Baghdad Love 

Iraqi singer Kazem Al-Sahir brings his repressed longing to Berkeley.

One of the most telling attitudes that separates the average American from the Arab world is the popular musical conception of love and desire. Overt sexuality sells well in the United States, but in Baghdad, Britney Spears and R Kelly run counter to cultural norms. Lovers there tend to keep it under wraps. It smolders. And singers like Kazem Al-Sahir sell millions of CDs.

"In the Arab world, he's the top," says DJ Cheb i Sabbah, who's sharing the stage with the mega-popular Iraqi singer, backed by a fifteen-piece orchestra, in a concert Friday, March 7 at the Berkeley Community Theatre. "He sings love songs in the romantic style, in that Arabic kind of mood like Oum Koulsoum, but modern. He's also very good-looking, a charmer, and that helps." In Iraq, the same strict religious and societal rules we might call repressive have created a market for throbbing orchestration and songs about unfulfilled passion. "All the songs are about longing, separation, and waiting," Sabbah explains. "It's that classical way of talking about love, very much like Indian ragas. It speaks to human nature. After all, that's what makes the world go around, that's what everyone wants." Al-Sahir's latest CD, Qusat Habebain (EMI), is slick and poppy, but with enough emotional suffering in his voice to satisfy anyone's repressed romantic tendencies. Listen to it with a cup of mint tea and cry your eyes out.

The timing is especially apt for an Iraqi singer to tour the States, on the brink of war between the two countries. This sort of cross-culturalism is second nature for DJ Cheb, whose championing of South Asian and Middle Eastern traditional musical forms -- often with added dance beats -- has opened a lot of ears since he began spinning discs at Nicky's BBQ on Haight Street in the '80s. DJ Cheb i Sabbah appears in person along with DJ Nader at Friday night's show (doors open at 7 p.m.), one of only six stops on Al-Sahir's US tour. 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley. Tickets are $125, $75, $50, and $35 at 510-421-2121.

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