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Baligh Hamdi, "Instrumental Modal Pop of 1970s Egypt"

cover imageThis latest collection continues Sublime Frequencies' impressive hot streak of releases this year, as Hisham Mayet has curated a selection of elusive instrumental pieces from "a towering figure in Arabic cultural history." Unsurprisingly, I have not knowingly encountered Hamdi's work before, as SF is always way ahead of the curve in digging up revelatory artists unfamiliar to most western ears, but Mayet and the songs he selected make a convincing case that Hamdi was indeed behind "some of the hippest music coming out of the Middle East from the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s." It was rare for Hamdi's work to surface under his own name, however, as most of his success and influence came from composing for a host of famous Arabic singers or scoring films, plays, and television. This collection, however, focuses on a very specific era of Hamdi's career in which Mayet believes the composer and his Diamond Orchestra perfected a modernized "international music" that elegantly combined "Eastern tinged jazz, theremin draped orchestral noir, and mid-east and eastern psychedelic exotica." Naturally, most of the original albums are exasperatingly elusive and expensive, but the rarity of these songs is secondary to their quality. This scratches roughly the same itch as other classic SF "pop" compilations like Bollywood Steel Guitar and Shadow Music of Thailand.

Sublime Frequencies

While Hamdi is technically the star of the show here, he is actually only one of two legends on these recordings, as Sublime Frequencies favorite Omar Khorshid was one of the many luminaries recruited for Hamdi's Diamond Orchestra. Naturally, there are plenty of cool guitar parts as a result, but no one member of the Diamond Orchestra stands out as particularly virtuosic or essential. Instead, the beauty of these pieces primarily lies in their deft blurring of modern and traditional styles, their inventive arrangements, and the tightness and fluidity of the ensemble. The opening "Ghada" provides an especially impressive example of Hamdi's "modal pop" vision, achieving a delightfully propulsive and swinging blend of surf guitar twang, Bollywood dance party, and bittersweetly soulful Arabic melodies. Obviously, getting all of those elements to fit seamlessly together in the first place was the most revolutionary part of Hamdi's vision, but the execution is also rather dazzling in a general sense, as melodies are constantly traded between instruments while the band nimbly navigates exacting rhythmic variations without breaking a sweat.

For the most part, "Ghada" is very representative of everything that follows, so if that one does not connect, the rest of the album will probably hold no further appeal. Similarly, anyone who loves "Ghada" will likely be thrilled to find eighteen more bangers in a similar vein awaiting them. Within that rich vein lie some delightful variations, however, such as the swooningly romantic strings of "Mawal," which approximates the soundtrack to a imagined Bond film where he teams up with sexy Egyptian dancer/double agent. Elsewhere, "Chaka Chico" initially sounds like the theme for a Spaghetti western ghost story due to its theremin melody, but fluidly shifts tones until it sounds like a love story set in an Middle Eastern cabaret. The closing "Love Story" is another surprise, as Hamdi and his ensemble gamely spice up Francis Lai's famous melody with Arabic instrumentation and inventive fluorishes until it resembles an Egyptian mariachi band crashing an Italian wedding. Beyond that, I was also delighted by the pieces where the orchestra abandon rock rhythms in favor of more Arabic-inspired percussion, as they do on "Gazairia." Just about everything here is great (and fun) though, as Instrumental Modal Pop of 1970s Egypt sounds like some of the coolest and most forward-thinking musicians around teamed up to unknowingly make a flawless and hook-filled surf/exotica/Bollywood masterpiece. I can certainly understand how Hamdi came to be so revered in the Arab world if he brought this level of heat to even his non-hits.

Samples can be found here.