With the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Sahara Desert to the south, North Africa serves as a crossroad between many cultures. The Atlantic coast of Morocco forms the Western boundary of North Africa and the Suez Canal in Egypt its eastern end. Most of North Africa is known as the Maghreb and includes the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Egypt, which is generally considered part of the Middle East, is geographically part of North Africa.
Echoes of ancient history can still be heard in the rhythms and melodies of North Africas popular music. While electronic drum beats, disco and funk-inspired grooves, hip-hop and other Western influences are clearly apparent in the modern music of the region, traditional instrumentation, singing techniques and melodies play an important role in defining the local sound.
The two best known types of popular music from North Africa are raï and al-jil. Raï means "opinion" in Arabic, and it developed in the Algerian port city of Oran in the 1950s and 60s. Raï is the North African equivalent of rock and roll and is now popular throughout the Maghreb and in Arabic communities around the world. Al-jil is Egyptian party music. While raï and al-jil still form the core of popular North African music, Moroccan Gnawa trance, Touareg blues, Berber folk and Afro-Nubian rhythms are some of the exotic local flavors that have influenced the regions music.
In recent years, the French cities of Paris and Marseilles have become important production centers for North African music, and many popular artists are beginning to create songs that target their own communities as well as a wider French market. Meanwhile, European DJs and producers have collaborated with artists from the region, and the influences of electronica and European club music are ever more evident.
You'd be forgiven if, after listening to North African Groove, the seventh release in Putumayo's dance floor-ready "Groove" series, you imagined that the world was getting smaller. In highlighting the diversity in contemporary Arabic music, the 12 eclectic tracks here gather influences from far beyond North Africa--from the Gypsy Kings-style flamenco touches of Egyptian Amr Diab's "Nour Al Ain" to the old-style Cuban salsa of Jomed's "Montuno Noreno" to the French-style accordion that enlivens the funky Rai of Cheb Mami's "Viens Habibi." Of course, this being a compilation with "Groove" in the title, most everything has club beats that could come from anywhere, although everything is filtered through a North African lens. A case in point is Rai--the backbeat-heavy style from Algeria that mixes American funk with Arabic instruments and melodies and which is ably represented here by Algerian superstar Khaled's "Aicha" and "Ya-Rayi," as well as the less familiar (to Western ears, anyway) Rhany and Faudel. Perhaps most surprising though is the link bared between North Africa and Latin America--which might seem unexpected until one considers the Moorish influence on Spanish music and the Spanish influence on Latin music, proving that no, the world isn't getting smaller: it's always been that way. --Ezra Gale