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.


‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).
Updated 19 April 2018
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‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

  • Syrian artists-in-exile discuss their absence from their homeland and its impact on their work
  • For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief

DUBAI: “Being away from Syria is difficult,” young poet Maysan Nasser said. “Seven years later, it still feels like a phantom limb. It feels like the echo of white noise that is reverberating louder by the day.”

Nasser, a Beirut Poetry Slam champion, was talking separation: The idea that the loss of Syria is like an amputation. After seven years, she is still looking for answers to questions of home and belonging.

The first time I saw Nasser perform was last year during Zena El Khalil’s ‘Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon,’ a “40-day intervention” designed to permanently kick open the doors of Beit Beirut, a museum to the memory of the city in Sodeco. Her performance was raw and emotive.

The second time was in the basement of Riwaq Beirut, a coffee shop, cultural center and bar all rolled into one. She was addressing a small but appreciative young crowd and looked nervous. It was just a few weeks after she had launched the open-mic night ‘Sidewalk Beirut’ and the anxiety and jitters remained. In reality they shouldn’t. The crowd loves her.

“In this enforced distance from Syria, such communities have become my anchors,” she admitted. Yet her work, although deeply personal — sometimes painfully so — never directly discusses Syria or her home city of Damascus.

“I believe the distance of separation was the birth of my work,” she said. “It was in this distance that I was able to reconsider who I am, what my relationship to my family is like, what my relationship to my body is. I believe my poems to be attempts at understanding myself and my surroundings, but also my past.

“So when I speak about my mother and my relationship to her, I am also considering my mother’s past and the traditions she has internalized and passed on to me, which inevitably cast light on a time and place in Syria, and which inevitably expose my own connections and roots — or lack of, at times. This separation, in a sense, has coincided with a coming of age.”

At the same time as Nasser was hosting her early edition of Sidewalk Beirut, a mile or so away at The Colony in Karantina Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, was preparing to perform at Sofar Sounds. The venue —hidden up three flights of stairs in the Dagher Building — was little more than two empty rooms and an adjacent terrace. With him were the Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).

Hamdan has been performing with the trio since they left Damascus in 2011. Theirs is an energetic, sometimes harsh, alternative-rock sound, although that is changing. Their soon-to-be-released new album, “Human Reverie,” is as much about electronica as it is guitars and vocals.

“This pressure we’re living is kind of unique,” said Tarek Khuluki, the band’s guitarist and sometime vocalist. “You see people who are nagging about it or who are trying to use this pressure as a tool to escape the reality we’re living in, which can lead to unbalanced results. At the same time, you see people who are making the best they can with the little amount of nothing that they have. All they want is to see their ideas manifest themselves in art or in any other shape. 

“Psychologically, we’ve learned not to think too much and not to play the role of victims, but to focus on our own language, which is music.”

It’s hard to discern whether the war in Syria has had a direct impact on Tanjaret Daghet’s work, or whether the wider woes of the Arab world are partially responsible for their sound and lyrics. They sing of political oppression and societal pressure, the absence of feeling and the loss of voice.

“We do not live the state of war in the real sense of the word,” says Khaled Omran, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “What we’re living is a kind of internal war, which has arisen from our instincts as humans. It’s our right to express ourselves through art and music because it’s more humanistic, and this has allowed us to meet several artists and to exchange expertise. Who knows, maybe if we had stayed in Syria, none of that would have happened.” 

Outside of Beirut, up in the mountains of Aley, a series of old Ottoman stables have been converted into a residence for Syrian artists. Since it was first opened by Raghad Mardini in May 2012, Art Residence Aley has hosted numerous artists, including Iman Hasbani and Anas Homsi. Both now live in Berlin. Beirut, for some, is only transitory. 

“It has given me a wider vision of the world,” says the artist and film director Hazem Alhamwi of his own exile in Berlin. “Maybe it’s more painful, but it’s more real. It is training for how to change pain into creative energy. Since 2014 I have been painting a collection I call ‘Homeland in the Imagination’. It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination.”

Alhamwi is best known for “From My Syrian Room,” a documentary in which, through art and conversation, he attempts to understand how Syrians have learned to live with the distress and anxiety caused by war. It was while editing the film in France in 2013 that he realized he could not return to Syria, he said.

“I feel tired,” he told Arab News. “I feel as if I have one leg here — where I have to integrate, and want to — and the other leg in Syria, where I cannot stop being interested in what is happening. My family, my friends and my memories are still there. On the other hand, I feel like I am discovering another kind of violence, moving from living under a military dictatorship to the dictatorship of money. It’s a smooth violence written on smooth paper and put into a clean envelope. I feel myself in the stomach of the capitalist machine.”

For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief; a way to portray an overwhelming sense of loss. For others, those expressions are more subtle.

“We watch so many lies on TV, that it looks like art could be the only honest witness to modern times,” said Alhamwi, whose next film, produced by Zeina Zahreddine and Florian Schewe, will examine issues of identity. “Even many people’s facial expressions are not real. But good art is not only a mirror of the artist, but also of the spirit of the time they live in; or it’s at least the result of this reaction (of) the artist (to) the era.

“Art always tries to get people to pay more attention and not to repeat the same mistakes, but to learn from them instead. In wars, where the feelings of people are ignored and all the focus is on weapons, killing, fire and iron, art protects people’s real memory, away from any agenda or propaganda. It is this complicated memory that reflects the events, the emotions and the point of view of the artist. That is why art is needed in war as a special documentation. To tell the stories of people who didn’t get involved, because of position or fate,” he continued. “Art is a way for artists to survive in a world controlled by violence.”