Flowers in the Desert is about to bloom. Release date set for the turn of the2009-2010 new year .
"We play Heavy Metal because our lives are heavy metal."
With these words Reda Zine, one of the founders of the Moroccan metal scene (whose current band, Cafe Mira, is featured here with the powerful Gnawa rock anthem, "Youmala"), summarized the feelings of hundreds of thousands of metal fans, hiphoppers, punkers and fans of other forms of alternative music across the Middle East and North Africa. In a region wrought by war, violence, lack of democracy, and underdevelopment, hardcore forms of rock and pop music has become popular for the same reasons it did in a generation ago in the West: It offers some of the most powerful cultural tools available for its fans to criticize the status quo, and as important, to imagine a different, more positive future.
It might surprise many that a seemingly blood and death obsessed genre of rock 'n roll such as Death Metal, or the violence and materialism-laden hiphop of Gangsta Rap, are experienced as powerful, life-affirming forms of music across the Muslim world. As one of the founders of the Iranian metal scene described it, their arrival in the region was like "a flower appearing in the desert" of societies deprived of freedom, and for so many young people, even the hope for a better future.
The history of rock, hiphop and heavy metal reveals both music's potential and the limits of its ability to challenge the powerful from below. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, heavy metal, and soon after it, hiphop and punk, emerged in the decaying deindustrializing cities of the UK and US-created by musicians who were experiencing the collateral damage of the birth pangs of what today is called "globalization": the massive transformations in the global economy that saw decent paying industrial and other working class jobs move outside the industrialized West and to the developing world, and with it, growing inequality and poverty across their societies. As Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi said about the blighted working class landscape of his youth, "It made [the music] more mean."
At the same time, the rise of right-wing politics in the UK and US with the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan (mirrored by the rise of extremist Islam and Judaism as well) saw a renewed cultural attack on groups and subcultures that were defined as threats to the established political, moral and ethnic order. The working class, often marginalized young fans of metal, hiphop and punk fought back by creating some of the most powerful music in the history of rock 'n roll.
Sadly, as with the music of the hippie counterculture before them, in the West metal, rap and punk were soon conquered by corporations, losing their political edge in the process as they gained mainstream appeal. Where Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" damned the "generals and their black masses" behind the Vietnam War, the Sex Pistols preached anarchy, and Public Enemy fought the power with some of the most innovative music of last half century, soon enough punk was dead, metal became obsessed with hair, spandex and "girls, girls, girls," and gangsta rap with cartoonish violence and (too often) demeaning women-all in the name of unprecedented profits for the major recording labels who took over the production and distribution of these genres of music.
But as with all powerful life forms, just as metal and rap were being overly commercialized in the US and UK, they were spreading virally across the globe with their political and musical power intact. First in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, soon after in the Arab/Muslim world, the metal aesthetic-from screaming guitars and growled vocals to long hair and black concert t-shirts-became a potent symbol for young people who were no longer willing to accept the political and cultural status quo. In these authoritarian societies, the focus on girls and guns was less appealing than the powerful "Fuck you" to society and chance to comment in a language governments and security services couldn't easily understand offered by these forms of music.
In countries with little freedom of association, rockers have risked a great deal to organize concerts in dilapidated colonial era villas in the desert, while rappers gather for street corner battles fueled by beats stored on mobile phones, ready to disperse at the first sign of trouble. As one Iranian rapper explained, when the government started to crack down on hiphop and "forced me to sign something saying I'd never do a political song again, I just dropped some of Tupac's more political lyrics into my songs. Those who know, get it."
In the Arabic-speaking world, rap quickly became, in the words of Tamer Nafar of the Israeli-Palestinian group DAM (whose song "Ng'ayer Bukra," featured on this compilation), the "al-Jazeera of the streets." Given the levels of censorship across the region, it's not surprising that for their trouble, metalheads across the region have been arrested and tried as "Satan-worshippers" while hiphop fans have also faced crackdowns for listening to or performing music considered part of a dangerous "cultural invasion" by the West of the Muslim world. Most recently, in the post-election protest movement in Iran in June of 2009, metalheads and rappers were among those on the front lines battling the basiji, or paramilitary forces--and not surprisingly, among the groups targeted by the government for arrest and harassment. Many of the country's best rap and metal artists, including those featured on this album, were already writing new music to express their experiences while the protests were in full force.
Despite-in some ways, because of-the repression against them, heavy metal, rock, hiphop and hardcore are at the height of popularity. Festivals from Morocco to Istanbul and Dubai bring together hundreds of thousands of rock, metal and rap fans to celebrate freedom and offer the world a very different view of their cultures than what most Americans or Europeans are used to seeing. It's a perspective more and more Western artists are taking to as they venture tentatively into the Middle East. As Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson put it during the group's first ever concert in the Arab world (at the 2007 Dubai Desert Rock festival), "Everybody is here. We have people from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Scotland, Lebanon, Egypt, Sweden, Turkey, Australian, Wales, Americans, Canadians, Kuwait. We have the whole world, just about, here tonight... And we'll be back."
The artists on Flowers in the Desert have been included in this compilation because they clearly have learned this lesson, which is recounted in greater detail in the book Heavy Metal Islam. Some, like Iran's Arthimoth, Saudi Arabia's Creative Waste, or Iraq's Acrassicauda, remain faithful to the hardcore Death Metal or Gangsta Raps roots. Others, like Morocco's Cafe Mira, Egypt's Beyond East, Pakistan's Junoon, Israel/Palestine's DAM or Iran's Taham and Salome, are innovative, ear-catching hybrids of local styles-often influenced by Sufi or other religious music-and the classic sounds of metal and hiphop.
The incredibly diverse music reflected in the twenty-five songs on this album, which were chosen after more than twenty trips to a dozen countries, from Morocco to Pakistan, during the last five years, are a testament to the rich legacy of Western pop music across the globe. But they are also much more; when you listen to the music, it quickly becomes apparent that the artists have not merely copied the sounds and styles of their American or European idols; instead, they have powerfully reshaped the musical landscape of these forms of music, taking these styles in new directions and in so doing offering new blood with which to rejuvenate them in their home cultures.
In some ways, the are merely completing a circle that began when Western artists began to travel across the Muslim world in the late 1960s, "discovering" artists like the Master Musicians of Joujouka and incorporating Middle Eastern scales and textures into their music. As Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page succinctly put it in a famous 1975 Rolling Stone Interview with Cameron Crowe: "God, you know what you can gain when you sit down with the Moroccans. As a person and as a musician. That's how you grow."
Over a generation later, the artists of the region still have much to teach musicians and fans around the world. I have been fortunate to meet and perform with many of the artists on this album; in Casablanca, Beirut, Lahore and other great, if often wounded, cities. The experience of being immersed in their music transformed not merely my approach to music but my understanding of their cultures, and of my own as well-not least because it reminded me of how much alike they are.
The music opened me to a world that few outsiders see, yet which is every bit as authentic as the stereotypical, postcard views of the region most tourists experience, or the conflict-strewn images that dominate its coverage in the West. If you close your eyes and open your ears, the music will speak-as often as not, shout-to you as well, although it might take a while to understand the stories it tells and the truths it speaks.
One overriding truth is that the music of a 22-year old guitarist shredding the stage at Casablanca's l'Boulevard rock festival is no less quintessentially Moroccan or legitimately ãworld musicä than the timeless Gnawa chants performed by his uncle on his guimbri a few weeks later at the world renown Festival Gnaoua in Essaouira. Likewise, the MCs testing each other's skills over beats stored on a friend's mobile in Tehran's Cigari Park represent authentic Iranian culture as surely as does the virtuoso setar player performing Persian classical music at the World Music Institute in New York City.
Equally global and locally rooted, the artists collected here are also very much the future of rock, heavy metal, hiphop and punk. At least as much as their peers in New York, Los Angeles or Paris. In fact, at the close of the new millennium's first decade, their position at the cutting edge between seemingly irreconcilable cultures and musical styles is setting a new standard for how artists, fans and critics will both experience and shape the next generation of rock's many genres. Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson explained it this way: Don't be surprised if the next Iron Maiden, Zeppelin, or Public Enemy bursts on the scene from Cairo, Gaza or Karachi.
