Sumner's Tales: Sting talks...
"All last summer I lived with Cheb Mami's album. Eating, walking, all the time. His voice is an incredible instrument. He does whatever he wants with it, it really impressed me, as did his talent as a musician. I hadn't got any idea of what he could sing, I didn't know rai music. Then I saw him in Bercy with Khaled, Rachid Taha and this great orchestra... and Steve Hillage. Very impressed, I began to write a song on this experience and we met. I asked him if he'd like to sing for me, in a way to 'authenticate' my experience (ironic smile). He's a lovely man. He sung without knowing what I was singing. As it happens, it's about desire, craving. I asked him: just improvise, in arab, on my melody. Later I asked him what he was talking about, he answered that he sang about desire, craving of a loved person. I told him that it was exactly the song's theme! So the music suggested those words. It was a sort of unconscious and automatic process. I always considered that it was the music which wrote the text. For this album, more than all the others, I began by writing the music, then I went walking and this music suggested a character, a story. Like a sculptor who kneads his material, then notices a nose, a leg. It's longer, but more organic."
Music Up!, French Magazine, 9/99
On being asked if he was making what he would consider 'world music' with 'Desert Rose'...
"I don't really like the term 'world music'. What is that World music is made in the world by everybody. It's really not a term that I would entertain at all. On the other hand, I've always been able to assimilate influences and make them apply to my expression. I never feel that I have to pretend to be anything. I can hear music, assimilate it, understand it, and then produce something different. You can hear where it's from, 'cos all music is related. It's not my intention to make a world music album at all. I'm making a Sting album, and I'm sure you can define what my music is. I'd rather say that my ambition is to defy the titles that people make for you. I don't do world music or reggae - I do whatever I do. But it's true that 'Desert Rose' has a definite Arabic, north African flavour, but it's one song out of 10. The other songs are very different from that. Cheb Mami is the biggest Rai music singer in France, and I believe he's fantastic. I met him last year, and I thought he had an amazing voice."
"I spent most of last year listening to Cheb Mami, the great Arabic singer, who has an incredible, swooping voice that just mesmerises. A friend introduced us, it was love at first sight, and, rather impetuously, as lovesick musicians often do, we jumped right into the studio together. I had a melody to a song called 'Desert Rose' and asked him to improvise a bit; he created a lovely counterpoint, and everything took off from there. The amazing thing is, he didn't understand a word I was singing. But the lyric he improvised was almost the same as mine - it had to do with lost love and longing - which goes to show how the music suggested to us individually the exact same emotion. It cuts across all cultures, whether you're Arabic or Western European or Japanese or African. Music is the universal tongue."
Sky Magazine, 12/99
About the song getting to #1 on Billboard's maxi-singles chart...
"That was amazing, and the dance remix of the song obviously had a lot to do with that response. We got Victor Calderone to do that - on the recommendation of Madonna. I liked what he did so much, I re-sang the vocal for the track."
"I was in my studio with my musicians, jamming around and having fun. I came up with a kind of arabesque melody, and it turned into a song called 'Desert Rose'. It's a song about longing, a kind of Sufi idea - romantic love as an analog for the greater love of God. Anyway, I was trying to shoehorn English lyrics into this Arab feel, and it didn't seem to have any authenticity. It just seemed false."
Rhythm magazine, 4/00
"It certainly was a turning point for me. An opportunity came up by accident. It wasn't our intention to align ourselves with a car company. When Jaguar approached us about doing it, I'm wondering, 'I'm supposed to be an environmentalist - is this going to harm the planet if I align myself with a car company' Luckily, I had just planted 50,000 trees; I'm told that balances my carbon debt for any Jaguars I might have been responsible for selling."
Chicago Tribune, 10/2003
"I think "longing" is a very good word. In fact, one of these songs, the 'Desert Rose' song, is a song about longing. Essentially the metaphor ["I dream of rain / I dream of gardens in the desert sand"] is romantic longing or lustful longing - or a longing, as you say, for some Other, a higher presence. I gave the song to Cheb Mami, a very big Algerian singing star here in Paris, and he doesn't read or understand English. He listened to the song and liked it and recognized it was based on his milieu, and I said, "I'd like you to improvise some Arabic words over this melody, and you can sing what you want. So he goes away and comes back with lyrics written out in Arabic script, and I have no idea what he's singing but it sounds right to me. So I say to him, "What's this about" And he says, "It's about longing." It's exactly the same as my subject, although not line for line, but the intention is the same as mine! So my feeling is that the music has told him what to write, just as the music had told me what to write. So it was an interesting experiment, and without telling each other what we were writing, we ended up writing the same thing. And it dovetails, too, almost as if he sings something and then I translate it!
"The song is about longing... sexual longing, romantic longing, within a larger context, which is philosophical longing for meaning or God or whatever. I asked Cheb Mami to compose Arabic lyrics. I gave him the counter melody, but didn't tell him what the song was about. He came back a few days later and started to sing. When I said 'What are you singing about' he replied, 'Longing.' I said, 'Well, it's very strange you should day that.' But it does prove my theory that the music was writing the songs."
'Brand New Day' Official Press Release, 9/99
"Cheb Mami has such an amazing voice. I'd written this Arabesque tune and I was struggling with the lyrics. English lyrics didn't shoehorn into at all. It sounded very forced. Then I met Cheb Mami in Paris and I played him the tune.I asked him to write some lyrics but I didn't tell him I thought the song was about longing. A week later he came back and it sounded great in Arabic. I asked him what he was singing about and he said longing. He's going to tour in America with us."
"I'm talking about earthly love, if you like, or romantic love, but also the Garden of Eden rears it's head at some point. A sense of philosophical longing in the story. I think we do have a kind of recollection, almost of perfection, of a time when there was happiness. I don't know whether it's an illusion or not, but it's certainly in everyone's head. We have this idea of perfection. Whether we can realise it or not, I don't know."
World Cafe interview, 11/99
"He started to sing this beautiful line,and it sounded absolutely great. And I said, 'Well, what are you singing about' He said, 'I'm singing about longing, I suppose.' Which was very interesting because I hadn't told him what the song was about. All I wanted was some Arab lyrics. That's how shallow I am. The music itself had given us both this feeling."
Rhythm magazine, 4/00
"I was very happy and surprised that the song did so well. I was advised by a record company person to take the Arabic intro off. He said, 'It will never be a hit in America if you leave that strange intro on, people don't like that sort of thing. So it was a calculated risk, and I was glad to prove him wrong. Looking back, it was this unusual intro that got people interested in the song, because it's a very compelling rhythm and sound."
The 'Brand New Day' album contained this classic track. 'Desert Rose' was a moderately successful UK single, but in the States it became a phenomenon, turning into one of the biggest sleepers for some time. A tie in with Jaguar who used the track in a TV commercial proved an excellent piece of marketing, with the song being continually exposed to mainstream TV audiences, who got 30 seconds of prime Sting when they least expected it. A spell of over 6 months on the US maxi-single chart accompanied by top ten achievements across Europe in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia, Switzerland, Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic as well as in Israel. Several dance and club mixes of the song have been released some of them very good indeed. The song was, naturally, an ever present on the 'Brand New Day' world tour and achieved even greater exposure when Sting performed the song on the 2001 Superbowl Pre-Game show to an audience of millions. At it's strongest when Cheb Mami lent his vocals to live performances in major cities such as Los Angeles, New York and London, this one groundbreaking song was largely responsible for the breathtaking success of the 'Brand New Day' album.