture of September 11’s after-effects, one that includes racist attacks on Muslims and Middle Easterners, racial profiling and assaults on civil liberties that especially affect Arab and Muslim Americans, as well as heightened interest in Middle Eastern culture and Islam, increased book sales on Arab and Islamic topics and a new visibility for Americans of Middle Eastern origin. To what extent the increased visibility of Arab musical culture will matter politically remains to be seen. No doubt greater public familiarity with Arab culture will contribute to a “humanizing” of the Arabs, but it is too soon to know whether it will have any effects on public opinion regarding eroding civil liberties or US Middle East policy. Increased public awareness of Arab music and corporate profit, nonetheless, offers certain opportunities, as well as pitfalls, for political activism.

The A-List

Miles Copeland III, president of Ark 21 Records and its world music subsidiary label, Mondo Melodia, is perhaps the foremost player in the Arab wave. Son of prominent CIA man Miles Copeland, Jr., the record executive grew up in his father’s posts of Damascus, Cairo and Beirut and reportedly became fluent in Arabic. [1] After earning a master’s in economics from the American University of Beirut in 1969, Copeland got involved in the rock music business in London, managing such successful acts as Wishbone Ash and Joan Armatrading. In 1977, he became an important business actor in the British punk scene, most notably as manager of The Police (which featured his brother Stewart Copeland on drums) and as owner of IRS Records. From 1984 until recently, Miles managed Sting in his solo career. More recently, he has devoted much of his energy to promoting Middle Eastern pop music, especially rai.

Copeland has signed artists from 21 Middle Eastern countries as well as many based in the West to his label Mondo Melodia. It was he who put rai star Cheb Mami (now signed to Mondo Melodia) together with Sting to produce Sting’s 1999 global hit “Desert Rose” (Top 10 in the US). Sting’s record company wanted to eliminate Mami’s stunning guest vocals, but Sting and Copeland insisted on keeping them. According to most informed accounts, “Desert Rose” – and the Jaguar used in the filming of the music video – thrust contemporary Arabic music into US public awareness. After watching the video, Copeland offered the footage to Jaguar for a television advertisement, if Jaguar would make their ad look like a record commercial. The Jaguar ad, which shows Sting and Cheb Mami singing together, carries a banner promoting Brand New Day, the album which includes “Desert Rose.” This huge free cross-branding campaign, according to Copeland, doubled Sting’s ticket sales (his tour in support of Brand New Day, with Cheb Mami in tow, grossed $70 million) and his album sales (which hit 8 million worldwide). Jaguar saw its demographic get dramatically younger. As an unintended consequence of this spectacularly successful corporate synergy, Arabic music took a huge leap forward in the US.

Copeland and Mondo Melodia’s vice president, the Arab- American Dawn Elder, [2] have been very public about what they think they are doing, promoting five recording artists and concert performers who have already had long careers at the crest of the Arab wave. Cheb Mami and Khaled (known as the King of Rai) are rai artists based in France. Rachid Taha, a punk-rai-rocker born in Algeria, is now a major star in his adopted France. Hakim, one of Egypt’s top singers of shaabi music, and Simon Shaheen, a New York-based Palestinian from Israel and a virtuoso on ‘ud and violin, round out the Mondo Melodia A-list. Representing an array of styles, each artist has a number of recordings to his name. Except for Hakim, all have extensive experience with Western audiences.

Cheb Mami toured extensively with Sting in 1999 and 2000, including a performance before 20,000 in New York’s Central Park, sponsored by Best Buy. The rai star also appeared on the “Tonight Show,” performed “Desert Rose” with Sting at the 2000 Grammy awards (backed by an Arabic orchestra that included Simon Shaheen) and belted out a rai-inflected version of The Police’s hit “Roxanne” with Sting at the 2001 Super Bowl. In 2001, Mami released the album Dellali, featuring Sting and Ziggy Marley singing backup, the late Chet Atkins on guitar and production from Niles Rodgers, which hit the CMJ New World Top 20. [3] Rachid Taha enjoyed a critically acclaimed US tour in summer 2001 and also released a brilliant album recorded in New Orleans, Made in Medina, that made the CMJ world music Top 10. Writing in Rolling Stone on January 17, 2002, veteran rock critic Robert Christgau opined that “no track released anywhere in 2001 rocks as hard as the opening of ‘Barra Barra’” from Made in Medina. Simon Shaheen opened several dates for Sting, has been performing extensively with his Arabic/ jazz fusion band Qantara and released the album Blue Flame in 2001. Egyptian star Hakim toured the US in 2001 and released two Mondo Melodia albums, Yaho (2000) and The Lion Roars: Live in America (2001) — recorded during his US tour. Khaled, rai’s international superstar ever since his 1992 international smash hit “Didi,” has made several trips to the US. He released Kenza, some cuts recorded with Brooklyn Funk Essentials, on Mondo Melodia in 2000.

