Michael Buckner | Frazer Harrison, Getty Images Now this is a collaboration that…
- Posted on Oct 28th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
Instead, it was the start of a chain of events that took him to Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan to recruit Arabic stars for collaborations in Los Angeles with Western musicians. In Cairo, he found boisterous shaabi-style pop star Saad El Soghayar. In Damascus, he signed up devout Muslim composer/keyboard player Tareq Al Nasser. Beirut, at the time reeling from military conflict with Israel and the bombing assassination of Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, yielded both young singer-activist Tania Saleh and pioneering hip-hop artist Wael Kodeih (a.k.a. Rayess Bek). Also brought into the project was Iraqi guitarist-composer Ilham Al Madfai, whose groundbreaking blends of Western and traditional music in the '60s and '70s led to him living in exile since the 1979 revolution.
In the U.S., Copeland put these musicians together with superstar producer and Chic member Nile Rodgers, Go-Go's guitarist Charlotte Caffey, Night Ranger and Damn Yankees rocker Jack Blades, Oscar-winning 'Brokeback Mountain' composer Gustavo Santaolalla andWu-Tang Clan rapper-composer RZA. The adventure, culminating in a showcase concert at the famed Roxy club on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, is chronicled in 'Dissonance and Harmony: Arabic Music Goes West,' premiering Sunday on many PBS stations as part of the 'America at the Crossroads' documentary series.
The voice on the other line of that call was, in fact, Assistant Defense Secretary Torie Clarke, following a tip that Copeland could be of some help on a program being floated to use music to improve the U.S.'s image in the Arab world. Copeland, after all, had three decades of experience in the music business managing the Police and Sting, running I.R.S. records (original home of R.E.M. and the Go-Go's) and, more recently, promoting Arabic music in the U.S. and Europe, including a very successful touring, recording and workshops endeavor under the Bellydance Superstars banner.
"She said, 'We have these programs to win the hearts and minds in that part of the world and we want you to look them over,'" Copeland recalls. "Sure -- being a good American. But they sent me this dossier and everything was very U.S.-centric and inadvertently and unintentionally offensive. I called back and said, 'You're committed to doing something, but I think all these thing would give you the opposite result, and I strongly caution against this.'
"One of my ideas was basically to invert their idea of taking Jon Bon Jovi to Riyadh and give everyone American flags to wave, " he says. "I said, 'Get a big Arabic star and bring him over and get screaming Americans and show over there how much we appreciate them."
Copeland, among other things, cited the great success he'd had putting Algerian singer Cheb Mami together with Sting, resulting in the latter's global hit 'Desert Rose.'
Clarke's response? "She said. 'I like people who think like me.'"
So next thing Copeland knew, he was being whisked from Los Angeles to the Pentagon, ushered into a room with Defense Department and White House officials, all looking at him expectantly. And then next thing -- well, not next thing; this is government in action, after all. But after a series of hitches and funding problems (Clarke left the Defense Department to become a TV commentator and author of the now-spotlighted 'Lipstick on a Pig,' which includes four pages about Copeland's Pentagon meeting), a couple of years later, Copeland was on his way to the Middle East, with financing from the Public Broadcasting System via a grant for films about America after 9/11.
The process defied some expectations and mistaken impressions, even for the experienced Copeland.
"I was in Damascus -- of the 'Axis of Evil' -- and there were girls walking around in blue jeans, guys with baseball caps," he says. "They were all very friendly. I'd go to rough parts of town and people would give me food, as friendly as can be. They love our culture but think that we hate them."
A big hurdle he found was with some of the Arabic artists was a matter of business perspective. Copeland talked up the prospects of recording and the associated royalties revenue, with concert tours used to drive sales and recognition -- the model he'd succeeded with for many years -- which had little appeal in a world where artists expect their work to be openly pirated and therefore to produce no royalties. So a proposal to tour America (for little money) in order to boost CD sales was of no attraction, in particular to Soghayar. Instead, his benefits worked in reverse.
"He would do five weddings a week in Cairo, getting several grand a night -- added up to a lot of money in Egypt," Copeland says. "But now he came to America, and back home his price is up to $5,000 a wedding! He loves me. People think he's an international act."
Soghayar certainly took full advantage of that opportunity, spending much of his time in L.A. driving around and shooting video footage that he could air back home. Copeland even called up actress Courteney Cox (his cousin), whose show 'Friends' remains very popular in the Middle East.
"I said, 'We'll drive by in the Hummer limo, Saad will hop off, do a little dance and get back in,' and she said, 'Sure!'" Copeland says. "So we filmed that and it aired everywhere -- here he was dancing with a Hollywood star."
Copeland would like to see it work more the other way, too, though. When Arabic artists come to the U.S., often they play just for Arabic audiences at private events. The international success of his Bellydance project still gives him confidence that some of these acts, if presented in the right context, could break through with non-Arabic fans here.
As for the original intent of boosting the U.S. image in the Arabic world, the show is getting extensive exposure there. as well, thanks to being picked up by the Al-Jazeera network.
"The movie will have a great message over there," Copeland says. "For Arabs watching, they'll go, 'Americans are OK, they don't hate us. We have common ground.' And Americans watching will see Arabs in a whole different light. So this is one of those 'bridge' movies. And it is interesting musically, to see how music happens, while it works as a message that there's more to Arabs than what we get on TV."
And then there's the music. The scholarly-looking Wael Kodeih was paired with Mexican rapper Malverde, the two producing a tri-lingual exploration of cultural identity. Argentine-born Santaolalla and Jordan's Al Nasser found a shared sense of haunting beauty in some improvised collaborations. Could any of this reach the mainstream?
"I think the song Tania and Charlotte did, 'Meet Me in the Middle,' could be a hit," says Copeland, noting the tough market for artists who aren't "16 and on Disney" these days. "We also hope that some of the songs might get picked up for movies of TC shows, or some of the acts might get appearances. We had Tania in Washington for the annual [Planet Arlington World Music Festival], and she went down great, 5,000 people with the backdrop of the Washington Monument. And they'll bring in the rapper to play at the theater in May. People are starting to get interested."
It's a little step toward the bigger goal: "When I hear the words 'they' and 'us' -- 'they hate us!'" he laments, "these are two words totally misrepresenting what's really going on. There is no such thing as 'they' and there is no such thing as 'us.'"