New Music from the Gulf States' King of Khaleeji

Recent decades have seen a rise in music from the Gulf states in the Middle East. The musical style is called khaleeji, and the king of that music — Mohammed Abdo – recently released a live album, Al Amaken.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

If you've heard popular music from the Arab world, chances are it comes from Lebanon or Egypt, major production centers. But recent decades have seen the rise of music from the Gulf States - Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia. The style that's called Khaleeji, which means Gulf, and its preeminent star is Saudi Arabia's Mohammed Abdo. His current album is a big hit in the region. And Banning Eyre has a review.

(Soundbite of music)

BANNING EYRE: One measure of a successful Arab singer is his or her ability to stage an orchestra. While lesser Gulf stars make do with synthesized string sections, Mohammad Abdo delivers the real thing. That puts him in league with Egyptian cultural giants going back to the grandmother of modern Arab music, Umm Kulthum. Mohammed Abdo's latest release, "Al Amaken," is a live concert staged in Jeddah in 2005. The audience shows its appreciation, first with whistling applause and then, awed silence.

(Soundbite of song "Al Amaken")

Mr. MOHAMMED ABDO (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

EYRE: Mohammed Abdo's strong, weedy voice has both the disciplined poise that comes with classical training and also the emotional edge one expects from a pop icon. But it's his words that really stir people. The 13-minute title track is called "Al Amaken," which means the places. The singer is nostalgic for a departed lover, whose memory haunts all the places they used to visit together. In Arabic music, the saddest lyrics are often the most popular.

(Soundbite of song "Al Amaken")

Mr. ABDO: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: When Mohammed Abdo started making hits in the late '70s, he had a lot going against him. The Arab cultural elite had long viewed the Gulf States as cultural backwaters. Gulf music blends Bedouin, African, Indian and Persian elements, all considered inferior to the art music of Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad. There was also a language barrier. Gulf Arabic was hard to follow outside the region. Abdo and others had to learn to simplify the poetry, including just enough Gulf elements to keep it interesting. The song says faithfulness is my nature.

(Soundbite of "Al Amaken")

Mr. ABDO: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Gulf music has an African past, introduced first by slaves and later paid laborers. This history can be heard in the music's rhythms and seen in the dark faces of musicians like Mohammed Abdo. And as you might guess, oil money has transformed the status of Gulf music, both uplifting its production values and projecting it into the larger Arab world. These days, Mohammed Abdo earns so much for a performance, that he only stages a few every year and rarely travels. That's too bad. An American tour by this guy could do a lot for world harmony. In the meantime, track down a copy of "Al Amaken" and catch the Khaleeji bug.

SIEGEL: Our reviewer, Banning Eyre, is senior editor at afropop.org. The CD is "Al Amaken" by Mohammed Abdo.

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