The 3 Mustaphas 3 concept can be most readily comprehended by listening to “Radio Szegerely”, the first cut on Play Musty for Me. Imagine it’s the early ’80s and you are sitting somewhere in the Balkans, listening to your Grundig radio. You give the dial a spin, and in a few short seconds, you hear an array of sounds — a speech in Russian, an announcer reading a news bulletin in accented English, a refrain from a Cairo orchestra, and so on.
This is the imagined space of 3 Mustaphas 3, a world music band that burst madly onto the English scene in the early ’80s. Emerging out of a post-punk scene, they possessed a kind punk sensibility — a do-it-yourself approach to international music and a dadaist sense of humor — but they were decidedly non-punk in their prodigious musicianship. Their personnel was a revolving crew, each bearing the last name, Mustapha, and all wearing the Mustaphas’ patented headgear, the fez. The basis of their sound was Balkan, but they branched out all over, performing African, Indian, Arab and other international tunes with equal aplomb and professionalism.
3 Mustaphas 3 released three acclaimed albums in the late eighties and early nineties, worked on numerous other world music releases, and played a critical role in the emergence of a grass-roots world music network during this period. Although the band ceased performing in 1991, the various Mustaphas have remained active. Bassist and vocalist Sabah Habas Mustapha has gone on to forge a solo career, and his releases with the Javanese Jugala Allstars (especially So La Li) have had an impact both in Indonesia and the Western world music scene. Hijaz Mustapha (a.ka. (Ben Mandelson) has been very energetic as a producer for GlobeStyle Records and tours with Billy Bragg’s backing group, the Blokes.
Play Musty for Me is a collection of live performances, previously unreleased items, and obscure releases, that together provide a fine overview of the breadth of the Mustaphas’ vision and the depth of their artistic prowess. “Ah Ya Asmar El Lawn” is their snappy, upbeat instrumental version of a popular Egyptian standard, given a Balkan flavor, and featuring superb synthesizer playing from Kemo Mustapha. “Speed the Traktor” is another instrumental, based on the English folk tune, “Speed the Plough”. The Mustaphas perform it as a shapeshifter that morphs suddenly and seamlessly from a speedy Balkan dance to a trad English tune to a slow Greek lament, and so on. “Nylon Dress” is a Nigerian classic sung sweetly by Sabah Habas Mustapha, backed by Hijaz Mustapha and a group of Indonesian guest artists. The result is a composite Indonesian dangdut/Nigerian Hi-Life sound, and a sample of the musical direction that Sabah Habas was to take in his post-Mustaphas career. Houzam Mustapha’s velvety vocals on the medley “Vrbas Voda / Prepisor” are heart-felt and romantic, and followed by another lively Balkan instrumental played at brake-neck speed.
The album is rendered uneven, however, by the presence of a couple of weak songs and comedy material that doesn’t hold up to repeated listenings. The accented vocals and kistchy arrangement of the old chestnut, “Perfidia”, simply don’t work. “A Chilling Tale / Harcourt Drowned” has too much talking and isn’t really a chilling tale at all. “Szegerely Soul Stew”, where the Mustaphas vamp over a Transylvanian blues riff, was no doubt fun to watch in concert but gets boring the second time around.
Despite these inconsistencies, Play Musty for Me is an essential 3 Mustaphas 3 recording. Full of madcap Balkan medleys, prodigious instrumentalism, multilingual vocalizing, irreverent mixing of musical genres, and zany humor, Play Musty for Me reminds us of the Mustaphas’ initiatory role in creating the contemporary world music scene.