July 29, 2004
by BOB DORAN
YOU MIGHT THINK, WHAT WITH THE STATE OF THE world today, that it would not be a good time for a band like Brothers of the Baladi [photo above], who focus on music of the Middle East. But the band's founder, Michael Beach, says he has not found much resistance to his take on Arabic music.
"It's true, the common feeling of [Americans] about the Middle East is not good -- unfortunately. But what I find is, because we're Americans, bringing this music to Americans, people relate to it differently than if we were a band of Arabs."
Additionally, he explains, after almost 30 years playing Middle Eastern music, he has learned to add elements to the sound to make it more "palatable" for Western audiences.
"For one thing, we sing in English along with the foreign languages. I'll sing a verse in English and then a verse in Arabic or in Turkish. We talk about the songs and make people understand what they're about, and really about 85 percent of the songs are about love -- or they're something like the blues. We're singing the blues."
At a glance you might not even recognize that the band is playing anything Middle Eastern, aside from Beach, out front on hand drums. He's backed by a drum kit, electric bass, a keyboard player and a guitarist -- but the keyboards are programmed with Arabic instruments sounds, and the guitarist plays a guitar-synth that can sound just like an oud or a saz.
Beach's fascination with the Middle Eastern music began in 1975 in Yuma, Ariz. "There was a woman, a bellydancer -- there's always a woman, at least it's that way for me. I started going to her shows; pretty soon I was drumming with her. I ended up getting a couple of other guys together and that was the original Brothers of the Baladi."
The original focus was on Arabic folk music, thus the name -- Baladi is an Arabic word for folk, people or homeland. "It was exotic and exciting; people liked it. We were all Americans, trying to emulate what we could. We weren't that great, we were just listening to records trying to imitate what we heard, but it was a beginning."
By 1978, Beach had relocated to southern Oregon and met a multi-instrumentalist string player. "We traveled around as a duo for about 12 years, playing for dancers and making a name for ourselves. It changed a lot after he left; I pulled together another group of musicians and added more world music elements. The focus shifted from playing for bellydancers to making music for people."
In 1995, Beach and company recorded an album, Eye on the World, with Michael Shrieve of Santana producing. "We knew then that there was life after bellydancers. Latin, reggae, Afropop were added in -- and we still had a strong hold on rock `n' roll. We became sort of a Middle Eastern, rock-reggae-world music band."
More recently, he has shifted back to Arabic sounds. "For the last few years we jumped back into all Middle Eastern, but with an American backbeat that makes it really danceable. By using Western instruments, adding bass and a drum kit, we're able to mix Western grooves in with the Middle Eastern. Compare that to a bunch of Turks or Arabs sitting around playing ouds and singing in a foreign language people can't relate to -- without anything Western at all. Most people will listen to a couple of songs then head out the door."
He has no illusions about mending the rift between America and our neighbors in the Middle East, but he admits, "We have been called ambassadors many times, by Middle Eastern people and by Americans. I'd have to say, I feel good when Americans love it, when they come up after the show and say, `I don't know what this music is; I've never heard it before, but it's really cool.'
"The other thing I love is when Middle Eastern people come; most of the time they're blown away to hear us playing this music. And they love the fact that I'm turning people on to their music, that Americans are relating to their culture and really digging it."
Brothers of the Baladi perform Friday, July 30, at Rumours, 415 Fifth St. Eureka. Joining them are Sisters of the Dance: Shoshanna and Tribalesque. Showtime is 9 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door. Call 269-0282 for additional details. For more about the band go to www.baladi.com.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.