Think of it as an alternative tour of the Arab world. There are no ancient pyramids or great mosques here, no Hanging Gardens of Babylon, none of the towering history of the Pharaohs. This tour is strictly 21st century, the time of Arab springs, of mass migration, of globalization and beats that go around the world. A time when everything believed before has been shown to be wrong. It’s the right time for the Detour Guide (release Oct. 23, 2015), and Karim Nagi understands that. He’s been there, he’s lived it. He’s already played it.
“I use Arab music and English spoken word to deliver the message,” percussionist Nagi explains. “That Arabic groove is very infectious, it draws people in. The traditional rhythms and melodies give a real grounding, then using English speech offers a brand new context.”
Born in Egypt and raised in the US, Nagi has moved back and forth between countries before finally settling in Boston. He’s absorbed the highs and lows of both cultures on a cellular level, and knows the power of humor is a good way to get his message across.
“In America everything I do is political by default,” Nagi observes, “even if I simply just play a drum. What I want to do is upend the stereotypes Americans have about us, and that we have about America. To tell an anecdote that’s an antidote to racism.”
Nagi enjoys debunking myths on Detour Guide. “Your First Arab” and “What Arabs Do For Fun” take glee in puncturing so many ideas about Arabs and their world, while “Baladi TukTuk” looks in the other direction at a young Arab who’s returned home after discovering U.S. cities aren’t paved with gold.
“This album can be a way for people to get to know us Arabs, preparing all of us to live together in a better way. It’s interesting that the Arab diaspora often hasn’t worked. People have come to America with these ideas that they’ll get rich, but most don’t. They end up as busboys or making kebabs, utterly disillusioned. So there’s plenty of reverse migration, too. Thankfully, there are some success stories as well.”
Nagi has often spoken about Arab culture and identity over the years, lecturing to students in schools and colleges, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. He understands the similarities and differences between us all.
“Everything I say on the album is empirical, it’s data collection from my own experiences,” Nagi laughs. “I feel both foreign and native here and in Egypt. I’ve spent so much time having to explain myself, responding to what Westerners think of us Arabs, and then turn around and explain the West back to the Middle East. And it all started with me simply trying to get people interested in the music.”
So it makes perfect sense that music is just as vital to Detour Guide as the words. A highly-trained percussionist with an intimate knowledge of Arab music, Nagi uses music as a tool to connect cultures, even drawing on iconic titles like “Yalla Yalla.”
“It’s a good way to push the message,” Nagi says. “There is plenty of Arabic percussion, and the modes, or maqams, are all authentic. The challenge was finding a way to use English words over Arabic music that sounded natural but not like hip-hop.”
That’s not an easy balancing act, but Nagi definitely succeeds. Much of that is due to his long experience in the studio and on stage. Under the name Turbo Tabla, Nagi has released a number of CDs reimagining Arabic music with house and trance beats, while he also regularly DJs, as well as leading the more traditional Sharq Ensemble and teaching Arab percussion and dance.
“Everyone can feel the rhythm,” Nagi says. “It’s so propulsive that it actually means I have to give less verbal explanation, it carries people along. I believe we can all relate to each other through music.”
Nagi also plans to perform Detour Guide in its entirety at concerts, something he believes will heighten its impact.
“Each song is preceded by a spoken word introduction that frames it. Performing the album from start to finish would give it proper continuity and context.”
But that’s the plan for the future. More immediately, Nagi will be appearing as one half of Tarabists on September 26 at the YMCA Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, along with Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-born oud player and comedian.
“We’re going to play some music, have some laughs at ourselves, get the audience involved, and we’ll kill a few stereotypes on the way,” Nagi says. “And I’ll make sure there’s plenty of drumming – I want to use the Arabic drum to connect the world.”