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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Imagine for a moment you've just arrived at the Kennedy Center, Washington's grand red-carpeted venue for the performing arts. You walk past the gift shop on parking level A and you smell something that seems too exotic for where you are: frankincense oil, sweet and pungent, as if you've just walked into the grand souk in Cairo. And there's not just an aroma. There's also sound…

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

WERTHEIMER: …the call of merchants in the Cairo Market piped through speakers in the Kennedy Center Gift Shop, just one of the little touches at the Center's Festival of Arabic Arts, three weeks long, 800 artists, 22 countries.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: Egypt to Mauritania, the Gulf States and much of the Middle East, there is literature and dance, film, theater, textiles and, of course, music. We can't capture it all, but we can give you a sample. Think of it as a little frankincense for the ears.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SALMA EL ASSAL (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Salma el Assal sings traditional Sudanese music. She has a Facebook page, clips on YouTube. She lives in Egypt now, but they still call her the Aretha Franklin of Sudan.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ASSAL: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: And now to a man known as the Bob Dylan of Lebanon.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MARCEL KHALIFE (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: His name is Marcel Khalife.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KHALIFE: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: On to Syria, to hear a children's choir from Our Lady of Damascus Church, 120 young voices in all.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: The groups at this festival perform in many dialects of Arabic. Sometimes they don't perform in Arabic at all.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in French)

WERTHEIMER: We'll leave you with one more voice from a faraway place - Comoros, a small chain of islands off the coast of East Africa with at least one glorious export: a performer named Nawal.

(Soundbite of music)

NAWAL (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: An organizer of this festival says there are actually many festivals - the on stage and the smaller ones that unfold in the elevators and hallways and hotel lobbies as performers from all over the Arab world meet and mingle for the first time. It's like a party, she says.

(Soundbite of music)

NAWAL: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: A beautiful, all-night party.

(Soundbite of music)

NAWAL: (Singing in foreign language)

Here we are.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Arabesque Festival lasts through March 15th. Now in a video of this concert, you can see audience members dancing on the Kennedy Center's royal red carpet. It's at npr.org/music.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

WERTHEIMER: And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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