Eastern Sounds Go West

Mar 15, 2014

World music DJ Betto Arcos is a frequent guest for weekends on All Things Considered, and he's noticed a curious trend recently — something he likes to call "musical encounters."

"You have musicians who are originally based in the Middle East, or come from the Middle East — specifically Lebanon, Syria and Tunisia — and they're coming together with musicians from the western part of the world, specifically from Europe," Arcos says.

Host Arun Rath sat down with Arcos to talk about a few musicians who have twisted strands of Middle Eastern music together with influences from France, Spain, Sweden and more. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and listen to some of his picks below.

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If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.


RATH: World music DJ Betto Arcos is a frequent guest of this program, and he's noticed a curious trend recently, something that he likes to call musical encounters. Without further ado, I want to bring him in. Betto, again, welcome.

BETTO ARCOS: Always a pleasure to be with you, Arun.

RATH: Always a pleasure to have you. So first, tells us about this music you've brought. What's the unifying theme here?

ARCOS: What I find really kind of a confluence of sounds and traditions here is that you have musicians who are originally based in the Middle East or come from the Middle East, specifically Lebanon, Syria, and Tunisia, and they're coming together with musicians from the Western part of the world, from - specifically from Europe.

So the very first one is this incredible new recording by the fantastic composer, musician, educator, a man who's really like a renaissance man of the 21st century, Jordi Savall.


RATH: Now, people may not be familiar with Jordi Savall, but he is - this is how I know him - he's a legend, a living legend, in the early music movement that really recovered a lot of old European music and restored the performing practices.

ARCOS: That's correct. This is a piece that comes from his record titled "Orient-Occident Volume II." It's a tribute, really, an homage to Syria. Because of what's been going on in the past couple of years in Syria, he really felt the need to do something to call attention to not just the musical traditions but the people that are from that region.

And he brought together musicians from that whole region - from Lebanon, from Israel and other parts of the Mediterranean and Syrian musicians - to record music that takes us back centuries to the golden age of Syrian culture.


RATH: I guess there's a connection there that would make sense with early music because isn't the - the lute really comes from the Middle East originally, right? Wasn't it the oud?

ARCOS: Originally, the oud was created in Iraq. But, of course, it's traveled throughout the Middle East ending up in Spain where it was transformed into a guitar.

RATH: Right. That's Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI with a piece from their latest "Orient-Occident II - A Tribute to Syria." Betto, what else do you have for us?

ARCOS: This is a singer from Lebanon who lives in Paris. Her name is Yasmine Hamdan.


RATH: That's pretty. I'm not sure how to place that music, what kind of music that is.

ARCOS: Well, interestingly, she's singing an old song from the 1940s by a Lebanese writer named Omar El Zenni. And I have to tell you a little bit of the lyrics.


ARCOS: The lyrics go like this: Let's cut the recurring rhetoric, every other day a new political party. Stop the bell sounding and the feather ruffling. Your peacock days are over.

RATH: Hmm. I wasn't expecting it to be quite so pointed, given how it sounds, how relaxed and...

ARCOS: It almost sounds like a love song. But it's a song that was written, I imagine, around the '40s when things were in upheaval in this part of the world in Lebanon. She's an up-and-coming singer. She was part of another group called Soapkills, a duo. She moved to Paris, and she's collaborating with French musicians in this new music scene in Paris. And so she's adding this sort of French pop flavor to her sound, but she's still keeping close to her roots.

She's singing - in fact, there are a couple of songs here she sings that are classic old songs from the Arab world.


RATH: That's new music from Yasmine Hamdan. The album is called "Ya Nass." Betto, we have time for one more.

ARCOS: This is an amazing record. It's by a trumpet player originally from Lebanon. When he was about eight or nine years old, his family moved to Paris. He went to the music conservatory. His name is Ibrahim Maalouf.


RATH: So, Betto, you know I'm an old trumpet player, so I know a bit about this guy. He's got quite a pedigree. Like, you know, he's played classical music, and his dad studied with Maurice Andre, which for trumpet geeks is, that's the man.

ARCOS: And in my opinion, he's the man. Ibrahim is the man. This guy is about 30-something years old. He has five records. This is his fifth. And he is reimagining this trumpet that his father invented with quarter tones.

RATH: It's got an extra valve on it so you can play quarter tones like Arab music.

ARCOS: That's right. It's not a typical trumpet with the three valves. It has four valves. And that's the fourth valve that adds that quarter tone.

RATH: This reminds me of - this is for jazz geeks - but Don Ellis, another guy who added a valve to his trumpet, played quarter tones and had a big band and had this other kind of crazy big band sound, sort of like this.

ARCOS: Absolutely, absolutely. In fact, I've seen, you know, comments about people saying that, yeah, well, you know, maybe Ibrahim's dad invented it in the Middle East, but Don Ellis did it here in the U.S. too. I said, well, you know what? It's possible that they might have done it at the same time, and they never met each other.

RATH: A good idea is a good idea.

ARCOS: That's right. But I think what he's doing, Ibrahim, is really pushing forward this instrument that is typically used - associated with classical Arab music. Now, he's doing something else. This is funk.

RATH: It's an awesome sound.


RATH: The music is by Ibrahim Maalouf. The DJ is Betto Arcos. He's the host of "Global Village" on KPFK in Los Angeles. Go to our website to hear a little more from all the selections we just enjoyed. That's nprmusic.org. Betto, this was awesome, as always. Thank you.

ARCOS: My pleasure, Arun. Thank you for having me.


RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONCERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. We're back tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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