Sold-Out Houses

On September 11, 2001, Dawn Elder was in Egypt, preparing to put Hakim and his musicians on a plane bound for the US, to tour with Khaled, in the hopes of building on Mondo Melodia’s momentum. The tour, which was almost sold out, was abruptly canceled. But Simon Shaheen kept on performing and touring — he was even invited to play at an interfaith service in New York City’s Riverside Church five days after September 11, and he appeared on the late-night television show “Politically Incorrect,” as did Miles Copeland. According to Shaheen, in the US “people seem much more interested and open” and are trying to unlearn stereotypes. [4] The San Francisco-based independent record label Six Degrees decided to stick to its planned September 18 release date for Arabian Travels, a collection of Middle Eastern fusion music – and sales have been good. Two other Arab music compilations, put out just prior to September 11, also did very well in the wake of the attacks. World music label Putumayo’s release Arabic Groove, its first-ever Arab-pop compilation, was the label’s biggest-ever first-week seller and is its best-selling compilation to date. Along with Mondo Melodia’s own compilation, Desert Roses and Arabian Rhythms, Arabic Groove hit the CMJ World Music Top 20. The Hakim-Khaled tour, canceled in September, was relaunched this February, with Shaheen appearing as a backup musician, drawing full houses and very enthusiastic crowds.

The effects of this increased Arab cultural visibility in the US have been contradictory. On the one hand, global capitalism has become adept at marketing the exotic to sell products, while avoiding troubling political or economic issues associated with “exotic” peoples and cultures. Many firms have successfully promoted the sensibility that consumption can be a form of progressive political practice: buy a chocolate bar and strike a blow for the endangered rain forests. [5] On the other hand, the increased circulation of Arab music does offer certain opportunities for community and progressive activists.

Cooptation of Cool

Like Western pop music, in the hands of outside promoters, the Mondo Melodia artists’ work can be coopted for purposes they didn’t intend. Media coverage of rai music (Khaled and Cheb Mami) continues to repeat old myths and partial stories, persisting in representing rai as Algeria’s version of rock ‘n’ roll, an agent in the struggle of the modern against the traditional, of youth against the elders, of enlightened bohemianism against fundamentalism. The notion of rai as an enemy of Islamic fundamentalism has much greater resonance after September 11, and Khaled and Mami have actively promoted this view to show that Islamic societies are not homogeneous. But this Eurocentric model of rai ignores the ways Algeria’s repressive regime has used rai in its very bloody and dirty struggle with the country’s Islamists, and erases rai’s very important role in Arab struggles against racism in France. [6]

Cheb Mami’s halftime performance with Sting at the 2001 Super Bowl, preceded by the pre-game appearance of Desert Storm commander Norman Schwarzkopf and flag-hoisting soldiers for the singing of the national anthem, placed Arab culture safely within Western rock ‘n’ roll and a celebration of US military might. To underscore the point, a Stealth bomber roared overhead at the anthem’s crescendo. During their US tour in February 2002, Khaled, Hakim and Simon Shaheen appeared at the World Economic Forum in New York City, the annual gathering of top corporations and political leaders, while pro-global justice forces mobilized on the streets and 60,000 met at the alternative World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Egypt’s Hakim performed a duet with Puerto Rico’s queen of merengue, Olga Tañón, while Khaled sang John Lennon’s song “Imagine” in a duet with Israeli singer Noa, backed by Palestinian Simon Shaheen on ‘ud. Here hybridized Middle Eastern music, safely and profitably contained within the elite circles of global capitalism, was put to the cause of world peace.

