KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – What if it could be proved that no two nations that play salsa music have ever declared war on each other?
Some of the best salsa music in the Middle East comes from Egypt and Israel, for instance. Both nations have been at peace since 1979, the same period when salsa began to take hold.
A coincidence? Perhaps not.
The first time I heard Arabic salsa music, I was in a taxi in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, racing to catch a connecting flight to Afghanistan. The taxi driver, a Pakistani, was playing an incredible song on his radio. First came the Latin rhythms on bongos, then the rush of flamenco guitars. It sounded like the sort of dance music I grew up listening to in south Texas but with a distinctly Middle Eastern trill of the voice and the guttural lyrics that could only be Arabic.
The music was a revelation. After Sept. 11, and the media barrage proclaiming a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Arabic world, here was evidence of something quite the opposite. Instead of a clash, this was a blend, and a gorgeous one at that.
It was a reminder that there were other voices in the Arab world than Osama bin Laden, and good voices at that.
“Amr Diab,” the taxi driver announced proudly. “He is Ricky Martin of the Arab people.”
Age has taught me manners, so I remained silent until I reached the airport. But in my head I was thinking: I know Ricky Martin, from his few years at the top of the charts. And Amr Diab is no Ricky Martin. He’s much better.
At the airport, on the way to my gate, I grabbed every Amr Diab tape on the rack of the airport’s ample music store. Once in Kabul, my Afghan driver in Kabul was very enthusiastic when I put it into the tape deck of his Toyota Corolla.
“Thank you, thank you, Mr. Scott,” he said, giving me the thumbs up and his only four words of English.
It was then that I realized two things. One, I would never see these tapes again. And two, that salsa is universal. It takes root in whatever soil it is planted. In the past four years in South and West Asia, I have heard salsa in Arabic, Persian, Dari, Urdu, Hindi, Indonesian, Thai, Sinhalese, and Nepali.
With such universal acceptance, one starts to think of whether salsa can contribute to world peace.
But let’s just focus on Arabic salsa for a moment.
By far, the prime practitioner of the art is Amr Diab. His greatest hits album, “The Very Best of Amr Diab,” should be in the collection of any worldly world-music lover. Most of my friends can sing the words to his hit song “Nour Elain,” … but then, keep in mind that most of my friends are war correspondents who travel between Baghdad and Kabul. Perhaps not a representative crowd.
The most satisfying thing about Arabic salsa is the fact that it fits so well. You hear the ululating of an Arabic singer, and you compare it to the harsh vibrato of the Gypsy Kings, and you are suddenly aware that you are standing on that middle ground between cultures.
From about 700 A.D. until a few years before the discovery of America, Spain was a land occupied by Muslims. Its universities taught Arabic. Its musicians and troubadours sang in Arabic. Its architecture and arts were all influenced by the Middle East, and Europeans flocked there for decent educations.
Is it any surprise that Arab singers would find Latin music attractive?
Amr Diab is not alone. Over the past few years, there have been plenty of other examples – including Cheb Faudel’s “Salsa,” Natacha Atlas’s French-and-Arabic language “Ne me jugez pas,” the Gypsy Kings’ crossover Arabic song, “Alabina,” and Hakim’s Spanish-language hit, “Los cuatros punales,” – of those who have experimented with salsa in the past years.
There is even an Iranian singer named Andy who has gotten into the salsa game with the Persian-Arabic salsa hit, “Yalla.”
Ya Allah, indeed, the Islamic extremists must be thinking, as they tug at their beards. What has happened to the new generation? All they want to do is dance, and run down the street singing, “Habibi… habibi… habibi… el Nuor Elain (My darling, you are the light of my eye….)”
How exactly can one carry out a clash of civilizations if civilizations refuse to clash?