Arabic music in 2014: technology and the contemporary scene

Arabic music in 2014: technology and the contemporary scene
Contemporary Arab music – exemplified by Mashrou Leila – is loud, young, melodic and morally indignant.
8 min read
15 November, 2014
Fairuz: Managed to hold the heartstrings to all sides during Lebanon's civil war (AFP)

Editor's note: This is part three of a three-part series on Arabic music today and the impact of technology. Read part one here. Read part two here.

Fairuz's preeminence on the Arab airwaves has gone uncontested for decades. By a seeming miracle, Fairuz together with “modern standard”, also known as “fusha”, Arabic came to be points of consensus across the Arab region in the absence of anything like an Arab nation-state.

Waking up in Doha, Qatar, a city which couldn't be more different from the villages eulogized in Fairuz's music, a commuter gets treated to a full hour of Fairuz in the mornings by al-Rayyan radio (for the record, there is no known movement of protest against this scheduling anywhere in the Arab world).


Equally impressive, Fairuz has all the while managed to avoid being categorized in the social and political divisions which have convulsed the region: she is neither a patrician princely singer like Mohammed Abdulwahhab, nor the classless, percussion-heavy shaabi pop of Ali Al Deek or Shaaban Abdulraheem. Even during Lebanon's convoluted, internecine civil war, she managed to hold the heartstrings to all sides in the conflict, as shown lovingly in Jack Janssen's We Loved Each Other So Much.


Gains and losses

This may have been hard won and well deserved, but it did come at some cost for many smaller local traditions spread across the Middle East. In the Gulf, the clearest example of what was lost is the Sowt, a tradition which sprouted in symbiosis with pearl diving in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.

Qatar's Fatima Shaddad is one of the last surviving practitioners of this rhythmic genre, which Kuwait's late Awadh Dokhi once blended successfully with Egyptian-style tarab. Today, however, the Sowt has more or less disappeared save for brave efforts to document and curate it by intrepid scholars. 

Just as in the fortuitous combination of sheer musical genius — not only that of Fairuz, but also the Rahbanis', Wahbi's, Nassif's and Chameseddine's — with the advent of recording and broadcast technologies, today's musical talent in the Arab world understands the power of the internet.

One factor behind this is the long-lasting absence of an established, powerful recording industry lobby. Arab musicians long ago adapted to the reality of music piracy: the end result is that the performers left standing were leaner and meaner, and more prepared to face the challenge of the internet which many in the West have struggled with.

      Let's burn this city down/and build a more honourable one in its place
- Mashrou Leila

It has also meant that, unshackled from the demands of having to cater to the lowest common denominator of fan courted by corporations, they have been more creatively free. This is also part of a larger phenomenon where the music seems to be more about the scholarship involved in excavating the past than with catering to whimsical consumer preferences. A particular band of female soloists merit particular attention here. Of these, Rima Khcheich is possibly the obvious pick. 

Unshackled by corporations

Khcheich, who combines performance with a career as an instructor of Arabic music in both Lebanon and the United States, has done much to revitalize the muwashahat style first performed in Arab Spain. Clearly, Fairuz did not create the muwashahat but, resting on the shoulders of Egypt's Sayyed Darwish, she did do the most to bring it into people's homes in the twentieth century.

Khcheich's personal efforts have already given her a glittering career in a comparatively short space of time, taking her voice to a network of pockets of fans spread across the world but united by the internet. In a similar vein, Ghada Shbeir and Fadia Tomb El-Hage have also taken the same muwashahat leaf and run with it, but perhaps in ways fundamentally dissimilar to Khcheich.


While Khcheich has allowed herself the liberty to seek inspiration from far and wide, working with (you guessed it) Bjork and creating jazzy remixes of Sayyed Darwish classics — a fact for which Fairuz's son Ziad Rahbani is often credited — the latter two have tended to focus more on a kind of purism made palatable by their attention to detail and perfectionism.


For El Hage in particular, immersion in the minutiae of centuries of tradition has allowed for truly stunning moments of creativity which manage to be brave and convincing at the same time, such as the introduction of harmonies in ways not seen in Arabic music for centuries.


What all three have in common is a dedication to digging deeper into the roots of the musical traditions which Fairuz's career distilled. Beyond Khcheich's revisiting of Sayyed Darwish and a celebration of the muwashahat by all three, Shbeir and El Hage have also done much to bring devotional Christian music from the Eastern tradition to a wider audience, arguably another debt owed to Fairuz.


