On the Rough Guides' latest foray into Africa, where there seems to be an endless supply of music, they focus on the northern area of the continent, featuring Arabic and French-language songs, mainly from Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia. The tunes have various flavors, and the grooves shift from traditional Middle Eastern music to more indigenous material. Take for instance the Paris-based collective Madioko & Mafrika's "O Elleli," which features Berber percussion blended with synthesized beats and electric guitars, giving the music a contemporary edge while it still looks back with reverence. In the same vein is French-Tunisian oud master Smadj, who mixes his traditional instrument with electronic beats that give his sound a club-like feel that would not be out of place in any dance party Stateside.
One of the most amusing passages on the disc is Barcelona-based Cheb Balowski's "El Dia," a song with multilingual lyrics that include words in French as well as Catalan and Galician, two of the three dialects spoken in Spain. A complete surprise comes on Akim El Sikameya's "A Chaque Instant," drawing inspiration from modern Brazilian bossa nova, complete with a Jacques Morelenbaum-like cello solo. For those hooked into more traditional Arabic sounds, there is plenty of that here as well, coming from Moroccan singer-songwriters like Tarik to the Egyptian musicians of the El Tanboura collective. If you're versed in these sounds, North African Café will appeal to you, but newjacks who only venture into hookah bars should enjoy it as well.