The oud, for those none the wiser, is the fretless lute which is a major feature in a lot of traditional Arabic music. Mehdi Haddab is an oud virtuoso, who has joined forces with with bass player Pascal Teillet and electronica wizz Hermione Frank to make up the trio Speed Caravan.
The threesome is described as “French-Algerian” but in fact they have collaborated far and wide with an eclectic range of musicians to produce, in this album, something that may genuinely for once merit that much overused tag “World Music”.
The approach, in the main effective and persuasive, is one of mix-and-match. The principal combination that emerges is that of the frequent melding of Arabic-sounding instrumentation (oud, percussion etc) with westernised electro or dance rhythms, beats and synths.
This works best on the striking title track Kaleshnik Love, which comes across like Errors-Play-Womad, or – even more explicitly – on the effective, if sledgehammer-unsubtle, cover of The Chemical Brothers‘ Galvanize (complete with sample vocal from Berber singer Najaat Atabou).
Elsewhere dance music style is paired with Eastern European traditions, as in with Serbian synth musician Viorel Tajkuna’s interpretation of traditional Bulgarian melody Idemo Dalje, or the polka-esque and percussive Parov Yegar Siroon Var, composed by Armenian Turk Udi Hrant Kenkulian. There’s even a cover of The Cure‘s Killing An Arab, given a twist neat with the Arabic vocals, which lend a nice edge to an already edgy track.
Haddab himself appears to be on something of a mission to showcase, and give a rock ‘n’ roll slant to, the usually more traditionally deployed oud, and performs some impressively wild riffs and improvisations, in particular on Kaleshnik Love, Idemo Dalje and Daddy Lolo. Less effective is Erotic Chiftetelli, all semi-mystical lyrics and gentler rhythms: a track that clearly aims for sensuality but more often simply attains a kind of lazy boredom.
Many of the album’s tracks are instrumental and some, as mentioned above, are cover versions. Lyrically, though, the most interesting track (from an English-language perspective, at least) is Dubai – written from the point of view of a migrant worker in that glittering, soulless metropolis of the East, someone who “build(s) the modern day pyramids” but dreams of seeing “my little boy’s eyes” or “my wife and kids”. Vocal contributors here, curiously, include Hard-Fi‘s Richard Archer, and the atmosphere is taut, almost post-punk and with a sense of menace and darkness.
A total of 19 artists have contributed to this album. They are far too numerous to enumerate here in full, but include several oud players, percussionists, Algerian hip-hop artists, singers from Brittany and Alsace and ex-members of Asian Dub Foundation.
The album ends with two remixes. The first is the Sidestepper mix of Daddy Lolo. Sidestepper, a Brit and expert in Colombian rhythms, pulls off a more percussive, twangier, more organic (less synthesised) and actually more interesting version than the other one featured. In fact it sounds less mixed and more like an original track. Secondly, Malian Mo DJ offers his mix of Aissa Wah, which is generally pepped up, faster, livelier and more as you would expect a remix to be. Curiously, in both cases the remixes improve quite considerably on the originals.
In all, then, this is inspiring and energising material, expertly and enthusiastically delivered. In its sometimes confusing diversity, and almost wilful determination to seemingly gather together, and combine, as many musical traditions and styles as possible from a wide range of regions and cultures it could prove challenging to the more conservative listener. But those prepared to be thrown in at the deep end of the whirlpool will find themselves on a fascinating journey.