Last February, the first big, post-9/11 concert of North African pop music went down in New York City. Hakim, the toast of Cairo’s shaabi music, and Khaled, the king of Algerian rai, packed the Beacon Theatre with mostly well-heeled North Africans and Middle Easterners, and together, artists and audience brought the roof down. The official talk was all about solidarity and healing through the universal joy of music and dance. But the reality proved more complex.
The music was a joy indeed. Hakim began with a high-voltage pop set, hewing close to the repertoire on his recent, powerhouse double CD, The Lion Roars: Live In America (Arc 21/Mondo Melodia). Backed by 13 musicians, the Egyptian heartthrob lashed through one angst-filled cranker after another, his high, reedy voice soaring over music that merged Arabic classical and disco. But only near the end of his restless set, when audience members draped him in the flags of Morocco and Tunisia, did the audience come unglued and take to the aisles to dance. “Are they dancing for the music,” asked an Argentinean woman seated next to me, “or the flags?”
Khaled’s set was downright incendiary. Its stylistic range—from brooding, semi-classical pieces, to reggae, Latin and Congolese rhythms, and all manner of funky rai—reflected Khaled’s diverse experience on the international scene, and his husky voice, while less technical than Hakim’s, struck deeper emotional chords. From the opener, “Sahra”—a soulful song written for his daughter—Khaled had the audience on its feet and in a fever. Many tried to join him on stage, prompting heavy-handed action from the Beacon’s no-nonsense bouncers. From where I stood near the edge of the stage with my camera, I occasionally had to dodge the flying bodies of over-eager fans being summarily hurled into the crowd.
Mid-set, Khaled invited Palestinian oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen to join him onstage for a few numbers. Someone tossed a Palestinian kaffiyeh (head scarf) onstage, and Khaled proudly wrapped it around his shoulders, prompting roars of approval from the hall. When Khaled and his band then left Shaheen alone on the stage to cool the masses with a solo oud taksim, the classically trained maestro faced what had to be one of the great challenges of his performing career. Amazingly, he managed to mesmerize with the eloquent logic of his improvisations, and 10 minutes later, there was near silence as he concluded. But when Khaled returned, kaffiyeh still in place, and launched into his overwrought mega-hit “Aïcha,” pandemonium raged anew.
“Our first priority is to make audiences happy,” Hakim had told me in a telephone interview from his Cairo home on September 7. In that simpler time, Hakim had enthused about the release of his new CD The Lion Roars—Live In America, and looked forward to the tour with Khaled, originally scheduled to begin on September 13. “This is the first live album I have ever agreed to do,” he said. Asked how he expected such an American-identified release to go ov