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Robert Christgau on Love Songs from (and to) the Arab World

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews Marcel Khalife and Mahmoud Darwish's 'Andalusia of Love' and Omar Souleyman's 'To Syria, With Love.'
Chris McKay / Getty Images

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To find out more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website .


Marcel Khalife/Mahmoud Darwish: Andalusia of Love (Nagam) I can't swear how often I'll pull it out now that I've finally concluded that, mere exotica though it may be, this suite of settings for love poems by the late Palestinian poet Darwish is eminently worth reviewing. Playing it only when I felt the need for something quiet that would still qualify as work, I've never failed to find its placidity intelligent and beautiful. The auteur is Lebanese oud maestro Marcel Khalife, the ensemble his son Rami on piano, his son Bachar on percussion, and Jilbert Yamine on the harplike qanun. Conceptually, this quiet, emotional, sometimes lively, always intense, nonetheless calming music is said to fuse two things: first, the same longing for physical love—not mere sex, eros—you get in Omar Souleyman's macho dance workouts, and second, an intellectual nostalgia for the pre-Columbian Andalusian accord, where Jews, Christians, and of course Muslims lived together in harmony in the south of Spain, supposedly. In short, an honorable and even inspirational prayer for peace. A MINUS

Omar Souleyman: To Syria, With Love (Mad Decent) In a way it's simple and in a way it's anything but. The simple part is that if you like rhythmically intense music that's spare and huge and human-scale all at once, you have to hear this intransigently masculine Syrian exile: call-and-response between his imploring baritone and oud lines adapted to baritone synth (over percussion aplenty, you bet). If you're impressed, as you will be, buy an album, why not? Moreover, you might as well start with this one, which has Diplo's label behind it the way 2013's Wenu Wenu had Kieran Hebden's. The not-simple part comes if you've already got your Souleyman album—Wenu Wenu itself, or the live Haflat Garbia, say. This one's more… I don't know, these differentiations are so marginal, focused or measured. Also, the Arabic lyrics you'll need a booklet to parse yearn on two occasions for his lost homeland rather than some metaphorical woman. But if you already own two of his albums, I doubt you need a third. B PLUS

Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes From the Horn of Africa (Ostinato) Fifteen reclaimed '70s and '80s tracks, some literally dug out of the ground, showcase a politically repressed Islamic pop scene long on female singers and more Ethiopian than it wants you to think—just look at a map (Xasan Diiriye, "Qaarami [Love]," Duur Duur Band Feat. Sahra Dawo, "Gorof [Elixir]") ***

Boubacar Traoré: Dounia Tabolo (Lusafrica) This indefatigable old-timer always has a gimmick, which high-generic world music can always use—here actual American bluespeople to shore up his Malian-blues cred, most noticeably on harmonica and most fruitfully on violin ("Je Chanterai Pour Toi," "Dounia Tabolo") *

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