Further afield are the musicians living and working throughout the global Arab diaspora whose work is similarly immersed in scholarship and dedication to ensuring that traditions don't die. Reem Kelani, a Palestinian born in Manchester, who moved to Kuwait and then arrived in London as a postgraduate student in the sciences, more or less created the mould for this type of performer. For a generation of Arab Londoners, Kelani has been combining research into the sound archives in the British Library, and field work in Syria and Egypt into informative lecture-concerts to dedicated crowds in venues like the Union Chapel.


London was also the former home of now-returned emigre Elham Madfaie. Born in Baghdad, Madfaie first arrived in London to study engineering at City University — a much more agreeable career path than music for most Middle Eastern parents — before discovering that music was his true calling. After helping himself to the smörgåsbord of sounds available in Europe, Madfaie became something of a one-man force in Arabic music during the late 1990s and throughout the early 2000s, bringing Western instruments, bits of Latin guitar and electronic synthesizers to Iraqi music (not always successfully, but when he was successful, the results are amazing) and turning some of the Rahbanis' leisurely music into catchy dance tunes.

Changing domestic scene

Naseer Shamma - It happened at al-Amiriya

In between his prototype Nazem el Ghazali's death and his emergence, however, the domestic Arab scene was changing. In Madfaie's hometown of Baghdad, Naseer Shamma had survived the savagery of Desert Storm to compose It Happened in Amiriya. A piece of music written for the oud and first released as part of a musical play telling the story of a civilian air raid shelter bombed by the US forces in 1991, Shamma's work was proof that a classical Arabic maqam could be fit into the structure of a classical Western piece of music.

In the intervening twenty or so years, Shamma has become the most readily identified oud virtuoso, and a brave crusader for Arabic musical education, setting up institutions to teach the oud in the United Arab Emirates and in Egypt. A generation after his career began, Shamma's work is quickly catching up with Fairuz: accepted as part of the canon and a tradition stretching back centuries. The jury is still out for the latest acts to grab the Arabic mainstream, however.


In December of 2012, the Eka3@ Beirut (“Rhythms of Beirut” in the bizarre script which substitutes numerals for Arabic sounds not found in the Latin alphabet) festival was held in the Lebanese capital. Khyam Allami, a London-based former punk rocker turned oud player who is sometimes touted as Shamma's heir, could be seen through the drizzle as he waited to give a performance at a packed Radio Beirut, where fans sat on tables and stood on the bar to get a glimpse.

The crowd who put Eka3@ Beirut together have a lot in common with the administration of Ma3azef, the Arab world's pioneering music criticism website, and are often the same people. Their choice of Beirut as a venue to launch the website and the festival was an obvious one. In the last seven years, Mashrou Leila, born of a music project by a posse of undergraduates at the American University of Beirut, have pushed the boundaries of Arabic music with their genre-defying sound, and reclaimed the title of Arab musical capital for their hometown along the way. Mashrou Leila were conspicuously absent at the festival, but their sound is a perfect embodiment of the mood of the Arab street.


Their third album, released last year, was made possible by a wildly successful multinational crowd-funding effort and led to sell-out shows in London and Montreal. Having lived through the Arab Spring, Hamed Sinno, the band's front man and song writer, pulls no punches in his attack on the neo-liberal policies that have torn Beirut apart: “Let's burn this city down/and build a more honourable one in its place”; other lyrics are full-frontal attacks on homophobia, patriarchy and sexism.

Impressively, the group’s political defiance has come at the expense neither of artistic flair and accomplishment nor of its raging popularity. Purists may decry them for not being identifiably “Arab” — one Western music critic based in Beirut points out that their songs are “quarter-tone free”, and it is hard not to think that Mashrou Leila owes more to some marriage of Balkan folk music, indie rock and trip-hop. That argument, however, is short-sighted and overlooks far more important truths revealed by Mashrou Leila says about the state Arabic music today.


To begin with, they are already firmly placed within a clear historical tradition, following on from a generation of Beiruti rock (Soap Kills jumps to mind as an inspiration), which is something if you consider the demographics of the Middle East. Additionally, Sinno’s phenomenal ability to write lyrics is evocative of the free-verse upheaval in Arabic poetry led by Bader Shaker al-Sayyab during the 1950s.

Finally, the group just doesn’t care: with their eagerness to overturn tables, to use social media and to shout out of turn in demand for a better world, Mashrou Leila are the archetypal millennial children of the Arab Spring. They are loud, they are young, and they are melodic and morally indignant: welcome to the Arab soundscape of 2014.