Disco Around The World is the title of a 1977 LP by the great Eurodisco group Voyage, and a statement of intent. Plenty of other disco-related acts shared Voyage’s passion for syncopated cultural tourism, and the Middle East in the broadest sense is one area that was flirted with outrageously, from La Bionda’s Sandstorm to Cabaret Voltaire’s Yashar. There will be many other examples of Middle Eastern disco hybrids, from camp exotica to genuine groundbreaking adventuresomeness, which could be wheeled out as evidence of this phenomenon.
The Ritchie Family tackled an extended Arabian Nights theme, but the Abdul Hassan Orchestra was an altogether more elaborate conceit concocted by keyboard-player Hans van Eijck (a former member of Dutch pop group The Tee-Set), featuring belly dancer Yonina, and giving us late ‘70s Middle Eastern flavoured delights such as the irresistible Disco Arab. Mike Batt covered similar ground when he composed the theme for the film Caravans, though with rather more logic as it was part of a superb and specific soundtrack, albeit one for a film set in a very indistinct Middle Eastern location.
The flipside of the same pop coin to the Abdul Hassan Orchestra is the pervasive Middle Eastern influence on Cabaret Voltaire’s early 1980s recordings, such as the Red Mecca LP and very definitely Yashar from the 2x45 set. The Cabs could claim with some conviction the Middle Eastern elements were in their music to reflect a changing political climate and explore its sinister implications. From much the same era the early Suns of Arqa took, among much else, aspects of disco music and Middle Eastern elements to create something genuinely strange and beautiful.
There is something too about words or phrases in music having a certain Middle Eastern exoticism. Hudson County’s Bim Sala Bim springs to mind. The song itself you might say has a history that is pretty odd, evolving from its mid-‘70s disco funk origins to being bootlegged as the Fantastic Soul Inventions to being covered by the James Last Orchestra as Welcome To The Party to being covered again by the Soviet Disco big band. In the USSR itself in the mid-‘70s there are examples of Middle Eastern disco exoticism, too, such as the bizarre bazaar scene from the 1976 film The Brave Chirac with a soundtrack by the great composer Alexander Zatsepin.
As for Egypt and its eternal mysteries? Well, Eurodisco queen Amanda Lear sang about aspiring to be The Sphinx, while Harry Thuman similarly evoked the spirit of The Sphinx. Alec R Costadinos used the alias of Sphinx for one of his unique style of over-the-top extravaganzas, the retelling of the New Testament stories about Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter set to disco suites which really do settle into flowing grooves that feel like they could comfortably go on forever. Costadinos was, at least, born in Egypt, so there was some logic to assuming the name of Sphinx during his remarkable progress through the disco world, via Kongas, Cerrone, Love and Kisses, the Syncophonic Orchestra, and so on. Another Egyptian born pop figure who has an important place in the history of disco is Dalida, a remarkable internationalist in a similar way to Shakira today. She is credited with having some of the earliest disco successes in France, and her song Salma ya Salama, based on an Egyptian folk song, in its Arabic version was a massive hit in the Middle East.
And then there’s the allure of glamour by proxy in the adoption of an exotic name, like the disco outfit Arabesque who, while undeniably delightful, were more Abbaesque than the name implies. Blue-eyed soul legend Kenny Nolan, for example, surfaced at the height of the disco boom recording for Casablanca (but of course!) as part of Persia who as far as I know recorded just the one fantastic LP in 1979, which included the irresistible Inch By Inch. Nolan by that stage had quite a track record, as a writer with Bob Crewe (including Lady Marmalade and My Eyes Adored You) and for the bubblegum soul he came up with for the Chelsea label (Jim Gilstrap, Linda Carr, and Dee Clark). He was also behind the remarkable Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes and The Eleventh Hour. For the Persia project Nolan paired up with German producer Jurgen Koppers who had been involved with so many of the great Munich disco creations, a considerable number of which were also released on the Casablanca label.
The irony is that the inventiveness and precision playing of the musicians on the Persia LP could have been perfectly replicated by Persian session men in the pre-revolutionary Iran of the late’70s. Thankfully we are now becoming more aware of this, and the Pomegranates compilation from Finders Keepers has been invaluable in providing clues to the wealth of incredible pop recordings made in 1970s Persia, like Googoosh’s astonishing Talagh and Nooshafarin’s wonderful Gol-e Aftab Gardoon. YouTube, naturally, is an invaluable resource for investigating the delights of Persian pop, and it’s completely compelling how great a lot of the music is. The mix of Western dance sounds and Persian orchestrations is a winning combination, and it is heartbreaking to wonder where the music might have gone if the 1979 revolution had not have happened.
It is so easy to succumb to music from around the world when it has absorbed stylings we are very close to, hence the particular appeal of the funk-infused tracks on the Pomegranates LP. The disco era was only really beginning to have an impact when the conservative clerics came to power in the new Iran, and ironically it would be Algeria that would forge ahead with rai music as the unique blend of traditional melodies and new technologies which would have an impact on Western dancefloors in the 1980s.
There is nevertheless an irresistible selection of disco inspired Persian pop sounds to enjoy in the nether world of YouTube, and particular fun can be had following the trail of Ramesh, described in the Pomegranates sleevenotes as an “elusive femme rocker”. I hope one day soon Finders Keepers will do a Ramesh compilation, including the likes of the gorgeous ballad Nemigam and the propulsive Mondanam az Boodanete. There is a particularly fascinating clip of Ramesh appearing on a live TV show, from I think 1978, singing Asmar Yaaram where the group is ultra-tight and there are what seems spontaneous outbursts of dancing among the audience which is amusingly almost reminiscent of that American Bandstand TV performance by PiL from 1980 where Lydon is urging some shall we say audience participation, and the crowd really gets into Poptones and Careering.