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Mideast Rock Blends Traditional, Modern Music

A thriving music scene in the Middle East blends hard rock with traditional tones and instruments. The sounds of Mideast heavy metal filled a small Los Angeles club, which recently hosted the Turkish singer Kutsal and the Moroccan band Lazywall.

Lazywall arrived in Los Angeles after performing at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

On stage warming up with the group was a longhaired American musician and Mideast scholar Mark LeVine.

LeVine teaches Middle East history at the University of California, Irvine and is the author of a book called Heavy Metal Islam. It looks at the rock, heavy metal, hip hop and punk music scenes in the Muslim world.

He met the band at a 2006 rock festival in Casablanca. He says he is impressed with their sound and creative energy. "They'll bring in hard rock, metal, then bring in a darbouka, a Middle Eastern hand drum, [and] an oud [a stringed instrument]. One of our guitarists is playing the saz [a string instrument], the Turkish electric saz with it, and mix it all together and see what happens," he said.

Nao Anegay, bass guitarist and lead singer with the Tangier-based band, says he and his fellow musicians draw on several traditions. "We grew up listening to all the classics from Elvis Presley until today, but at the same time we were listening to Farid al-Atrash, to Abdel Halim Hafez. Those are eastern countries' biggest artists. Same time, we were listening to traditional Moroccan bands. But we grew up listening to rock. That is the main thing. And still, when you listen to us, it's rock," he said.

Turkish singer Kutsal, who now lives in Los Angeles, sang from her CD called "Naked" -- her first release in the United States. She says one theme inspires much of her music. "How a strong woman struggles throughout a relationship, and it's the power struggle between a woman and man. That's what I'm trying to explain, actually. I always have bad experiences, but somehow I don't give up and I'm a fighter. That kind of songs," she said.

On stage with Kutsal and Lazywall was the Irish rock group Jekyll. In the audience was musician Arash of the Persian heavy metal band Tarantist. The name comes from the word tarantula. And he says their music, like the spider, has a sting. The Iranian musician says Americans who hear them like the sound. "They like it because they say it's a kind of progressive music and the sound is new and the tones are new. They like it. It's very new to their ears," he said.

LeVine, who is Jewish and a New Yorker, was shaken by the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Not long afterward, he began a six-year journey through the Muslim world, listening to the music and getting past the intolerant voices. "We think those extreme religious and political voices are the only voice when, in fact, the extreme music is in some ways more authentic and a lot more interesting and more radical, in fact, because they're really challenging stereotypes and boundaries," he said,

LeVine has spent time with religious zealots and with rock musicians for his scholarly research. He prefers the musicians, saying they are less judgmental and more fun to be with and that in many ways, they better represent the spirit of the region.