The Hot, Hot Sounds of Araby

Another non-political post. Well, mostly.

The cover of “Dardanella,” taken while perusing a University of Chicago special song collection.

From 1918 through to roughly 1922, there was a genre of popular American tunes that focused on the exotic east, and forbidden love. This was roughly the time Rudolph Valentino was playing “The Sheikh” in movies. I’ve come across a couple such songs — “Dardanella,” which was a small-time hit, “Hindustan,” “Sheik of Araby” — but I know there are a number of others. It is a kind of orientalism in popular song, using the motifs of the seductive, unrestrained, romantic East, a place of harems and purple sunbirds (from “Hindustan”) and camels and forbidden love and whatnot. There are a few songs that refer to a place called Araby (a term probably concocted by English Romantic poets). It goes farther East, to China, but most of the romance seems to focus on what the Pentagon now calls the “Arc of Instability.”

It is interesting this is an immediate post-WWI phenomenon roughly contiguous with “Coon Songs” (oh please, don’t ask). I suspect it has a lot to do with the shock of WWI, and America’s contact with the world, which had always been seen by some elements of American culture as decadent (like the seductive East). It has been too long since I’ve read Edward Said, but I don’t know if he deals with this element of orientalism in 20th century popular culture or not. It didn’t really last very long, and aside from Valentino, it didn’t leave much of an impression. There are musical motifs that suggest the East — bouncing rhythms, minor keys, bending strings — but I’m not exactly sure what era of music they come from. (They come from somewhere.) Those motifs, those musical ways of depicting the East, are reflected in Maurice Jarre’s score to Lawrence of Arabia, but also very effectively in the Madness song “The Liberty of Norton Folgate.”

And while I’m not exactly a fan of the most current pop music (Katie Perry is about all I can take, since there’s actual music there, which cannot be said for Ke$ha or Rihanna), it is interesting to hear some of the world influences in very modern dance pop. Eventually, real Arab music will find its way into an American dance hit. Mostly because Arabs have too much music you can dance to. And they know how to use synthesizers.

This is just a long introduction to the fact that I’m going to have to write one of these orientalist songs. Not that I wanted to. But as I was struggling with sleep last night, a half-verse attached to a melody came into my head and stayed there ’til morning — surely a bad sign. “When Saud was king of all Araby / from sparkling sea to burning sand / the holy land of the Mohammedans / crisscrossed by the caravans.” Yeah, it’s doggerel, and in minor chords too. I’ve not sat down and figured this out on the ukulele, but I just know that sometime today (in amidst everything else I have to do) this will happen. It’s going to be called “Veiled Girl of Araby,” and like every other ersatz 20s song I’ve been writing since last fall, it’s going to be about love — this time, mysterious and forbidden love. I will keep true to the form.

But unlike messers Bernard, Black and Fisher, or most other Tin Pan Alley hacks scribbling away at their pianos, I have actually met a few “veiled girls of Araby.” And, I have actually been to the Araby in question. So this is going to be fun.

Hmm, now, what rhymes with Nejd?