Middle East’s top alternative albums for 2017

Egyptian artists Tamer Abu Gazaleh, Maryam Saleh and Maurice Louca collaborated on the acclaimed Lekhfa.
Updated 29 December 2017
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Middle East’s top alternative albums for 2017

It was a great year for alternative music in the Middle East and wider region, with a number of compelling new records coming out. Arab News’ pick of the best albums released by alternative artists based in, or originating from, the Arab world in 2017 features long-established names and breakthrough acts, supergroups and bedroom-recording specialists, and highlights the scene’s powerful female presence.

Yasmine Hamdan — “Al Jamilat”
The Lebanese singer and songwriter — regarded as one of the originators of the Arabic alternative scene for her work with SoapKills — dropped her sophomore solo album at the start of the year and showed that her growing international reputation is richly deserved. “Al Jamilat” (“The Beautiful Ones”) showcased Hamdan’s instantly recognizable sensual vocals but also her increasing confidence and quality. From the stripped-back simplicity of album opener “Douss,” through the layered electronica of “Choubi,” to the driving power of the title track, “Al Jamilat” was a triumph.

The Bunny Tylers — “Chance Meetings”
Two veterans of Lebanon’s alternative scene, — multi-instrumentalist/producer Fadi Tabbal and singer-songwriter Charbel Haber — dropped a world-weary, elegiac record full of engaging textures. “Eté 91” serves as a centerpiece for “Chance Meetings,” its sweeping soundscape and repeated two-line lyric — “We dream in the sun/We tan when we can” — communicating the frustration, confusion and hedonism of Beirut’s post-war generation.

Hello Psychaleppo — “Toyour
Electro tarab and electro shaabi sounds are becoming increasingly popular in the Arabic alternative scene. Syrian artist Samer Saem Eldahr (aka Hello Psychaleppo) is one of the pioneers of that movement, and remains one of its most talented proponents. On “Toyour,” Eldahr continued to blend traditional Arabic melodies and vocals with atmospheric electronic sounds to great effect, and tracks like “Samawy” highlighted his increasing mastery of dynamics. Mixing traditional Arabic culture with influences from the West is something many regional artists in all mediums say they are doing, but few manage it so successfully, or make it seem as organic, as Hello Psychaleppo does.

Abri & The Dreamfleet — “We Fly”
UAE artist Hamdan Al Abri has long been acclaimed as one of the most talented vocalists around. “We Fly” — his partnership with musician-producers Adriano Konialidis and Mostyn Rischmueller — was a mellow, understated collection of beautifully crafted tracks with music that complemented Abri’s voice perfectly, allowing him to showcase his soulful side and show that he can deliver a powerful performance without belting every melody out at full blast. “Unborn” was a particular highlight.

Tania Saleh — “Intersection”
Saleh’s breathtaking vocals are, as usual, the standout feature of the Lebanese artist’s latest release. Her collaboration with Tunisian producer Khalil Judran made for Saleh’s most inventive work to date, setting words from acclaimed poets including Mahmoud Darwish, Younes El Ebn and Ahmad Fouad Nejm to a more expansive, modern vibe than Saleh’s customary rock and folk influences thanks to Judran’s experimental electronic sounds. It’s an approach that has been tried before, but Saleh showed how it should be done.

Nadah El Shazly — “Ahwar”
The Cairo-based producer, composer and performer’s debut solo release was a work of great ambition rewarded. El Shazly’s punk background comes through in her unshackled vocals, but the record defies easy categorization. It’s no surprise — with more than 22 musicians featured — that the album is multi-layered, but the production and composition are so masterful that it never becomes disjointed. “Ahwar” translates as “marshlands” and from the stunning opener, “Afqid Adh-Dhakira,” it’s easy to get lost in this atmospheric, evocative record.

LUMI — “The Night Was A Liar”
Yet another triumphant release from Lebanese indie veterans: Beirut duo LUMI took a long, long sabbatical after their 2008 debut album, but made a welcome return to LP releases this year with a record that embraced vocalist and musician Mayaline Hage and multi-instrumentalist Marc Codsi’s varied influences — Krautrock, grunge, lounge music, electro-pop, glam rock and many more. Hage’s distinctive unconventional vocal style is a perfect match for the duo’s often-unsettling, dreamy music.

Muhaisnah Four — “A Memoir”
Prolific UAE-based Filipino musician Cromwell Ojeda’s debut album for his solo project Muhaisnah Four, “A Memoir,” was a buoyant collection of soaring electronic dream-pop. Throughout the LP, Ojeda demonstrated his knack for empathetic collaborations with various vocalists, but the hook-laden earworms “Home” and “Summer,” both featuring New York-based artist Veblen Good, were stand-outs.

Postcards — “I'll Be Here In The Morning”
The young Lebanese four-piece built their reputation with a series of excellent English-language alt-folk EPs. But their debut album was a huge leap forward, embracing dream-pop, synths, electric guitars and noise. The first single, “Bright Lights,” was a post-punk anthem for the disconnected, built on distorted guitar lines and singer Julia Sabra’s beguiling vocals. The haunting “Wrinkles” touched on bare-bones trip-hop, while powerful slow-burner “Waves” showed the band’s evolving sense of dynamics and growing self-assuredness.

Maryam Saleh, Tamer Abu Gazaleh, Maurice Louca — “Lekhfa”
This remarkable collaboration between three of Egypt’s most respected alternative artists surpassed all expectations. Both uplifting and disconcerting, the record relies heavily on the alchemy sparked by Saleh and Abu Gazaleh’s vocal interplay on lyrics from Egyptian poet Mido Zoheir, but that chemistry is only so richly realized because of the dazzling instrumentation, which brings together a myriad of influences — psychedelia, shaabi, pop, folkloric Arabic music and more — to create a sound that is fresh, unique, and could only have come from the Middle East.


