Twenty years ago in New York, you couldn’t buy a falafel without hearing Ishtar Alabina‘s slinky songs blasting from somebody’s speakers or boombox. The Moroccan-Jewish queen of Romany and Andalucian-tinged habibi pop is still out there: she played here in 2019, touring behind a greatest-hits album simply titled Alabina and streaming at Spotify.
The string synth swooshes mightily as the opening track, also titled Alabina – her signature song, more or less – kicks in with a little Spanish guitar flourish and clip-clop percussion. The guys in the band sing the first verse in Spanish before their frontwoman swoops in, singing in Arabic and bending her way to a stark crescendo. If you’ve been listening to Middle Eastern music over the past couple of decades, you know this song.
She and the band played a lot of Spanish and Latin music over the years. This album has a lot of those songs. There’s the spiky, Gipsy Kings-influenced Baile Maria, as well as La Cubanita, a salsa song with a steady dancefloor thud and a fleeting flamenco guitar solo. The group’s male contingent sing most of Ya Mama, a pretty straight-up salsa tune, as well as the bouncy Tierra Santa, the closest thing to the Gipsy Kings here. The only cover here, Lolole is a habibi pop version of the Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.
Sawash was an early attempt to blend some reggaeton into the sound. There are also a trio of tunes, Lolai, Salaama and Salaam la Paz – which mash up flamenco pop and what would morph into dabke music.
The group’s biggest hits on their home turf were the most distinctly Middle Eastern ones, where they were more likely to use an oud and a kanun rather than guitars to spice all that lush synthesized orchestration. They’re all in minor keys and catchy as hell. Venga, a bitingly irresistible duet, is one of the best of the bunch, while Lamouni has microtonal violin and a rippling kanun solo on the intro.
Purists may hear this and laugh, but Alabina was a gateway drug to a better world for thousands of non-Arabic speakers. One summer day in the late 90s, a future daily New York music blog owner walked out of Rashid Sales on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn with a Umm Kulthuum concert cassette and an Alabina album much like this. In the months afterward, they would get plenty of time on an old walkman. Those cassettes still exist; the walkman sadly does not.