Since 2004, Sir Richard Bishop has treated his albums like international buffet tables of sound, piling a little bit of everything on his platters. His solo work (2004's Improvika, 2006's While My Guitar Violently Bleeds, 2007's Polytheistic Fragments) takes more excursions into foreign lands than the secretary of state. Using only an acoustic guitar, he's hopped among raga, flamenco, Gypsy, and Appalachian styles, to name a few. But if there's one musical language he's proven most comfortable speaking over the years, it's Arabic. His interest there stems from having been raised in a Lebanese community outside Detroit, where he spent hours listening to his grandfather, an oud and lute player. "My grandfather used to play us tapes of Farid al Atrache, Oum Kalthoum, Fairouz, and other Middle Eastern greats long before [my] aspiration of being a musician reared its head," Bishop says. That informal education has helped lend his latest release, The Freak of Araby, a warm, assured feeling, the sound of a man returning home after years of living abroad.
Until late last year, Bishop had been comfortably settled in Seattle. But after 17 years in the Northwest, he relocated to Oakland. "Sometimes you just outlive a location," he explains. "I needed to separate myself from Seattle and all things familiar in order to have a clean slate, musically and otherwise."
Along with his brother, Alan, and Charles Gocher, Bishop turned a global audience toward Washington State with Sun City Girls, an eclectic band that regurgitated the world's fringe cultures into experimental songs. The trio defied categorization, its psychedelic stew an amalgam of hippie folk, punk rock, and jazz improv channeled through the bent tonalities of Arabic and Far Eastern music.
Moving to Oakland gave Bishop the chance to fully immerse himself in Middle Eastern styles specifically. He found that cheaper rent and fewer commitments allowed him more time to devote to the records his roommate brought back from trips to the Middle East, especially albums by Omar Khorshid, an Egyptian who revolutionized Arabic music in the '70s by playing electric guitar with an orchestra. "There are no flashy runs or shredding or anything like that," Bishop says of Khorshid. "His guitar tone is clean, and it seems that every note was well thought out. There was always a lot of reverb or delay present."
Inspired by Khorshid, Bishop plugged in his guitar for the first time in his solo career. With a small ensemble, he recorded The Freak of Araby, a mix of original tunes and Middle Eastern classics. Whereas his previous albums felt like audio journeys around the world, Araby focuses solely on the music of North Africa and the Middle East. The instrumental material evokes the mood of a midnight journey to Marrakech. Bishop's guitar is clear and shimmering, accompanied by the pattering of hand drums and the clanging of metallic percussion. But a dark allure is also present, as if these songs were being performed in the backrooms of Moroccan nightclubs we're not normally permitted to enter.
Of course, Araby is far from culturally pure. Bishop is a Sun City Girl, after all, and under his spell, traces of spaghetti Western, surf music, Appalachian picking, and Delta blues bleed into the scenes he paints with his six strings. Like the belly dancer gracing Araby's cover, the album possesses an exotic magnetism —Bishop's homage to the aura that gripped him in the first place.
"Arabic music really provides an atmospheric presence that says 'Come and experience this,'" he says. "I can't understand the words I'm hearing because I don't speak the language, but I know the music is about the joys and sorrows of love. I can literally feel those sounds."