Karim Nagi, the Egypt-born, Swarthmore-educated, Boston-based orator, songwriter, DJ, drummer, dancer and college educator, has released the latest of his now dozen albums. It is a magical mystery tour into, around, and beyond the modern Arab world, which of course includes many lands not predominantly populated by Arabs, or Muslims.
It is an adventure worth taking. Nagi's lyrics are intriguing, barbed and catchy. There is the profoundly serious but slyly humorous track “Reorientalism,”critiquing the often-mistaken but persistent Western concept which is “simultaneously dangerous and attractive . . . fanciful stories that we hear about ourselves,” and concludes with the question: “Can you understand how fascination travels from the love of caravan romance, to terror and profiling, all on the hoofs of a camel?”
Recent history swirls to the forefront in “Yalla Yalla,” as Nagy shares his view of the source of the Arab Spring uprisings: Until one day from Tunis A fruit man, was beaten along with his fruit stand He didn't give a bribe police revoked his permit So he took his own body and he burned it All of Tunis inhaled this smoke and the plan became to revolt.
Then there is Nagy's deft melding of food and love in “If I Were Hummus,” which at first seems simply a romantic flirtation but evolves into a beautiful comment on the status and significance of Arab nations and Arab people in the wide world: Arabs are imperfect much of the time but equally capable of acting divine.
And Nagy's music is percussion-driven and exceedingly danceable with rapturous instrumental backings that mix traditional Arab sounds with electronics, enhanced by his own vocals and a guest spot by singer Pleasant Gehman; it lifts his deftly crafted lyrics to dizzying heights. Sometimes rapping, sometimes singing, sometimes just declaiming, Nagy keeps the listener riveted throughout this album as the twelve songs blend into one another while each still establishes its own distinct vision. Nagy's musical timing and wit hold it all together.
The opening cut, “Your First Arab” and the hilariously informative “What Arabs Do for Fun” are show-stoppers, but really every cut on this disc is a killer. Nagy strives to reveal the depth and intricacy of the Arab diaspora to those among whom Arabs now live and dance, and certainly he seeks to hold up a lyrical and sonic mirror to that diaspora itself, of which he is himself an artistic leading light. - Bill Nevins