Having played various forms of Middle Eastern music over the years,I am well acquainted with the richness and depth of those powerful andcaptivating styles. For those who desire authentic Middle Easternrhythms, whether for world fusion or more traditional uses, Big FishAudio has two recent productions that warrant a close look.
Roots of the Middle East and North Africa was produced byclassical pianist, orchestral arranger, and synthesist NorairSarkissian and performed by accomplished percussionists Mark Assaf,Gary Jaklian, Fareed Suleiman, and Ghazi Baradah. Hadeeth ArabicRhythms was produced by drummer, producer, and engineer AraAntranik. Antranik played the drum kit and sakat (fingercymbals), and master session musician Haytham Ballat played the otherpercussion.
ORIGINS AND INSTRUMENTS
Each collection consists of a single CD. Although their titles aredifferent, both focus on similar ethnic origins and cross into separatestyles. The two also cover a broad swath of rhythms from North Africancountries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt; Saudi Arabia;and the Fertile Crescent (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq).
A number of rhythms appear on both CDs, including Adani (fromAdan, capital of Yemen), Ayoub (Persian Gulf), as well asMaksum and Malfouf (both popular Egyptian and FertileCrescent rhythms). You'll also find examples of Karachi, Falahy(an Egyptian farm rhythm now popular in modern dance music), andBaladi (common across the Middle East) patterns. (Go to EMLinks for audio examples of those and other rhythms fromthe CDs.) Rhythms unique to the Roots collection includeKatakofti, Bambi, and Sudasi, and those only onHadeeth include Okruk, Aksak, and Hachah(traditional Iraqi). The spellings of those styles differ on eachCD.
Roots focuses completely on hand percussion; Hadeethadds drum-kit examples to the hand-percussion loops. Both includeone-shots of single instruments at the end of each disc. Severalinstruments appear on both discs, including the tabla (known inthe West as the dumbek), the duhollah (a large bassy dumbek),and the tabl (a two-headed drum that is worn around the neck andplayed with sticks). Hadeeth differs from Roots by addingthe contemporary tabla (a plastic-head dumbek), finger cymbals,duff, and tar (a thin-framed drum). Roots has itsown unique set of instruments, which are the katem (similar to aconga), mazhar (a katem with metal rings around it), merjana,tayaran, and taoyan.
People who are not familiar with music from those regions should beaware that the same instrument can have different names. For example,the Roots instrument listing describes the riq as aMiddle Eastern tambourine and mentions that it is also called adaff. However, a daff has a different meaning in some othercultures, in which it refers to a type of frame drum. Moreover,instruments from the Middle East often have similar names. For example,be careful not to confuse a duff (a Persian zarb) with theaforementioned daff.
Before I learned about the recording methods used, I spentconsiderable time listening to and using both CDs. Hadeeth isdecidedly superior in audio quality. The loops have more meat andattack, and single-instrument hits stand out much better when importedinto my software sampler (Emagic's EXS24) and used in a piece ofmusic.
I also enlisted Middle Eastern percussion virtuoso Kevin Mummie forhis expert feedback. After doing a few A/B comparisons, Mummie agreedthat Hadeeth had a punchier sound with more clarity and depth— a quality that Roots lacks.
The differences in audio quality can't be attributed solely to thegear: Roots was recorded with Neumann U 87 and U 47 FET mics,through Avalon and Neve pres and an API console, and then to media,including Soundscape, a Fostex D824, and Tascam 2-inch tape. Editingwas done in Pro Tools, Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge, and otherdigital-audio applications using state-of-the-art plug-ins. Antranikwouldn't share what mics and pres he employed, but everything wasrecorded to a Studer 2-inch analog tape deck. Mastering and editingwere done in Steinberg's Cubase.
The differences are probably more the result of a pure signal pathand one's ears. Antranik not only produced his project but alsoengineered, mixed, edited, and mastered it. Sarkissian was involved inmost steps on his project, but five others were involved as well,perhaps creating a “too many cooks” scenario.
Every track on both discs starts with a full percussion performancethat is followed by individual instrument loops. Hadeethcontains more individual elements in the main performance and,consequently, has more single-instrument loops in each track.Roots has more 16-bar loops, whereas the maximum length onHadeeth is 8 bars.
