Glossy production gripes aside, this is an enjoyable cross-cultural treat.
John Doran 2009
There is a sharp mind at work in Speed Caravan, and it belongs to master oud player Mehdi Haddab.
The young Paris-based Arab musician has an unflinching gaze trained at the way Western pop music appropriates and commodifies Middle Eastern musical tradition. The oud is a pear-shaped, Arabic lute-cum-fretless banjo style instrument and one of the main voices in the music key in Persian culture for the last five thousand years. This style has also been popular with Western pop producers for, oh, at least the last ten years. But in the same way that Turkish mega-hit Simarik was re-imagined as Kiss Kiss for Holly Valance, Haddab is looking in the opposite direction, borrowing some of ‘The West’’s big pop sheen to add some shimmer and verve to a prodigious talent for the oud.
This is never more obvious than on the two cheeky covers of Brit songs on this often fascinating record. The first is a hectic version of The Cure’s Killing an Arab. The original was perhaps a slightly gauche but innocent retelling of Albert Camus’ perennial favourite with misunderstood teenagers everywhere, The Stranger (or The Outsider, if you prefer), given a scratchy post-punk, Algerian feel. Speed Caravan (here also featuring sound engineer David Husser and the ‘Rai rebel’ Rachid Taha) drag the song out of the Crawley suburbs in the 70s and back to the bazaar, albeit the bazaar of the near future.
The second is a version of The Chemical Brothers’ Galvanize – which itself was based around a sample of Moroccan musician Najat Aâtabou. Here the track’s amped up by Algerian rappers Micro Brise Le Silence and Spex MC from Asian Dub Foundation and samples declaring: “This is an Islamic State: we are Moslems.” The context is not so much altered as smashed apart.
This is not the first time the oud has been successfully re-contextualised as a substitute for the electric guitar; those who are interested in the eclectic glory of culture clash and psych are strongly urged to seek out Hard Rock From The Middle East, a self explanatory album by The Devil’s Anvil recorded in late 60s NYC. Also, speaking from a British perspective, one problem with this album is its massive, glossy French soft rock production, which values FM friendly sonic bombast over subtlety or grit. But that aside this is an enjoyable cross-cultural treat.