Unfortunately named lead singer Ishtar has seen her share of conflict: Granddaughter of a popular Egyptian singer, the feisty vocalist was born in Israel to an Egyptian mother and Hispanic-Moroccan father. As a teenager she became the first woman to repair fighter jets for the Israeli Army. Before donning combat fatigues at age eighteen, she was already well-known as a singer in Israeli nightclubs.
After her military duty, Ishtar headed to Paris where she took up with a group of Gypsies from the South of France. A guitar combo known as "Los Niños de Sara," the four brothers -- Antonio, Ramon, Coco, and Santi -- fused their flamenco with Ishtar's Egyptian rhythms in the single "Alabina" that went platinum in Europe in 1996.
"At the beginning," says Ishtar from her apartment in Paris, "when my producer [Charles Ibgui] said he would like to mix Egyptian with flamenco music, I couldn't find any idea of how it was going to sound. I was really surprised when I heard it in the studio. These rhythms are supposed to be together. They're so rich."
Taking on the name of its hit song, which means both "come to me" and "between us is God" in Arabic, the band recorded three albums, the latest of which is called Sahara. In the meantime Ishtar has adjusted to the musical mix. "I learned not long ago that when the Gypsies first began to wander in the Fourth Century, they started out from Egypt," says the dark-eyed, blond-tressed multilinguist. "They traveled all over the desert and all over the world, to Morocco and Europe, but their first base was Egypt."
Where the Middle Eastern star at first heard only differences, she now notes striking similarities. "Women have a very important part in dancing, both in Egyptian music and in flamenco," she points out. "Egyptian dance concentrates on the hips and flamenco on the hips, but in each dancer there are a lot of games with the hands and the eyes. The singing is completely the same." The two musical forms also share common themes. "The Gypsies and the Egyptians both sing about pain and joy," notes Ishtar. "The pain of being poor and the joy that for poor people can often only be found in song."
Perhaps because the music is so compatible, after all, Alabina throws in a number of additional cultural influences. Their third release features tracks sung in Spanish, French, English, and Arabic. Certain numbers, such as "Choukrane" and "Azima Leyla" tend toward straight Middle Eastern pop. Others like "Sevillano" and "Somos Gitanos" are reminiscent of the flamenco-pop of the Gipsy Kings.
The opening track, "Lolole," is a Middle Eastern-flamenco version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." Apparently sincere in that plea, Alabina uses pop elements to make its music accessible to a wide audience, with Isthar sometimes delivering vocals more likely to come from Celine Dion's Canada than the land of the pharaohs. If Alabina can bring together those cultures, it can achieve anything. Maybe even world peace.