Middle-Eastern tropes such as hookahs, henna and harems made an impression on American pop culture back during '50s exotica. And when "world beat" appeared in the '80s, it presaged a rapidly shrinking globe, as indicated today by the thousands of Arabic pop videos anyone can find on YouTube, rip to an mp3, and DJ the next night at Brillobox.
But Ishtar's obsession with pan-Levantine melodies isn't based on mere dabbling. Though this disc is a collection of standards rather than originals, it shows both knowledge of the material and skilled technique, as well as reverence for an era many overlook -- the '60s and '70s, when countries such as Turkey and Lebanon were heavily influenced by Western pop and rock forms.
There are myriad facets to this multiculti band, and on its MySpace page, Ishtar mentions iconic if obscure influences, like Turkish psych-rocker Erkin Koray and prog adventurers Mogollar. Rob Metil's reverbed guitar borrows heavily from the surf style of Lebanese-American Dick Dale, whose '60s classic "Misirlou" (performed on this CD, though differently than the Pulp Fiction version) comes straight from a Greek rebetiko song. Darbuka drummer Mark DeFilippo keeps the beat going like Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy, while the group spins out Arabic classics "Nassam Alayna Al Hawa" and "Enta Omri."
Meanwhile, clarinetist Melissa Murphey's wailing emerges as much from klezmer masters such as Naftule Brandwein as it does from Armenian reedists like Souren Baronian. In fact, Ishtar's rendition of "Garoon Garoon" sounds more like a Hassidic niggun than it does a product of its Armenian origins, plus they do both Uzi Hitman's Israeli chestnut "Noladati L'Shalom" and the Ladino melody for the Hebrew "Hine Ma Tov." (Which is good for the Jews.)
What we have here is a bunch of non-Middle Easterners playing almost as authentically as if they'd been discovered inside a hamam in Istanbul -- or, for that matter, a Greek nightclub in New England. Some fundamentalists might hurl accusations of cultural poaching, but who cares? That's nobody's business but the Turks.
Ishtar. 7 p.m. Sat., Dec. 20. DownUnder Coffeehouse, Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church, 416 North Ave., North Side. $5. 412-322-4261