Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Omar Khorshid - Tribute to Oum Koulsoum (Voix de l'Orient, mid 1970s; 1989)
Back in my days as a property manager on the South Side of Chicago, I regularly sought temporary refuge in the relative peace and quiet of the Hyde Park neighborhood during my lunch break. One of my favorite places to have my midday meal was a Middle Eastern restaurant that serves some of the best chicken shawarma in the city. The proprietors often had Arabic music playing in the background more for themselves than the customers. Although it was sometimes crappy modern-day pop songs, there were also numerous occasions when I would hear some absolutely mesmerizing instrumental music coming out of the speakers of their little CD player. The lead instrument on these recordings sounded like an electric guitar but played in manner in which I had never heard before. My curiosity piqued, I asked about this music one day while paying the bill at the front counter. The owner handed me the CD's jewel case, and I was now officially introduced to the "magic guitar" of Omar Khorshid.
World music (a la Sublime Frequencies) junkies are no doubt familiar with one of the world's most regrettably neglected guitar gods. But for those of you who aren't, I'll provide you with a thumbnail version of his life story. Born in Cairo, Egypt in 1945, he was a child prodigy on piano, but switched over to guitar by the time he was a teenager and had been exposed to rock 'n' from the US and UK. After making a name for himself in the beat group Le Petit Chats in the mid 1960s, he received the honor of playing with not one but two legendary figures of 20th century Arabic music, orchestra leader Abdel Halim Hafez and singer Oum Koulsoum (aka Kalthoum), both fellow Egyptians. Khorshid spent the mid 1970s in Beirut, where he recorded an extremely impressive group of albums for various Lebanese labels. These LPs ushered in a revolutionary new style of Middle Eastern music, and the guitarist made his instrument sound as if it been expressly made for such material. In addition to these recordings, Khorshid also composed the scores of several Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian films as well as appearing as an actor in many others during the 1970s and early 1980s in roles ranging from bit part to billed star. After performing at an event in Washington DC held to celebrate the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979, the musician was unfortunately blacklisted in several Arab countries who were opposed to the agreement at the time. Although Khorshid eventually cleared his name, there were still radicals who harbored resentment toward his open-minded ways. After a series of death threats and unsuccessful attempts on his life, he died in a mysterious high-speed car crash in 1981 at the age of 36, robbing the Arab world of one of its greatest superstars. I strongly encourage you to check out this excellent website devoted to Omar Khorshid. Although its creator doesn't have the strongest grasp on the English language, you can tell that it's a true labor of love and features his complete life story, a discography, filmography, lots of great photos, and other items worth checking out.
As its title suggests, Tribute to Oum Koulsoum features instrumental versions of songs (mostly composed by Mohammed Abdel Wahab) made famous by the Egyptian chanteuse. If anything can equal the power of that lady's voice, it's Khorshid's guitar. From concert photos that I've seen, Khorshid appears to have been typically backed by a group that included an accordionist and two percussionists on hand drums. That seems to be the case on this album and on most of his other recordings from his 1973-1977 peak period as well. The accordion sounds like it has been run through some kind of effects box. Although it occasionally has a dated 1970s cheesy synthesizer sound, for the most part it provides the perfect foundation for Khorshid to go off on his amazing solo flights, while the drummers provide some fantastic polyrhythms. Words really can't do these stately performances justice. They simply have that je ne sais quoi unique to Middle Eastern music whether the particular composition is joyous, mournful, or somewhere in between.
Additional Omar Khorshid recordings reviewed here.
1. Alf Layla
2. Hazihi Laylati
4. Oua Marat Al Ayam
5. Amar Hayati
6. Men Ajel Ayneyk
7. Anta Oumri