In January, Rachid Taha’s song “Barra Barra” was featured in the soundtrack to Ridley Scott’s film, Black Hawk Down, the highly sanitized portrayal of a US Special Forces botched operation in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, in which some 1,000 Somalis, many of them women, children and old people, as well as 18 Rangers and Delta Force members, were killed. “Barra Barra” serves the purpose of humanizing the US Special Forces and even making them appear cool as they prepare for their mission to seize Somali warlord Mohammed Aideed. (Taha gave Ridley Scott permission to use his song based on the director’s prior work, especially Blade Runner, but was not happy with his decision, as he considered the film to be “propaganda.” [7] )

Kaffiyya on the Stage

On the other hand, Arab music’s newfound public recognition has been a source of pride and mobilization for Arab- Americans. Delighted that Cheb Mami’s performance would be the first time Arabic singing was heard at the Grammys, Arab-American political organizations urged their members to watch the 2000 awards. The Khaled-Hakim tour with Simon Shaheen was an occasion for Arab community celebration, a sort of re-emergence party in the intimidating atmosphere after September 11, and Arabs were a raucous component of the packed houses. In New York, a concert-goer tossed a black-and-white kaffiyya on the stage while Khaled was performing, and the Algerian star wore it over his shoulders for the remainder of the show. In February, Simon Shaheen with members of Qantara played two benefit concerts, in New York and Ann Arbor, for Palestinian medical relief. More remarkably, when Sting performed in Jordan with Cheb Mami in April 2001, at a benefit concert for the Promise Welfare Society attended by several members of Jordan’s royal family, the proceeds went, in part, to Palestinian victims of the recent violence. The Hakim-Khaled-Shaheen concerts and Arab audiences’ spirited participation are also linked to the recent mobilization of an estimated 75,000 people in a proglobal justice rally in Washington DC on April 20 that was transformed, due to massive Arab and Muslim participation, into the largest-ever demonstration in support of Palestinian rights in the US. No doubt there was a great deal of crossover in personnel between concerts and demonstration.

Khaled’s pro-Palestine gesture at the New York show was noteworthy because he has repeatedly stressed that he is not a “political” artist. His songs, he says, are about wine and fun, and he wants to make audiences laugh. “Make love not war,” Khaled intones, “that’s my politics.” Khaled consistently underscores his sharp differences with Islamic fundamentalists, at the same time asserting that he is a Muslim and that Islam is a religion of peace. In a February interview with Afropop Worldwide’s Sean Barlow, Khaled said that “at the base of this whole thing [the September 11 attacks and Islamist political violence]” is the question of Palestine. “To end [terrorism],” says Khaled, “we need to fix the problem, the source of the big problem.” Khaled drew attention to the fact that he, a Muslim, has performed and recorded “Imagine” with Israeli singer Noa (known in Israel as Achinoam Nini). Of Yemeni origin, Noa grew up in New York and is openly affiliated with the Israeli peace camp.

Khaled’s claim that he is not a “political” musician in fact provide him with a cover for staking out certain political positions. Although Western media repeatedly depict Khaled simply as an anti-Muslim fundamentalist, Khaled in fact is able to find some room for maneuver within this imposed framework. Perhaps even Khaled’s duet with Noa at the World Economic Forum is not inherently antithetical to the struggle for Palestine. As Joel Beinin has argued, the vision of the overwhelmingly middle- and upper middle-class peace forces in Israel and their Palestinian interlocutors within the PA is one of “peace with privatization” — the integration of high-tech Israel into a globalized regional economy as the dominant player, with the Palestinian state as Israel’s junior partner. [8]

Pitfalls and Possibility

What are the political consequences of the Arab wave? Mondo Melodia’s Dawn Elder called the Khaled-Hakim tour an opportunity “to share the true values of millions of people from the Middle East who want to live in peace.” It is difficult to measure to what extent the artists’ and promoters’ goals are having such political effects, but it does at least appear that the audience for Arab music is expanding beyond the stereotypical “world music” demographic. When Khaled, Hakim and Shaheen played Los Angeles in June, a large portion of the audience was Hispanic.

