The Spy from Cairo :: Secretly Famous
For most people in the western world, music from the Middle East remains mysterious and difficult to appreciate. For reasons that are at least as much political as they are aesthetic, the surge of popularity of music from around the world that has taken place in the last few decades has all but ignored music originating from Islamic countries. There has yet to be an ambassador with a profile like George Harrison or Paul Simon to champion music from the region as they did for Indian and African music respectively.
Traditional troupes like The Musicians of the Nile or performers such as the Lebanese oud player, Marcel Khalife have been able to make small inroads by exposing festival audiences to instrumental music from their countries, but their efforts still fall well outside of the radar of popular culture. Peter Gabriel incorporated some Middle Eastern sounds into his Last Temptation of Christ soundtrack, but the controversy that greeted that film overshadowed rational analysis of the film and its music.
More recently, San Francisco DJ Cheb I Sabbah's 2005 album La Kahena made an admirable effort to expose North African Arabic music by recalibrating traditional tunes from the region for the dance floor. Likewise, Saracen - the American multi-instrumentalist Jef Stott's surprisingly good release from 2007 - as well as excellent albums from other American based bands such as Lal Meri and Niyaz have challenged adventurous listeners with some excellent music, but not surprisingly their efforts have had little effect on the musical preferences of the larger public.
America, unfortunately, is still a country whose idea of Middle Eastern culture has barely recovered from George Bush's presidency - where movies like 300 — with its bestial inhuman portrayal of Persians — demonstrate that its multicultural vision hasn't improved much since the days where leering buck toothed Japanese in horn rimmed glasses ran rampant in World War II propaganda films.
For those seeking clarity or a doorway into the world of Middle Eastern music, The Spy from Cairo's Secretly Famous will be greeted as a godsend. For the uninitiated who have only a fleeting knowledge of the rhythms, cadences, time signatures and ineffable qualities of songs from this region, the music will still remain challenging, but one could not ask for a better guide than Moreno Visini - the artist formerly known as Zeb and currently recording as the Spy from Cairo - to usher us through the world of contemporary and traditional Islamic melody. The title of the album, Secretly Famous is most certainly an in joke referring to the fact that as The Spy From Cairo or Zeb, Visini has written hundreds of songs and produced more than ten albums over the past dozen or so years, yet he is still hardly a household name outside of DJ music circles. In addition to creating his own music, he is in constant demand as a remix artist who in the past few years has gloriously fractured and expanded songs by musicians as diverse as Billy Holiday, Baba Maal, Astor Piazolla and Novalima.
With Secretly Famous, The Spy from Cairo has woven together a dossier of songs that encompass many of the musical styles of the Middle East including those from African and Bedouin culture in an album that miraculously finds a way to sound cohesive in its diversity. As different as many of the cuts are from one another, under The Spy from Cairo's curatorial hand, it's easy to hear a common melodic thread running through the endeavor.
The fact that Visini is not only a DJ, but also a talented musician helps maintain the album's sense of unity. Not content to simply twirl knobs and add beats, he turns his talented hands to contribute more than credible efforts on a variety of instruments including the oud, chifteli, bass and moog synthesizer. The gifted Tunisian singer Galia Benali also appears throughout the album, adding her heartbreakingly lovely vocals to three of Secretly Famous' best songs. Worth special mention is Ana Arabi, a song that she both wrote and sang that enjoins her listeners to understand that every Arab is not a terrorist.
Some of the songs feature rather straight ahead readings of traditional music fare. Tracks like 'Nayphony', 'Kurdish Delight' and 'Leila' make such understated use of dubby effects and beats that they wouldn't sound out of place in a collection of conventional Arab music. Yet, to say that Visini — as producer — simply stood aside during these songs and let the musicians play would do a disservice to the importance of his contributions. On each of these numbers, he carefully constructs backing beats and shifts the volume levels to emphasize certain elements of the tracks that fall within most listeners' comfort level. In short, he allows listeners to identify similarities between the Jordanian, Kurdish and Egyptian sources with other musical styles such as reggae, funk and disco. The effect is to make the songs sound both familiar and challenging. Only a musician with such a thorough knowledge of music from the region could make such auditory leaps sound so credible while still remaining musically vital.
As someone who has long admired classical oud music, not surprisingly I was initially most drawn to songs like 'Sufi Disco', 'Oud Funk' and "Ala Shan' which prominently feature the instrument. Of these, 'Oud Funk' is the most traditional sounding track, and to my ears is reminiscent of the Algerian Rai sounds popularized by Khaled. 'Sufi Disco' is very trance inducing and features a wonderful conversation between a bamboo flute and oud to lull listeners into a reflective state while 'Ala Shan' is a remix of a traditional song filtered through Studio One dub inflections and aesthetics.
The Spy from Cairo rounds off his excursion through Arab soundscapes by checking into how the music has been interpreted by those living in the Balkans, Africa and India. 'Blood and Honey' explores the juxtaposition between the allure of the beautiful Balkan countryside with the unfortunate history of war that has plagued the region in a powerful song once again sung by Galia Benali. Lighter and more uplifting are 'Kembe' — another oud dominated song delivered in a Bedouin style that should have fans of Tinariwen rocking in their seats - and 'Indian Rope Trick' a vocal and sitar duet that brings this exceptional collection of songs to a close.
In the end, not many people may have the chance to hear Secretly Famous, and that would be too bad. There is no question of the musical value of the material that The Spy from Cairo presents here. It is more that western culture has not yet opened the door and shown itself ready to assimilate these types of songs, and Visini may unfortunately find himself preaching to the converted. He has certainly done a wonderful job of arranging the songs on Secretly Famous in a way that maintains his musical integrity and is designed to appeal to the larger culture at the same time. The Spy from Cairo is both tricky and smart, and the deep espionage he's undertaken here should be rewarded. He's taken on the embedded resistance to this music and performed a profound kind of subterfuge and melodic stealth that in a perfect world should gain him legions of fans. He has neither sold out to the dance floor, nor has he recorded museum music to be argued over by dusty academics on the library steps. These songs are vital, thrilling and blessed with a pulse that can take listeners on a journey through the centuries to come up with an album that's as good as almost anything being recorded today.
Hopefully, our faithful guide, Moreno Visini will not be left to toil in obscurity, and it won't be too long before this spy comes in from the cold and gets to enjoy the attention he so richly deserves. Secretly Famous is highly recommended listening.