The Original Gumbo Funk


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Bob Azzam: Rain, Rain, Go Away, Berimbau and The Last Time
Taken from the album New Sounds on Columbia (1968)

Query: Where in pop music does a bespectacled Lebanese-born Egyptian-Jew who, on a single album, records covers of Alan Toussaint, The Rolling Stones and classic Brazilian standards fit in… Is there a home on the charts for a guy who sings in six languages, borrowing sonic textures from Kalamazoo to Timbuktu and everything in between?

Answer: Yeah. He’s got a home alright. And I’ll tell you exactly where he fits in: right at the damn top.

By the time Bob Azzam recorded these songs, he was already a household name. Kids across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia Minor had been hip to the avuncular Azzam for nearly a decade. He had crashed the musical scene in the late 50’s with his sincerely off-beat hit “Mustapha”–sung in French, Arabic and Italian–about meeting a girl in an Egyptian night club. At one point in the course of that song he claims (in Italian) to adore her like “salsa pommodore” (tomato sauce), which to the fledgling Azzam-o-phile may sound wierd. But considering that other of his hits include a song called “Fais-mois du couscous, cheri”, which translates to “Make Me Couscous, Darling”, the sauce simile might seem so bizarre.

(Imagine Justin Timberlake comparing his broken love with Britney to a crumbled Pop Tart [Ouch. No pun intended.] Damn. Music done changed.)

Azzam would spent most of his adult years living in and touring around Europe preaching his pan-global gospel to legions of multi-ethnic diaspora, European-minded Europeans, and generally curious passers-by. And, to my mind, he must have left his mark on them all: music for the masses; something for everyone.

Anyhow… These selections come from a superb album which reflects in its 30-odd minutes all the wonderfully diverse music stylings of a guy clearly unperturbed by the idea of mixing flavors from around the world into a pungent, zesty stew where bongo meets sitar and fuzz meets flute… Maybe that’s what he meant by “salsa pommodore”–a sauce of his own peculiar and delicious blend. A kind of Azzam-esque Gumbo Funk. Hm.

(As a side note, I think that this music could be categorized as “Exotica”, though I think that would be a bit of a misnomer. The founding principle of Exotica–correct me if I’m wrong–is white man’s (read: colonizer’s) take on foreign (read: colonized) music. So while the Azzam’s stuff bears some sonic resemblance to the iller strains of Exotica, I think he kind of transcends the genre because he is all that he represents.)

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