Thursday, April 25

Tunes of Middle East are a mix of tradition and Westernization


The Middle East is one of the most historically and culturally rich regions of the world. So it is fitting that, even today, the area is the part of the world from which some of the most appreciable music comes.

Various students choose to forgo the standard option of studying abroad in countries such as France and Spain to spend time in the Middle East, either through the UCLA Education Abroad Program or otherwise.

Second-year computer science engineering student Dana Sadgat spent time traveling throughout Israel on birthright ““ an opportunity where young Jews, who have not been to or lived in Israel since the age of 12, are given the opportunity to see the country, with all basic expenses paid. On such trips, students find themselves immersed in the music of the culture they’re visiting.

“In the country, we traveled by bus, and on our bus we had an Israeli soldier who one day put on his own music, Shlomo Artzi,” Sadgat said. “(Artzi) is very well known among every single Israeli; he represents the more traditional Israeli music.”

While abroad, Sadgat came into touch with some of the more traditional genres, while also realizing the “Top 40″ has a very long reach.

“Israel has a lot of musical culture; they have a lot of different bands, different types of artists,” Sadgat said. “The most prominent, I would say, is their version of “˜American Idol’; that’s usually what people talk about when it comes to music.”

Jamil Kareem, a UC Riverside alumnus, spent the final few weeks of summer traveling through the Middle East after the UCLA Greek history travel study course. On his trip through the region, he encountered a pattern similar to Sadgat’s.

“Some of the countries were very similar to (America),” Kareem said. “Turkey is very Westernized ““ a lot of the trends that are happening in America are happening there, just a year or two later, and Israel is almost exactly like it is here.”

Naturally, Kareem was drawn to the foreign version of the genre toward which he was previously inclined.

“I tend to go for electronic music, and some of (the countries) have really good scenes,” Kareem said. “Beirut had a lot going on, some big DJs, bands and some Middle Eastern bands as well. I heard some Arabic house, which was basically Arab beats and Arabic singing, but other than that, it was pretty traditional house music.”

Kareem, like Sadgat, also encountered the more mainstream artists of the different countries.

“One of the biggest singers I heard was Amr Diab,” Kareem said. “He had a new song come out while I was in Egypt, and it was playing all over the place. His music was a mix of everything ““ there were Arab influences, but it had others as well.”

Fourth-year philosophy students Erin Thompson and Elizabeth Farr were also a part of Kareem’s travel study group, and their time in Istanbul offered them not only the music of the popular culture there but also more local, traditional and spiritual pieces.

“We went to this club that also had a restaurant in it,” Farr said. “What I found interesting was that we were in Turkey, and I was hearing this music I hadn’t heard before, but at the same time, I was surprised that the lyrics were in English.”

Thompson took note of one of the more prominent forms of singing in the country.

“The calls of prayer were really cool,” Thompson said. “People would get up in these towers and they pray in their language in the form of a song, and you hear it throughout all of Istanbul. It’s really pretty, you’re just sitting eating at lunch, and you hear this prayer. It just felt really powerful.”

Thompson’s group also commissioned a personal music recital while exploring the city.

“We convinced our cab driver to start singing to us,” Thompson said. “He gave us a Turkish rap song. It was just him singing in Turkish … Turkish rap ““ it had a very distinct sound, the inflection in his voice was interesting, it’s difficult to describe. It was uplifting, but you could tell it was rap the way he rhymed.”

Personal concerts aside, many would consider the traditional and less recognized performers more culturally valuable. It is still curious to see what a large presence shows similar to our “American Idol” maintain.

“After (the) birthright (trip), I stayed for a while in Haifa, and right behind where I lived, they had a festival for Friday Shabbat, with a concert type thing, and every week different performers came,” Sadgat said. “One time they had someone named Shiri Maimon, who was the runner up on the first Israeli version of “˜American Idol.’ She is really well known there, as well as the first place winner, Ninet Tayeb. She sings pop/pop rock, and she would be, in terms of singers, the Britney Spears of Israel. She’s not as young as Britney, and she’s not as messed up, but she’s the person everyone looks for in the newspaper.”

The similarity in musical cultures created by shows like “Idol” is fascinating to see, especially considering the fact that the show, as well as “Pop Idol,” off of which the American version is based, was first aired less than a decade ago. Even so, it has generated a large enough following to the point where it seems to represent a large part of the mainstream music industry in countries around the globe.

Nonetheless, the American mainstream seems to drown out much of the rest.

“Israel is very modern,” Sadgat said. “They don’t just play Israeli music, they play music from all around the world, mostly in English, because most everybody in Israel knows English.”

Considering her trip, Sadgat was afforded an entirely new perspective ““ that while there are some parts of the musical culture of Israel that are not replicated in the United States, music, generally speaking, is a universal language. A sentiment Thompson, Farr and Kareem seemed to share.

“Just because Israel has a different language doesn’t make the music different,” Sadgat said. “Music in different languages is always similar, but then there’s a different type of Israeli music, something you’ll never find in America, like the more traditional music.”

Considering what students encountered in trips as short as a couple of weeks, it is easily argued that the Middle East is as rich in music as it is in most other forms of culture.

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