I have always believed that music brings people together and bridges cultural divides. Music can connect us like no other arts, with its universal language of rhythm and melody. Maybe even more importantly, music—especially world music, helps us understand and appreciate other cultures and people. I have bonded instantly with immigrant taxi drivers from Nigeria, Cameroon, Armenia, Argentina, and other places simply by asking them about the music of their homelands.
This core belief in the binding power of music has underpinned my work over the past 30 years to popularize world music in Los Angeles and beyond. It’s been a joy to watch ecstatic crowds dancing to Pakistani qawwali (sufi gospel) music or Nigerian afrobeat and juju, to see people entranced by whirling dervishes from Turkey and Syria, and to swoon with others to achingly beautiful classical music from Iran. My life and personal horizons have been immeasurably enriched by these experiences. Sadly, some of these experiences may now be in peril due to the recently enacted immigration ban on seven predominately Muslim countries—Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Libya.
In this time of division and discord, it’s imperative to keep building bridges through music. With that in mind, I want to celebrate music that I’ve loved by artists from the seven countries targeted by the recent immigration ban. This sweeping ban will most certainly prevent artists from these countries from performing in the U.S., but we can still support their music and arts from afar—by continuing to share and learn about them through recordings and the vast resources of the internet.
We begin in SYRIA with the poet-musician Abed Azrie and his albums Lapis Lazuli and Aromates. Azrie was born in Aleppo but has been based in Paris for many years. Aromates was his first album released in the U.S., on Nonesuch. I put a beautiful cut, “Pareil à l’eau” (Like Water) from the album Lapis Lazuli on a compilation that I produced called Trance Planet Vol. 3. His poetry is as beautiful as his music.
***IRAQ: Munir Bashir has been called the King of Oud and is credited by many as the greatest modern oud player. Algerian-born, French singer-songwriter Pierre Bensusan gave me my first Munir Bashir LP years ago. I immediately fell in love with his finely-filigreed music. Sadly, Bashir died at the age of 67 in an auto accident in Budapest. Here is a track from his album Mesopotamia:
I also want to mention an upcoming concert at the Getty Center by Iraqi-American oud musician Rahim AlHaj. His concerts take place on Saturday, February 18 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, February 19 at 4 p.m. Admission is free, but you must make a reservation. Click here for more information and reservations.
IRAN: Masters of Persian Music is a classical music ensemble formed in 2000 by true masters of Persian music. Iran has an amazing classical tradition, as complex and arabesque as any Mozart or Bach. Lyrics come from the classic poets and mystics: Hafez and Rumi, as well as more modern writers. The group once performed at the Hollywood Bowl with a live calligrapher rendering classical Persian poetry; it was one of the most stunning concerts ever to grace the Bowl’s celebrated stage. Here is a song from their album Hanan (Without You), featuring Hossein Alizadeh, Kayhan Kalhor, and Homayoun Shajarian. It is a gentle, passionate, and powerful love song.
YEMEN: When I think about Yemen, I immediately think of the late Yemenite Israeli singer Ofra Haza. Her parents moved from Yemen to Israel in 1950 in the airlift known as Operation Magic Carpet. She burst upon the scene in 1986 with her transcendent album Yemenite Songs. Many of the songs on the album were written by a 17th century rabbi. Her song “Im Nin’alu” topped the European charts, even rising to #1 in Germany. To me, her success was more convincing proof that music transcends language and builds bridges between cultures. Ofra once visited my UCLA World Music class—International Bandstand—and performed a Yemenite song, drumming a large oil can on her shoulder. It was a beautiful moment. Here is “Im Nin’alu“:
SUDAN: Sudanese music has incredible rhythms and deep groove. Crowds love it, though it’s featured more in big European summer festivals than in the U.S., especially after 9/11. Sudanese singer and oud player Abdel Aziz El Mubarak leads a large group, playing music that blends Arabic styles and Western forms. The great UK label Globe Style released his music back in the 1980’s, and I was listening.
SOMALIA: Somali poet, musician, and hip hop artist K’naan (born Keinan Abdi Warsame) was born in Mogadishu in 1978 and now resides in Canada. His hybrid sound draws from world music, hip hop, reggae, and of course, Somali music. He has collaborated with artists from the great Youssou N’Dour to Bono. Here is his song “Take a Minute.” Watch him as he walks by portraits of Gandhi, Mandela, Bob Marley, and Nina Simone:
LIBYA: We don’t hear too much from Libyan artists, especially here in the U.S., due in part to the country’s isolation under the four-decade long rule of Qaddafi. Ahmed Fakroun is a pioneer of modern Arabic pop music and one of the most popular Libyan artists, both in Tripoli as well as among Libyan expats. His crossover style blends Arabic instruments and lyrics with Western pop elements like synthesizers and electric bass. Here’s a track called “Ya Farhi’ Bik” from his 1983 album Mots D’Amour – it definitely has that 80’s pop sound but with an Arabic twist:
Finally, I want to mention the compilation album Lullabies from the Axis of Evil, released back in the days of the Bush 43 administration. It features music from all the countries above, as well as music from Afghanistan, North Korea, and other “evil” places.
I hope you enjoyed these tracks and will keep exploring musical riches from around the world.
*** Iraq was dropped from the list following a revised executive order from President Trump on March 7th. More info, here.