Hadeeth also has far more tracks than Roots, weighingin with 40 world-fusion tracks, 10 shorter additional rhythms (no bpmis given for those), 22 traditional tracks, and 11 tracks of one-shots.Roots offers 41 full tracks in a mix of styles and 4 tracks ofone-shots.
Mummie says both productions provide excellent coverage of styles— as much as anyone would ever need. The discs have lots ofvarying tempos and some good odd-meter performances.
We particularly liked Aksak on Hadeeth, a solid 9/8 rhythm at120 bpm, and the alluring 11/8 Samaie Thakil. The second Falahyloop on the same CD is a joyous 4/4 romp, cooking along at 190.Hewa, from Southern Arabia, is a loping 6/8 at 120 bpm with theaccent on the fifth beat. It instantly took me back to the hundreds ofPersian gigs I've played.
Semmayi Darej from Roots is another intriguingodd-meter rhythm in 5/4 at 70 bpm. The Sudasi rhythms are mostly in 6/4with an irresistible lilt that makes you want to dance. Common rhythmssuch as Maksoum and Sayidi are also well represented onRoots with six and eight variations, respectively, at differingtempos.
I also compared loops in the same styles from each CD. The commonMiddle Eastern rhythm Baladi is included in both collections; theHadeeth duff performance from track 27, Baladi No. 2, and theRoots daholla performance from track 4 are nearly identical.Each has a distinct character and is beautifully performed, yetHadeeth's strength shines through. You get the feel of skin onthe drumhead and audio clarity throughout the example, whereas theRoots loop sounds too midrangey.
DOCUMENTATION AND ISSUES
Both CDs have essentially the same documentation and structure. Alist of the instruments with brief definitions of each is provided. Thetrack number is followed by the name of the style, the length in bars,the tempo and meter, and then the names of the individual instrumentloops within the track. However, I have some concerns about thematerial and documentation (or lack thereof).
The collections make good resources for learning Middle Eastern andNorth African rhythmic styles. But the discs are marketed to a largeWestern user base, and the context is missing: is the loop urban, folk,classical, cabaret, or peasant village? Those who use the CDs need tobe aware that almost all of the rhythms accompany a religious ritual ortraditional dance. A short clip with other melodic instruments and anexplanation would help users understand the context in which therhythms are normally played.
Furthermore, users should know that Middle East is a genericterm. Using Saudi Arabian music in a visual setting in which anEgyptian walks across the street is like playing Cuban music to a scenein which a cowboy walks across the street — it won't make sense.Of all the loops on the two CDs, only one on Roots referencesits country of origin.
In lieu of that, how about including a discography? That would letusers at least know the artists who have given these musical forms lifeover the years and seek them out if they are interested. A certaindegree of homage to the original masters is warranted.
In the final analysis, both CDs give quality performances in avariety of styles. Hadeeth wins out because of itshigher-quality audio; larger quantity of tracks, loops, and single-hitsamples; and the addition of drum-kit performances. Roots hasperformances by more players and is also available in CD-ROM format.CD-ROM is easier to use because the files are ready to import intoAkai-compatible software and hardware.
Neither disc goes far enough in documenting its source material.Roots gives a brief reference on some files (for example,denoting that Baladi is “from the countryside”), andHadeeth distinguishes between the traditional and the modern,but that's as far as it goes.
Whichever disc you choose, you'll get genuine Middle Eastern andNorth African rhythms performed by skilled musicians experienced in thegenres. If your music begs for the real deal, pay the Big Fish site avisit and compare for yourself.
Jeff Obeeis a fretless bassist, synthesist, and composerin the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him firstname.lastname@example.org.
Big Fish Audio
Roots of the Middle East and North Africa
$99.95 (audio CD)
$199.95 (Akai-format CD-ROM)
QUALITY OF SOUNDS3.5DOCUMENTATION2.0VALUE3.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Comprehensive. Well performed. CD-ROM and audioformats.
CONS: Inadequate documentation. Hand percussion only. Soundlacks definition and depth.
Big Fish Audio
Hadeeth Arabic Rhythms
QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.5DOCUMENTATION2.0VALUE4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Includes drum-kit loops. Large assortment of tracks andone-shots. Comprehensive. High-quality sounds.
CONS: Inadequate documentation. Audio CD only.