various artists,
Sahara Groove
(ARC, 2002)

Sahara Groove is an interesting collection of 11 songs from artists hailing from Northern Africa. The music, according to promo material, covers "a wide spectrum from traditional Gnawa music to rai, to modern fusion of Arabic music with elements of rock, jazz and salsa, and a brilliant Moroccan re-mix."

All of the musicians presented here come from countries to the eastern and western extremes of the Sahara Desert: Egypt, the Sudan, Algeria and Morocco. There are no songs representing Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Niger or Chad, nor is there an explanation for leaving the middle range of the Sahara out of this compilation.

Be that as it may, Sahara Groove starts off with a good selection of tracks. "Tumadir" by Rasha is one of the better selections on the CD. This piece has a little bit of a jazzy feel to it; Rasha's vocals are rather silky and make the song enjoyable to listen to. Unfortunately, while the liner notes (which are written in English, French and German) contain a lot of biographical information about each artist, nothing about the individual songs is translated -- not even titles. So, for all I know, I might be grooving to a song about rape or political injustice or, for that matter, camel dung. I wouldn't know.

Mohammad Sahraoui hails from Algeria. His song "Pas de Chance" reminds me of Cheb Mami, who backed up Sting on "Desert Rose." I guess I shouldn't be surprised since both artists are from the same country and their musical genre of choice is rai. Rai, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is to Algeria what, perhaps, punk music is to us in the West. At least, that is the way I've heard it described on several occasions.

The middle and second half of Sahara Groove gets bogged down with more traditional fare. What started out as a blending of Saharan sounds with a Western influence becomes more regionalized. While the music is not bad in itself, the "groove" of the first couple of songs is definitely broken.

Towards the end of the CD, the music once again becomes a blend of cultures -- with the Saharan sound dominating, of course. I really like the last track, "Dik Alila," performed by Rhany. This Moroccan introduces salsa into his Arabian rhythms, demonstrating his love of Cuban music. While the 3-minute song is way too short, it has more spice than most of the other songs combined. The first time I heard it, I was a little confused to realize I understood some of the lyrics. It took me a moment to figure out that there is some spoken Spanish backing up Rhany. I am now convinced that you can mix salsa with any type of music from around the world and it will sound great!

There are also tracks by Hossam Ramzy, Samy El Bably, Nour-Eddine, Cheb Tarik, Mostafa Sax, Ali Hassan Kuban, Cheikha Rimitti and the Sidi Mimoun Band. If I had one issue with the CD, it would be the mixture of world and straight Saharan music. I think listeners would have been better served if ARC had made two CDs so the two genres don't stomp on each other, as they do here. And while they were at it, they could have represented artists from some of the other Saharan countries.

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 28 December 2002

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