Once inside, it was assigned seating... for about 10 minutes, before everyone got up and started dancing in the aisles to Hakim, who is perhaps Egypt's most dynamic pop performer. Soon, practically everyone was on their feet, dancing in celebration to "El Ha'e Aleeh". Women and a few men from the audience came on stage and danced enthusiastically and alluringly to the band.
It was refreshing to see the diversity of the people who were at the show... most were of Arabic background, but most people probably don't truly understand how diverse that can be until they see it for themselves. (i.e. They think of everyone as either a generic American or, if it fits their preconceptions, they think of them as Arab. They rarely think of them as Arab Americans.)
As one woman said while waiting in line to her friend "So, he looked at me and asked me where I came from. Are you Italian? No?! Are you Portuguese? No.. Greek?! ... are you an American??"
The crowd, as I said, was diverse. There were those who looked Caucasian, who looked Slavic, who looked Mediteranian, who looked French or Spanish, there were Black Arabs who switched between French, English, and Arabic effortlessly, there were lesbians who had that Berkeley/San Francisco geek chic... some who were dressed butch, there were effeminate bois dressed in house gear smiling, kissing, and dancing with their friends, there were middle-aged women and men dressed formally yet sometimes dancing in the aisles themselves, there were younger women who wore Levis and blouses who really knew how to move their hips, there were guys who work slacks and shirts who also really knew how to move their hips, there were packs of timid women wearing open-faced khimars, smiling broadly like young teenagers at their first concert. There were a few women wearing the full veil, but not many.
If I were to make one generalization about the crowd, it would be that they loved their cellphones. Lots of people were meeting up with friends and using their cellphones to locate each other amidst the crowd.
In the middle of Hakim's performance, the house lights came on and DJ Cheb i Sabaah, the promoter for the event, announced that fire codes required that people take their seats. Most did, very reluctantly, though there was a lot of booing... not against the promoter, but against the city, and, I think to some extent against that part of American society that really does feel the need to make people generic and controlled. Sadly, the concert security were soon making their presence felt, especially during Khaled's show, where they were more than a bit overzealous and just plain violent at times. Given the whole post-WTC environment that caused the tour to be delayed several months, it must've felt like more of the same.
After Hakim, Cheb i Sabaah deejayed during the change between acts, mixing Arabic music and breakbeats seamlessly together in a way that got everyone moving again. (Where does he get his stuff?! I want his music collection, but I'd settle for a playlist!) Cheb i Sabaah is really impressive... but then again, he's been spinning his particular mix of world music in the Bay Area for over a decade. We picked up his CD "Maha Maya" which is a really nice thing indeed, comparing favorably to other artists like Banco de Gaia, while being more organic and interesting. We're definitely going to have to go up to S.F. at his regular club night and see him spin live.
Khaled came on after the intermission and was...well... pretty damn impressive, with an incredible voice and a really wide repertoire. It was interesting to notice all the outside elements of music that were in the performances that night... ska, reggae, soul, rock, French cabaret, jazz, house, drum 'n' bass, etc. Listening to him live was far preferable to hearing most of his recorded work, and revealed more depth than even the recordings would indicate. My favorite songs, however, were the more lyrical pieces that highlighted his incredible vocal talents. Amazing.
Along with Khaled was the Palestinian oud player/violinist Simon Shaheen. He was prominently featured several times during the night, and performed a really jaw-dropping improvisational oud performance that was alternately moving, hypnotic, frenzied, and danceable, giving the rest of the band a break. His work on the violin while accompanying Khaled's singing was also riveting.
In short, it was a very good concert indeed... The concert wasn't a repackaging of Arabic music for western audiences, but a revealing look at Arabic music today and an indicator of how exciting the possibilities are when cultures share influences, yet retain their individuality.