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World Music CD Reviews Middle East & North Africa

ENSEMBLE MUHAMMAD BIN FARIS

By TOM JACKSON
Published January 25, 2006

The Sawt Of Bahrein
Institut du Monde Arabe

ENSEMBLE AL UMAYRI
The Sawt In Kuwait

Institut du Monde Arabe

The overriding impression of traveling in the oil-rich Arab Gulf states is of a hasty and undignified embracing of all things modern and a rapid (if late) expansion and development into the twentieth century, the skylines punctuated with smart hotels and neon lights advertising KFC. Cultural life is difficult to penetrate but it is there in its own private place, and if you are lucky enough to dig beyond the majority expatriate populations there is cultural expression to be found. The sawt tradition is an exclusively male preserve dating back either to the middle ages or the nineteenth century, depending on which historian you choose to follow, and bearing influences of the music of Iran, India and Africa as well as Arab neighbors. It consists of singing classical and dialect Arabic poems to a rhythmic backing, usually accompanied by the lute and percussion. The recordings here, both from modern day groups, are well made and lively and feature expanded ensembles. The Bahreini recording features qanun and violin while the Kuwaiti group relies on oud, Indian mirwas drums and clapping. An emphasis on poetic lyrics can make this music difficult to appreciate, and the Gulf singing style can sound harsh to a Western ear. Nonetheless the extended instrumental passages, during which an eccentric dance called zafn is sometimes performed, are energetic and, at times, delightful.