Nile Songs: My Middle East & North Africa Playlist, Had I Accompanied President Obama to Egypt
President Obama gave a speech at Cairo University yesterday in which he reached out to Muslims, decried extremism and the murder of innocents, and outlined his administration's policies regarding a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.
Regardless of your views on the successes or shortcomings of the president's hotly debated speech, I'd bet us diehard music fans can all agree that there are some pretty amazingly cool songs inspired the Arab and Muslim cultures of the Middle East and North Africa.
Had I been able to accompany the president on this historic trip, here are a few songs I would've loaded into my iPod for the journey:
• Pink Floyd - "The Nile Song"
"I was standing by the Nile / When I saw a lady smile ... She is calling from the deep / Summoning my soul to endless sleep."
I know, not exactly HOPEFUL. Still, this Pink Floyd song that shares a name with the longest river in the world, a river inextricably linked to life in Egypt, is raw and vibrant and powerful. Not a bad way to kick off a Middle East mix.
Miles Davis - "A Night in Tunisia"
This Miles tune inspired by a night spent in the tiny country tucked between Libya and Algeria to Egypt's west, features one of the greatest sax breaks in jazz history, courtesy of Charlie Parker. It's not only one of the most enduring jazz standards, it's one of the most exotic, sexy, and mysterious pieces of music ever recorded.
Pixies - "River Euphrates"
"Stuck here out of gas / Out here on the Gaza Strip / From driving in too fast ... Let's ride the tiger down the River Euphrates"
As usual, I have no idea what in the hell Pixies frontman Black Francis is talking about in this song. And, from what I can gather from the several maps I've looked at, the Gaza Strip is nowhere near the Euphrates River. This fact does exactly zero to affect the amount of satisfaction I get out of listening to this near-perfect proto-grunge-pop gem. I love everything about it, from the weird, nonsensical lyrics to bassist Kim Deal's alternately angelic/demonic backing vocals and Joey Santiago's epic guitar hooks.
John Prine - "Jesus, The Missing Years"
"It was raining, it was cold / West Bethlehem was no place for a 12-year-old ... kids in trouble with cops from Israel didn't have no home / So he cut his hair and moved to Rome"
"Kids in trouble with the cops from Israel didn't have no home" - in the context of this song, that lyric is so charming and funny and poignant. Prine is a master songwriter, and this song has another one of my favorite lines of his: "Oh, my God, what have I gotten myself into / I'm a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood."
Black 47 - "Downtown Baghdad Blues"
"Don't care much for Jesus or Mohammed / They don't stop the bullets to the best of my knowledge ... I wish I was back home rootin' for the Padres / 'stead of dodgin' bullets from Mookie El Sadr / I wish I was back in the land of Giuliani / Instead of takin' heart from Ayatollah Sistani"
Irish ex-pats Black 47 penned this passionate tune about what it's like to be young and stuck fighting a war for which you can't even see a purpose.
Pharoah Sanders - "Upper and Lower Egypt"
This song is right up there with anything John Coltrane ever recorded - one of the most powerful, spiritual and evocative pieces of music I've heard in my life. Every time I hear it, it takes me back to the very first time I stumbled upon it, late one teenaged night, impossibly stoned, listening to public radio while scrawling interstellar poetry under the glow of a blacklight lamp while my friend Andy did headstands in the closet. Weird? Yeah, maybe. But I wouldn't trade it.
Grateful Dead - "King Solomon's Marbles"
This playful Grateful Dead instrumental from their 1975 album Blues for Allah is named after the Biblical and historical figure who is said to have built the first temple in Jerusalem. He was known for his great wealth, power and wisdom, but—as the story goes—was ultimately done in by his sinfulness and idolatry. In other words, the perfect starting point for such a musically complex Grateful Dead workout.
Steve Earle - "Jerusalem"
"I woke up this mornin' and none of the news was good / Death machines were rumblin' 'cross the ground where Jesus stood ... [But] I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham / Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem"
The fact that a song with this much to say was actually played on CMT is pretty amazing (see video below). Weary yet hopeful, Earle's "Jerusalem" is perhaps the finest American song ever written about the struggle for Middle East peace.