IN SEPARATE INCIDENTS a few years back in Oran, Algeria, Islamic fundamentalists gunned down rai singer Cheb Hasni and producer Rasheed Baba Ahmed for the crime of making music that inflamed the dreams and loins of the nation's youth (and we sweat the PMRC... ). Should these same psychopaths make it past the Atlas Mountains over to Casablanca, Morocco, I would begin worrying for Najat Aatabu. For while the subject matter of her songs is less in-your-face than the drunk and horny narratives common to rai, the sheer ecstatic buzz of her North African pop songs, combined with the brazen yowl of her voice, speaks to a desire that's fiery and bottomless and probably, to some, very dangerous.
Country Girls and City Women collects a bunch of top-notch recordings by this Berber superstar, who sings in Arabic and performs concerts at sports stadiums in her homeland. Unlike her synth-savvy Algerian pop neighbors, Aatabu performs with a big band of traditional instruments. The violin, oud, and banjo-like lotar make themselves heard, but mainly this is drum-powered music; while there are no band credits, I'd suppose there are anywhere from three to six percussionists on any given track. The trance-inducing rhythms owe plenty to the Moroccan Gnawa drumming tradition (see the definitive Axiom recording Night Spirit Masters, produced by Bill Laswell), all circling thunder and sharp metallic clatter, but also take some of their shape from the stately dumbek beats of classical Arabic music. The tension is palpable, and these players rock it; with Aatabu's guttural chants laid over the top, the mix is positively dizzying.
Two songs (also collected on the '95 Voice of the Atlas set) date to the late '80s. "The Wind (Ar-rih)" kicks it with an oud riff that echoes the Mission Impossible TV theme (and why not?), with the girl wailing about woe and worry and struggle. "Go Find Another Lover (Shoufi Ghirou)," once covered by 3 Mustaphas 3, is a drum-heavy groove thang attached to a "Jolene"-style rant aimed at a girl trying to steal the singer's man--except where Dolly pleads, Najat demands ("look at her dogging him like a bitch in heat" reads the translation). The rest of the record is from a 1995 cassette release that's long on galloping desert beats, exquisite fiddling, and more fearless vocal work. I can only imagine the ruckus this could raise in a Marrakech soccer field, but it certainly upped the temperature in my living room, and probably will in yours, too.
Check out this week's featured ad for Entertainment