The Middle East @ Work

Bringing Arabic music to America

Caitlan Reeg Feb 25, 2008
The Middle East @ Work

Bringing Arabic music to America

Caitlan Reeg Feb 25, 2008


Doug Krizner: Next week, the Morning Report will be live from Cairo, Egypt. Marketplace’s Scott Jagow will be your host. We’ll be looking at economic issues in the Mid East on this and other Marketplace programs. And what better way to get in the mood than with a little music.

This weekend in Brooklyn, artists from around the world will begin a month-long festival of Arab music. It’s a subject most Americans probably know little about, but some determined Arab musicians are hoping to change that. Caitlan Carroll has more.

[Music by Turbo Tabla]

Caitlan Carroll: I played this track by Turbo Tabla — or Karim Nagi as he’s known offstage — for a few shoppers at the mall to get their reaction.

Listener #1: It’s kind of relaxing, I like that instrumental stuff a lot.

Listener #2: It’s a different kind of melody.

Listener #3: Too many bloop bloop bloop bloop bloop.

Listener #4: I wouldn’t buy it. I like rock and roll.

So I asked ethnomusicology student, Ben Harbert, what’s the problem?

Ben Harbert: I mean the hard thing is I think with Arab music and people opening up their ears is to so many Westerners, it sounds out of tune. I mean, it’s like listening to bebop for the first time. You wonder where’s the melody.

Small but growing audiences do hear it and do get it. The challenge now is crossing into the mainstream.

Karim Nagi wants to break into that mainstream crowd by mixing modern electronic music with traditional Arab percussion. He makes from $400 to $1,000 per performance, enough to make it full-time. But to build his audience, he needs to be more than just a musician.

Karim Nagi: It’s not enough for me to just know how to play my instrument anymore. I need to know about marketing and financing and product presentations so that I don’t just disappear into the bargain bin.

Bashar Barazi is one of a handful of Arab music distributors in the U.S. He’s also launching a dance tour this spring called “A Dream of Arabia.” He hopes it will do for Arab music what Riverdance did for Irish folk.

Bashar Barazi: Strong arms, please. Strong arms — keep them up, lifted. Up.

In the backroom of a Middle Eastern dress shop, Barazi coaches a dancer through her steps. He says this tour will help raise the curtain on the Arab music market.

Barazi: What helps in that is that I’m American, so, you know, I almost am a translator. I think I have this position of I’m translating from one culture to the next, and I am sitting right in the middle and happily so.

The American audience will decide if that middle is mainstream enough.

In Los Angeles, I’m Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.

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