“Two great tastes, one great flavor,” joked my boss, as we overheard the strains of a booty jam sampling a piece of 1950s Arab orchestral music. Sitting in his car on the way to a recording session, we turned the volume up. Nodding his head in approval at the mix of squishy beats and vintage strings, he declared, “It’s so fucking obvious! Byrne and Eno were doing this twenty years ago.” Well, not exactly. But he was close.

The sounds of the Middle East – recordings of muezzins, as in the My Life in the Bush of Ghosts reference – had been common in electronic music for quite some time. But this cross-pollination of Arab and American urban sounds signified something different. This was the mainstream. “Thank Bush,” joked an engineer sitting in back. “Some GI brought a CD back from Iraq, and it ended up on his buddy’s record.”

It was a great observation, one that, under the best of circumstances, ought to have been given an editorial award. Of course the war would yield such cultural dividends. It was only a matter of time before we would start to hear its repercussions this way, as opposed to the sounds of roadside bomb explosions on the evening news. “That’s a brilliant point,” I remember saying. “At least it’s better than looting their museums.”

In retrospect, I’m not so sure. Eight years ago, there were numerous regional artists creating the same kind of cultural mashups, combining American and Arab idioms without the inspiration of military intervention. Why not prioritize them? Give credit where credit is due. One such artist is Clotaire K.  A French MC, of Egyptian/Lebanese parentage, his debut album, Lebanese, trafficked in all the same signifiers. Natively.

The 2003 LP is a genre-definer. Arriving a decade after the first Arabic-language hip-hop recordings, Lebanese takes all of the ingredients that defined late eighties American hip-hop and fuses them with elements of postwar Middle Eastern pop. Like the jam we heard in the car, the mix is familiar. Instead of an African-American MC, we hear bilingual Arabic-French rhyming. We can’t translate it. But it sounds as natural as Jay Z.

I spent years looking for another copy. I had ambitions to buy a dozen, to give to friends like my employer, who I thought would appreciate the irony of hearing this kind of work coming from the reverse cultural direction, remaking American music in a Levantine manner. Repeat work trips to France, where it’s normally easy to find such CDs in chain stores, failed to yield anything. French-Arabic hip-hop was no problem. But nothing quite like Clotaire K’s work.

Until I discovered DAM, that is. A Palestinian trio from the impoverished town of Lod, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I bought their first album,2007’s Dedication. I’d only heard snippets from friends, but that was enough to incite my desire. So when I was in Israel to visit my parents, I made sure to pick up a copy at a Tel Aviv record store. That was six months after the album was first released. It would be two years before I stopped listening to the record on a regular basis. It’s that good.

“They’re an Israeli Public Enemy,” a co-worker remarked after I played the record for her. “Palestinian, please,” I remember reminding her. “I know they live in Israel, but they identify as Palestinian.” The slippery nature of DAM’s identity, at least to left-wing Jews, is both a testament to the boundaries they cross, as a band, and, of course to the unsettled nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They are best described as Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel. Or simply Palestinians.

DAM’s music is very much a testimony to this experience. It is Western and it is Middle Eastern. They rhyme in Arabic, English and Hebrew. You hear the sequencing, sure, but then you hear the traditional percussion and stringed instruments as well. Their sound is a brilliant representation of a cultural experience that is both Levantine and American, Muslim and Jewish. A mix that many Israelis on the Right want to deny, refusing to acknowledge it as a reflection of their experience living in the Middle East.

For a while, I couldn’t escape DAM. It wasn’t just that I kept copies of their music on my laptop and on my iPod. They really were everywhere. In Jackie Salloum’s documentary, Slingshot Hip-Hop. On the Israeli sitcom Avoda Aravit. In Udi Aloni’s 2006 feature Forgiveness. On Al-Jazeera’s now-defunct world music program, Playlist. Yet, the band’s fan base remains confined, at least abroad, to a largely activist audience.

Having repeatedly missed DAM in Israel, I finally had the opportunity to catch them in London last March, at the Celebrate Palestine festival. Unsurprisingly, it was also the first time I’d seen copies of Dedication for sale in years. I bought an extra CD, with the idea of giving it to someone special. Someone who I know would appreciate it. Someone who, if they heard it, would look for the record at every specialty retailer in London. And not find it.

I took the liberty of recording the evening to a 16 bit digital recorder. I omitted the other artists on the bill, limiting DAM’s appearance to thirty-two minutes. It’s a bass-heavy mix, but  should give you a good idea of why more people should be aware of the group. Not just persons interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the kind of folks for whom a Middle Eastern sample, in the middle of a big R&B tune, is a great conversation starter.

 

DAM, live at the Celebrate Palestine Festival. London, March 19, 2011. All rights reserved by the artist. This recording is not for sale. To purchase DAM recordings, order direct from the band at damrap.com

Photograph of DAM courtesy of Steve Sabella.