Meanwhile, the tour, in bringing together Arab artists from three different countries in the Arab diaspora, has an unprecedented and important pan-Arab dimension, parallel to the re-emergence of pan-Arab sentiment forged in large part by the coverage of the Palestinian uprising by global Arabic satellite networks, especially al-Jazeera. This pan-Arab solidarity is not seamless. When Khaled, Hakim and Shaheen played concerts in Lebanon and Jordan this July, Jordan’s professional unions called for a boycott of Khaled on the grounds that his appearance with Noa was furthering “normalization with Israel.” Despite the uproar, Khaled’s performances in both countries were well received. [9]

The increasing popularity of Rachid Taha may offer the best chance for raising awareness of anti-Arab sentiment in Western countries. Taha is well known in France for his scruffy-punk image and his vocal opposition to French anti-Arab racism, and Mondo Melodia’s press release on Made in Medina emphasizes his experiences confronting anti-immigrant prejudice. Coverage of Taha’s US tour in support of his most recent Mondo Melodia release, Rachid Taha Live, has played up the anti-racist aspect of his persona, in contrast to the treatment of rai stars like Khaled and Cheb Mami. Taha’s increasing circulation could lead audiences to make connections between the experiences of French-Arabs and Arab-Americans.

In May 2001, Sting was awarded a Kahlil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity” award by the Arab American Institute, in recognition of his work to save the rain forests, to promote the rights of indigenous people and to further cross-cultural exchanges. The Dearborn, Michigan-based Arab-American non-profit agency ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) was also honored at the event. But the political causes of cultural icons can always be rendered apolitical or worse. Speakers included Queen Noor of Jordan and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who praised Sting and discussed the Bush administration’s “engagement” in the Middle East peace process.

The current growth of Arab music on the US scene therefore contains potential pitfalls as well as opportunity. Capitalist producers relentlessly market new products to consumers, ever on the lookout for the exotic and hip, for whom the purchase of a Khaled CD to “appreciate” Middle Eastern culture can substitute for grappling with serious political issues. On the other hand, as Arabic music becomes a hot commodity, artists, audiences, political movements and even business entrepreneurs face new possibilities for action. So far, it seems that the most important political effect of the Arab wave has been a boosting of community building and feelings of empowerment among Arab-Americans. But it is possible for broader political forces to make use of these newly important Arab cultural vehicles. Rachid Taha would no doubt be delighted if “Barra Barra” became known as the theme song of a movement against a US invasion of Iraq, rather than as the soundtrack for a paean to the Pentagon.


 [1] In his books The Game of Nations (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970) and The Game Player: Confessions of the CIA’s Original Operative (London: Aurum, 1989), Miles Jr. describes his undercover role in the coup of Husni al-Zaim in Syria in 1949. On loan from the CIA in 1953-1954, Copeland helped Egyptian President Gamal Abd al-Nasser to organize his intelligence service.

 [2] Elder recently left Mondo Melodia, but still represents a number of the label’s Arab artists.

 [3] CMJ tracks college radio airplay, and plays a crucial role in the promotion of world music, since there are very few other radio outlets for world music other than college radio.

 [4] Philadelphia City Paper, February 28-March 7, 2002.

 [5] See John Hutnyk, Critique of Exotica: Music, Politics and the Culture Industry (London: Pluto, 2000) and Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (New York: Picador, 2002).

 [6] For a more detailed discussion, see Ted Swedenburg, “Arab ‘World Music’ in the US,” Middle East Report 219 (Summer 2001).

 [7] Chicago Sun-Times, July 20, 2002.

 [8] Joel Beinin, “Palestine and Israel: Perils of a Neoliberal, Repressive, Pax Americana,” Social Justice 25/4 (1998). See also Gershon Shafir and Yoav Peled, Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 231-259, on the role of Israeli business and economic liberalization in the peace process.

 [9] Khaled responded to his critics by noting that Palestinian singer Nabil Khouri also performed at the concert, which was attended by Yasser Arafat’s advisor Mohammed Rashid and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and by affirming his support for the Palestinian cause.


How to cite this article:

Ted Swedenburg "The Post-September 11 Arab Wave in World Music," Middle East Report 224 (Fall 2002).

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