Keeping in line with respectable journalism, I will not make any references to music wafting through a serene cloud of hookah haze, or talk about musicians laying gorgeously melodic rhythms to put you into a trance. We will also avoid talk of transcending, nirvana, bliss, camels and mint tea, alongside all the other oddly generic normality usually finding its way into reviews of, for lack of better terms, "global chill" compilations. I've yet to hear any one song that caused my "spirit" to abandon my skin, nor have I ever been served tangine by wild-eyed belly dancers chanting "Oye Como Va" to a Turkish backbeat.
The main reason I want to avoid such connotations, besides the overly glorified exotica factor plaguing foreign music in America, is that Hookah Cafe is guilty of none of these faults. It's a sublimely produced record touching upon an array of styles all rooted with mellow, meditative elements. The calm is an anchor for lighter instrumentation - flutes, chanting and ouds - to drift, while intermittent spurts of percussion keep the head bobbing. There is little in the way of digital, as most tracks fall into acoustic, traditional categories. But there is innovation, as in Cafe's opening (and best) cut - Kristi Stassinopoulou's "Amorgos Passage" - a Balkan trance cut laced with downtempo electronica, and Jai Uttal teaming up with Don Cherry on "Madzoub," a beautiful bit of trumpet jazz hovering over synths looking east.
This was pre-Uttal cheese circa Mondo Rama, and another artist who recently floundered, Najma, appears with a more fittingly sparse "Pukar." Classic names pop up, from the gorgeous "Anesign" by Sudanese oud master Hamza El Din to Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy working alongside Brit new-ager Phil Thornton (no worries, it's a solid cut). Simon Shaheen pops up with another oud-based joint before Cafe's only semi-lamely rolled spliff, a remix of Zohar's "Ehad" (the original held much more weight). An absolutely worthwhile "Ai Ondas" by Azam Ali, one half of tribal/gothic outfit Vas, finishes the cd. While we can forgive the label for the Moroccan pigeonholing, there's no backlash at the quality of the material - as well as, more importantly, the sequencing of presentation - present on this killer comp.