Reupped in 360kbps here. [Originally posted in April 2010.] I've learned from more than a decade of scrounging through bodega racks for pop music CDs that there are basically two kinds of shop keeps. Those who are suspicious as to why you are looking through "their" music and those who are nothing short of thrilled to see someone other than their regular stream of customers actually show an interest in it. My first experience, happily, was the latter. After moving to New York and a year of month-long sublets in three boroughs, I finally settled in an apartment on 13th Street and 6th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in a fourth-floor apartment with the poet Chris Stroffolino. I lived there from mid-1998 to mid-1999. While strolling a few blocks away on 5th Avenue, I noticed a corner bodega, which appeared to have a whole rack of CDs and tapes for sale. I popped in, said hello to the shop keep--a friendly looking middle-aged woman wearing a scarf over her hair--and began perusing. "How much are these?" I asked, holding up the CD you see at top of this post. "Five dollars," she said, "or twenty dollars for five." A brief pause, as my eyebrows arched. "You speak Arabic?" she asked. "Oh. Not really. I just--" "If you like Najwa Karam," she nearly blurted out, "you should try Asalah! She is from my home country: Syria. Beautiful voice!" Thus began one of the most pleasant customer-shop keep relationships I have ever had in my life. I took the five CDs--including the Najwa Karam and something by Asalah she recommended (more on her in another post)--and headed home. My world, to put it mildly, had been rocked. Najwa Karam was born in 1966 in Zahle, about an hour east of Beirut. At an early age she showed signs of a natural gift for singing and, in 1985, without getting her parents' permission, signed up to compete on "Layali Lubnan," a TV show that I gather might have been a classier sort of "American Idol," which she won. She began recording in the late 80s and by the 90s was an international superstar. Her career, however, has not always been the smoothest. She hasn't shied away from controversial, often feminist material (in one song she tells her fictional cousin that, because she was forced to marry him, he can have her body, but never her soul). Perhaps because of this, she has sometimes run into trouble. In 1999 a rumor was started that she had told an interviewer that she had named her pet dog after the prophet Muhammad, and was subsequently banned from entering into Egypt to perform. A former Jordanian prime minister reportedly issued a fatwa. The rumor was false, and after a concentrated PR effort, she overcame it. More recently, in 2004, the Lebanese Surete Generale censored the video clip, "Why Are You Emigrating?" which focused on Lebanon's economic crisis and the problems of the young.
Najwa Karam singing a mawal Over the years I managed to find all of Karam's CDs, but still return most often to "Rouh Rouhi," one of the most powerful, rockin' pop efforts I have ever heard. After I moved from Park Slope to Kensington I returned one day to the Syrian bodega on 5th Avenue, and was happy to find the shop keep still there. She still recognized me, made a few recommendations, and played a few things for me to see if I could guess who the singer was. (I could, but when she asked if I knew what each song was, I had to shrug. She seemed to like that.) I haven't been back in nearly half a decade, though, and I was a bit saddened that I have been thus far unable to find it looking around the area via Google's "Street View" function.