The artists on Flowers in the Desert have clearly learned the lessons taught to them by their elders--whether from London, New York, or closer to home. Some, like Iran's Arthimoth, Saudi Arabia's Creative Waste, Iraq's Acrassicauda, or Lebanon's Clotaire K, remain faithful to the hardcore Death Metal or Gangsta Raps roots, albeit with added local flavors that you'd never find in the music of their western counterparts. Others, like Morocco's Cafe Mira, Egypt's Beyond East, Pakistan's Junoon, Israel/Palestine's DAM or Iran's Taham and Salome, are innovative, ear-catching hybrids of local styles-often influenced by Sufi or other religious music-and the classic sounds of metal and hiphop., are innovative, ear-catching hybrids of local styles-often influenced by Sufi or other religious music-and the classic sounds of metal and hiphop.
The willingness to cross musical boundaries reflects one of the most positive and unheralded sides of globalization today, and offers hope for the future relations between the Muslim world and the West at a time when far too many people assume that a so-called "clash of civilizations" is inevitable. But it's not just musical boundaries that are being crossed. So are the boundaries between secularism and religion (as one Egyptian metal guitarist explained to me, he sees no contradiction in "going to the mosque for three hours on Friday afternoon and then rehearsing with my Black Metal band for four hours after that").
And the divide between religions is equally being trampled underfoot. Perhaps the most popular extreme metal band in the Muslim world is the Israeli group Orphaned Land (who's breakthrough hit, "Norra El Norra," is featured here), many of whose Arab fans travel to Europe or Turkey to see them perform, and even have their logo tattooed on their bodies.
Sometimes multiple taboos are broken, particularly live. I have had the privilege of performing with many of the artists here; their willingness to mix together musicians, styles, and nationalities has repeatedly left me dumbfounded-Iranians with Americans and Brits playing hardcore blues-funk in Istanbul; "Marockans" concocting a Gnawa-Ska groove over which a Palestinian and an Israeli singer trade melodies in New York; Junoon guitarist and Medical Doctor Salman Ahmed wielding his guitar "like a stethoscope" to create a Sufi Rock jam that heals even the most cynical audience in London or Lahore.
Ultimately, the bands on this album offer glimpses of a future where the youth of the world are tied together by solidarities and sympathies that refuse to be cowed by the hate-filled rhetoric of fundamentalists, whether those in the White House, or hiding in the badlands of the Hindu Kush. As one Arab metal artist put it as we sat in the desert listening to Ozzy's "Suicide Solution," however strange it might seem to outsiders, metalheads across the region offer a "community of life" against the community of death and martyrdom that are propagated by religious and political extremists of all stripes.
Music can heal the deepest wounds, and its precisely this ability that makes it such a threat to those in power. As the legendary Afrobeat star Fela Kuti exclaimed not long before he died, "Music is the weapon of the future;" its power lies in its ability to break down boundaries, bring people together, and expose the lies that allow corrupt political systems-as much in the West as in the developing world-to continue in power.
The songs featured in this collections, which range from self-recorded singles by struggling young bands to slickly produced collaborations between leading American and Arab artists-reflect music's power to unite people, and through it, to offer a glimpse of the vibrancy and urgency, anger and beauty, of the myriad cultures of Middle East and North Africa today. They are truly like flowers in the desert, but flowers with thorns, ready to stick those who pick them too roughly.
Regardless of their origin, the artists brought together in Flowers in the Desert offer glimpses of a future where the youth of the world are tied together by solidarities and sympathies that refuse to be cowed by the hate-filled rhetoric of extremists of fundamentalists÷whether hiding in the bowls of the White House or the badlands of the Hindu Kush. If music is the weapon of the future, the bands featured here are among its best soldiers, wielding guitars and microphones with at least as much prowess as their elders have wielded AK-47s and other more damaging, but ultimately less dangerous weapons.
So listen carefully, at high volume, to some of the most liberating music in the world today. But beware: you'll never think of Middle East in the same way again.
PLEASE NOTE: All net producer royalties are being donated to charities that benefit children victims of the war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine/Israel, and to the Action for Brazil's Children (ABC) Trust.
Click here for track list, artist information, and photo and other credits from the CD.