Beirut Art Fair: For artists faced with the unfair

Rana Samara "Intimate Space".(Image supplied)
Updated 20 September 2018
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Beirut Art Fair: For artists faced with the unfair

  • The annual Beirut Art fair runs from Sept 20 to 23
  • The fair offers a platform for Arab artists to present their work to the outside world

ABU DHABI: Arab artists from countries across the Middle East and North Africa, including Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Morocco, shared visions of their homelands and experiences this week at the Beirut Art Fair.
The Samer Kozah Art Gallery in Damascus, the only Syrian gallery at this year’s event, displayed works by 12 Syrian painters and sculptors.
“Most of them are now based in Vienna, Paris, Denmark, Dubai, Beirut, and a few in Syria,” said Samer Kozah, the gallery’s founder and manager for the past 24 years. “It’s safer and easier for them to work from outside. I don’t know when they will come back but I hope they do — you can feel the country in their artwork.”
The annual fair, which runs from Sept. 20 to 23, offers a platform for Arab artists to present their work to the outside world, something that is much needed by those from areas embroiled in conflict and turmoil.
“Nobody comes to Damascus to see art anymore,” Kozah said. “They can see it online, send emails or view on Instagram but they used to come a lot more. The main market for Syrian art in the past was Lebanese and Gulf collectors.”

Mohamed Ablaon . (Image supplied)


Most galleries in Syria struggled during the civil war and were forced to close between 2013 and 2017, though there are signs of a slow recovery.
“It really affected the art industry here but most of them are now open, although it’s a bit quiet,” he said. “Everything can be shipped from here, but the Beirut Art Fair can always help.”
Palestinian artists face similar challenges, as many of them are unable to travel to showcase their work.
“The majority are based in Ramallah, others in Jerusalem, the Occupied Territories, Gaza and in the diaspora,” said Ziad Anani, director of the Zawyeh Gallery in Ramallah. “Their work is mainly political — even if it’s a landscape or a Palestinian family, many show the wall, the prisons, the construction and how we are losing the land.
“Palestinian artists are describing their emotions through their work and the surroundings they live in, from the checkpoints and occupation to the distances traveled.”
Many, however, are unable to travel to the fair to see their work on display due to passport issues.
“Some hold Palestinian papers and it’s even harder to get out of Palestine, so it’s not comfortable for them,” said Anani. “It’s not fair that all the other artists from around the world can see their work but Palestinian artists cannot. It seems like they are in prison; they cannot travel and cannot see the world, when they should be hearing other people’s opinions about their work, hear curators and see other artwork, so it’s a struggle.”
He said the only way people can learn about and understand this struggle the artists face is by seeing their work.
“It is through the art that we exhibit and the messages they send from that art,” he added. “We work with about 25 artists that work with paint, oil or acrylic, video, photography and cultural installations, and the event will be an opportunity to reach out to those who are interested in Palestinian art.”
He described Beirut as the cultural hub of the Middle East.

Hicham Benohoud. (Image supplied)


“It’s always focused on art and culture, and they also have a good number of Palestinians who live in Lebanon,” he said. “We know Palestinian art collectors living there and new initiatives, such as Dar El-Nimer (in Beirut, an interactive space dedicated to the culture of Palestine and the wider Arab world), are interested in collecting Palestinian art so, for us, Beirut is a good spot where we can reach out to those people and try to promote the work.”
Lama Koubrously, head of collections at Dar El-Nimer, said the art scene in Lebanon has been growing thanks to new art spaces, especially in Beirut.
“As an art foundation dedicated to showcasing cultural and artistic productions from the Arab world and the region, we believe it is a necessity to have a platform to raise awareness of art practices, including film screenings, debates, exhibitions, workshops and auctions,” she said. “Moreover, Dar El-Nimer is a place that invites both professionals and amateurs to exchange dialogue with regard to the current art scene shaping the region. Over the years the Beirut Art Fair has been bringing an influx of people from the art world, which is putting Lebanon on the art map.”
Karim Francis, owner of the Karim Francis Art Gallery in Egypt, agrees.
“If you look at the Middle East, what is left are the Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon,” he said. “Lebanon is a small country but it’s quite active and there is a lot of interest in art. Each country usually looks to his own artists, but Lebanon looks to its own and also around – in the end it’s all linked in one area.”
Francis, who is participating at the fair for the first time, is part of the Egyptian pavilion, where he will showcase pieces inspired by Coptic, Islamic, folkloric and Egyptian art.
“It gives a small panorama into what’s going on in Egypt,” he said. “The art scene across the region is growing and becoming more active.”
Gallery Misr, also from Egypt, works with seven artists and presented their work at the fair.

Hosni Radwan"Out of Place". (Image supplied)


“Beirut has more of a personality than other places where you find art fairs,” said gallery founder Mohamed Talaat, who worked for 12 years at the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. “Dubai is more global but Beirut has something different about it. It has great culture and a good connection with Paris.”
The fair this year featured more than 50 art galleries from 20 countries, exhibiting more than 1,600 works by 250 artists. It includes 18 first-time exhibitors, alongside 33 returning galleries, with two sections dedicated to galleries that focus on modern and contemporary art from the region.
“To me, the fair is an interesting place to exhibit, as a local and international artistic platform with many collectors, galleries and foundations, not only from Lebanon but also Europe, Africa and Asia,” said Jacques-Antoine Gannat, international development director at the Loft Art Gallery in Morocco, which exhibited Moroccan photographer Hicham Benohoud’s new series, “Landscaping.”
“For us, it’s also the link between the Maghreb and the Middle East, with its similarities and differences.
The fair is ‘human-size,’ which allows collectors and galleries to meet more easily than at some bigger fairs.”