Simon Shaheen & Qantara

With the Cuban son boom of the late '90s finally fished out, label execs are casting about feverishly for the next world-music prize catch. Former Police producer Miles Copeland insisted in a recent interview that it's Arabic music. According to Copeland, this music offers the "same infectious energy and vibe" as its Latin cousin and also has the potential to completely revitalize the sounds of the West. Copeland's Universal- distributed Ark 21 label has been both busy and successful lately. Cheb Mami, "The Prince of Rai," recently dueted with Sting and is now touring the world with the former Gordon Sumner. Another act, the younger Rachid Taha, is also turning heads, as rai has traveled from North Africa through Paris and on to New York and the world.

And come to think of it, Arabic flavors have been turning up in some odd places lately, such as on songs by Jay-Z, Shakira and Mandy Moore. Western producers who once spiked their tunes with shots of Latin rum might now be tempted by Arabic arak, a far more exotic jigger on palates oversaturated with clichéd, generic Latin breaks.

Another Arabic wizard Copeland hopes to conquer the world with is composer/instrumentalist Simon Shaheen. On Blue Flame, the Palestinian-born virtuoso has fashioned an intelligent instrumental crossover album for those who may not be ready for a full immersion in traditional Arabic music. His ensemble Qantara combines roots with innovation. One can begin with "Fantasie for Oud and String Quartet," a composition that rearranges a classic Mohammed Wahab song with a string-quartet setting. Or one can begin with "Tea in the Sahara" (again the Police connection…), which demonstrates how Shaheen's melodic violin and Adam Rogers's guitar interact with the tune's syncopated rhythmic lines.

Then one can tackle "Dance Mediterranea," a flute and violin composition on which Shaheen demonstrates the art of improvising (taksim) over a particular mode. Shaheen demonstrates another style of improvisation on the oud on "Bosphorus Scenes Under the Moonlight." These elaborations on the melodic or rhythmic lines are at the heart of Arabic and Turkish music. But should the Western listener tire of taksims, Shaheen has programmed a flamenco-style romp to change the mood.

The high level of musical interchange between Shaheen and the members of Qantara ensure that each track on this ever-shifting album is an inventive, fully realized composition. This disc will reward the listener after repeated encounters even if one has scant knowledge of Middle Eastern music.

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