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World Music CD Reviews Middle East & North Africa


Published May 2, 2006





This scholarly enterprise was originally published as the UNESCO Collection between 1968 and 1987, well before world music as a genre had been dreamt of. The reissue project encompasses a shelf-troubling 50 albums. Field recordings of unquestionable value to the ethnomusicologist, for the general listener they are intriguing. But it is slightly difficult to imagine the moment when you’ve just gotta slip one into the CD player, let alone the car stereo. That said, the recordings are never less than fascinating and the liner essays provide first-class introductions to the history, cultural tides and precise musicology of the countries in question. The Lebanese disc is made up of a selection of unaccompanied vocals which shimmer somewhere between prayer and music. Drawn from the Druse, Shiite and Sunnite traditions, the chants are intense. The closest equivalent in the European tradition may be Gregorian chant, but these prayer-songs are remarkable for their power: in several the individual poet/singer bares his soul to the creator in an “an intimate conversation with God.” The Afghanistan collection is a more cheerful affair. The selection reflects the variety of cultural influences in this country: Persian, North Indian, Arabic. There are also medieval tunes emerging intact from the mountains with an unaccountably European feel. The Pakistani disc is the most focused: three solo sitar pieces by Mohammad Sharif Khan. They are superbly played and produced ragas and by far the most “commercial” of the set. The Azerbaijan album is probably the most recherché, introducing us to the world of the mugam, with its conventions of instrumentation and structure and the ashug (storyteller). Listening you feel like you’re wandering though some strange library of arcane music straight out Borges, overhearing snippets from places faraway and long ago. But they make up a series of unique documents recording fine performances of traditional musical forms that—some 30 years on from recording—are doubtless becoming increasingly rare, and consequently precious.