Raed Yassin and Paed Conca are both adept free improvisers, but they have other strategies in mind when they perform together as Praed. Yassin, who is Lebanese, and Conca, who is Swiss, have their way with the detritus of Arabic pop culture, defacing it, distorting it, and generally putting it through the wringer. On “Rocket,” Yassin duets — sort of — with pop singer Mahmoud El Husseini. Yassin barks and hollers, his voice rendered fuzzy and unintelligible by a cheap mic; he’s like a guy trying to force his way into a conversation that doesn’t want to have him, present by will rather than permission. And on the maddeningly elongated “8 Gega,” Conca blows his clarinet like a free-jazz hero and Yassin bellows some more over a loop of a groove that could have been snatched from the speakers of any falafel joint on earth.
A couple more instrumentals are drawn from movies by Adel Imam: “The Suspect” is roughed up with more overblown clarinet, grimy guitar, and a grotesquely waddling bass line; the melody of “Hamada & Tutu” is rendered first cartoonish by a wobbly synth voice and then homely by whistling and rudimentary beats. This stuff, which like “The Rocket” originated in Egypt, is as big as Disney in the Arab world. Praed’s transformations are a bit like those fan reinterpretations of Star Wars movies that get played at fan conferences in the way that they appropriate the money-spinning machinery of mass culture and make it reflect the priorities and realities of its fans.
I think I get Praed’s strategies, but I’m not at all sure that I understand their results. I keep getting the feeling that there are jokes and criticisms on this record that someone who grew up with Middle Eastern popular culture would get, but that I don’t comprehend because I didn’t grow up with it.