In the ’70s, George Abdo was an institution in the United States. His orchestra played in Arabic restaurants across the Northeast and wowed the guests with lush performances that mixed traditional Middle Eastern tunes with Western instrumentation: along with the traditional drums and oud he used an oboe or electric guitar. His music was part of a movement that put belly dancing into many American households, even birthed belly dance classes. On this sampler, Abdo himself helped choose 15 tunes that best represent his heyday. Each is filled with kitsch, but here it doesn’t matter. The music makes no qualms about its overloaded emotion; it revels in it—Abdo’s vocal often drips of bathos.
His music was actually quite progressive, if that means making music anew, and not sticking to worn-out traditions. Abdo mixes in Greek elements in “O Paliatzis” [The Junk Man], which clearly wears its rembetika on its sleeve, including the ubiquitous Greek instrument, the bouzouki. “Raks Araby” [Arabic Dance] begins with finger cymbals and daraburrah, pointing to the tradition, but the electric guitar and bass belie any purity it might initially offer. While these kinds of crossovers often end in both denying their own culture and creating little worthy of the name “world music,” Abdo’s music cleverly walked the fine line between preserving and furthering tradition.