Just reupped this revelatory 27-track collection here. Asmahan (born Amal al-Atrash, 1917, reputedly on the Mediterranean en route from Izmir, Turkey, to Beirut, Lebanon) was, simply put, one of the 20th century's greatest singers and the only Middle Eastern diva generally considered to have given Egypt's Oum Kalsoum a serious run for her money. Asmahan strikes an interesting contrast to Kalsoum. Whereas Kalsoum was one of the most powerful Egyptians in history, in great part due to her brilliant management of her own career and image, Asmahan's brief, stop-and-go trajectory, which ended in her death at age 26 by suspicious car accident, was shrouded in rumor and intrigue, despite her family's suffocating control of her life and, subsequently, her memory.
The song above, "Ya Habibi Ta 'al al-Haqni," was my first sonic experience of this legendary singer's small but significant body of work; it was, oddly enough, also Sherifa Zuhur's. Zuhur, who wrote Asmahan's Secrets: Woman, War, and Song, first heard the tune on a cassette in the early 1970s that she picked up in a small music store on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles -- Silwani's Imports. Zuhur's description of the place sounds remarkably like the places frequented by the present narrator. "Cramped, lively and filled with audio cassettes, key chains and souvenirs," she writes, "men from the Arab-American community dropped in and drank tea and coffee with the owner. I used to visit and browse, adding to my small collection of Arabic records and tapes." Zuhur didn't listen to the tape that Silwani's owner, Mustafa, had suggested to her until she was on a trip to Cairo, by way of Sweden. In the early morning she popped the tape into her recorder: "Percussion instruments and violins plucked a la pizzicato began with a tango. The singer's clear tones descended and rose, emphasizing the rhythm. Suddenly, the Eastern character of the song became more pronounced, as she began her improvisation (the mawwal) and modulated to another musical mode (maqam). The singer's diction was precise, and she effortlessly executed the wider sliding, trills and tonal patters performed by Arab singers. The song was 'Ya Habibi Ta 'al al-Haqni,' composed by Madhat Assim. 'It sounds so ... so old-fashioned. A cartoon tango but sophisticated,' I told my friend." [The song, Zuhur notes later in the book, had been previously sung by the Egyptian cinema pioneer Mary Kwini.] I made my own discovery of Asmahan a quarter century later, at Daff and Raff Books & Music ("A Gateway to Another Culture") in the heart of Cambridge, Mass. (52-B JFK Street, currently occupied by Raven Used Books.) I don't know how my friends and I stumbled on to this store -- my memory suggests it was a random accident -- but I do recall immediately plucking this 1988 Baidaphon Beirut CD from the shelf. My own response to "Ya Habibi Ta 'al al-Haqni," the first track on the album, was much less sophisticated than Zuhur's had been to the same song: I began to tear up, felt a dull ache in my chest and watched as the skin on my arms filled with goosebumps. Over the last 15-16 years since I first heard Asmahan's voice, I've managed to find maybe half a dozen CDs of her music, mostly in Arabic media stores like long-since closed Princess Music in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (the neighborhood where much of Saturday Night Fever took place). For this collection, I've excised all duplicate songs, as well as those featuring Asmahan's brother, Farid, rather than Asmahan herself. Not quite random, the order was determined largely by choosing my favorite five or six songs first and then following those with whatever seemed to best click. While most of these tracks run somewhere in the 5:00 - 10:00 minute range, there are two longer pieces, of nearly half an hour each. I placed one in the mid-section of the collection; the other I placed last.