Middle Eastern Music in the SF Bay Area: MC Raï and The Georges Lammam Ensemble

With the onset of nice summer weather and events in the Bay Area popping up, I was very pleased to bring a friend (who then brought his friend, naturally) to check out Berkeley’s World Music Festival last weekend. It was a day full of music of all kinds, and although I ‘only’ saw 2 performances, they were great fun–and all the more awesome for the sheer fact that it was an entirely free event!

Thanks to growing up in Brussels, Belgium, (as well as spending a year of college abroad in Paris, France), I’ve had my fair share of exposure to Raï music. This musical style consists of Algerian folk music and blends French, African and Arabic music genres, to the themes of social and/or political unrest. While Cheb Khaled is synonymous with this style of music (and with my own first exposure to the genre), Cheb Mami is another gifted and renown Raï singer,whose name should ring a bell for those who recall Sting’s lovely “Desert Rose.” With that said, I was particularly interested in checking out Tunisian singer-songwriter MC Raï‘s performance, since his genre and name sounded very familiar. It eventually dawned on me that I’d already seen MC Raï and Cheb i Sabbah 3 years ago during MECA’s “I Save Babylon” Benefit Concert. (If I recall correctly; this event was also supposed to have Cheb Khaled as the headliner–which I was naturally super excited about!–but resulted in the singer canceling. :()

As for the Berkeley event itself, MC Raï’s performance was great and very spirited, thanks to both the performers and the attendees. It’s interesting how different cities channel different energies, and you can always count on Berkeley to deliver a laid back vibe. The band was great, and I found the singer’s voice to be very smooth and at times not unlike Cheb Mami’s. The songs are the epitome of diverse; mixing Middle Eastern elements with rock, jazz, and blues influences, which are sung predominantly in Arabic with some French thrown in. Some songs played included “Is’ha”, “Mafia”, “Clandestin” and what I’m guessing may be new tracks (a forthcoming new album perhaps?!). It was definitely worth it to sit in the hot sun and enjoy the tunes… and develop a sunburn to last me the next 4 days. LOL! The sacrifices one makes for art!

Later I was also able to check out the awe-inspiring, talented Georges Lammam Ensemble which delivered some AMAZING Arabic violin melodies. Simply breathtaking!!! There is definitely something to be said about an intimate setting mixed with live instruments… It gave us all chills, literally. Their beautiful sounds can be checked out here.

Since I love me some free events, I checked out yet another MC Raï performance a few days later, this time at San Francisco’s Union Square. The vibe definitely differed from Berkeley’s, but it was enjoyable nonetheless (because I enjoy good music wherever it may be :)). I’m pretty sure I saw the same hippie guy I’d seen a few days before in Berkeley, who was just as ready to get his groove on a second time around. 🙂

A few pictures and video clips below.

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Video clips:

(Don’t know the song title of this one)

Performing “Clandestin”: