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.


Saudi artists draw inspiration from Islam

Wafa Alqunibit says her work has its place in the Kingdom. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 18 January 2019
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Saudi artists draw inspiration from Islam

  • Wafa Alqunibit: “The difficulties that I faced were getting the names on point, because a lot of them are very similar to each other

JEDDAH: The work of Saudi sculptor Wafa Alqunibit is on display in a Jeddah art gallery. A small glass box holds objects that have the appearance, shape and texture of dates. Only they are wrought from metal and glint silver and gold.
Alqunibit concedes that art can sometimes be a taboo subject in Saudi society, but says her work has its place.
“I do this to promote and represent our culture and religion as I belong to a very religious family. We have our freedom and we have open minds and I just wanted to portray this image to the world,” she told Arab News.
Her Instagram feed shows other examples of her art, including sculptures featuring the distinctive ringed and slightly curled horns of the Arabian oryx, and videos of her carving, sanding and sawing using machinery that can be seen in any carpentry or masonry workshop.
But her journey toward the arts — specifically sculpture — has not been straightforward.
“I went to Portland (in the US) to complete my doctorate in human resources. But I ended up changing my major to arts and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and they accepted me as a painter.”
But her professors thought she had different strengths — with one telling her she was born to be a tough person.
“At first I thought he was referring to me as an aggressive person, but later when I started sculpting I found out what he meant.”
She uses her work to communicate with people, especially those who misunderstand Islam, and recalled living in the US at a difficult time for Muslims.
“I took support from the arts, to tell people what we really are and now my artwork is displayed in so many galleries and I have been given the title of religious artist.”
Another artist taking inspiration from culture and religion is 26-year-old author Allaa Awad, who has taken the 99 names of Allah and turned them into poetry.
Her debut work, “Ninety-Nine: The Higher Power,” includes poems about purity, mercy, blessings and peace.
“I have encountered many people in life. They have a negative concept about life and God and I just wanted to turn that around and put my own perceptions of what I think God is, who He really is and how we should perceive Him,” she told Arab News.
She also experienced a struggle in her artistic journey, like Alqunibit did, but in a different way.
“The difficulties that I faced were getting the names on point, because a lot of them are very similar to each other. The best part was how people reacted to it on a spiritual level and how they were able to relate to what I had to say, rather than what online research had to say.”