Sound advice: The best records of 2019 by alternative Arab artists

The indie heroes of Egypt’s 2011 revolution Cairokee dropped their sixth studio album. (Supplied)
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Updated 04 January 2020

Sound advice: The best records of 2019 by alternative Arab artists

  • The top indie records released last year by acts from, or based in, the Arab world

Souad Massi




2019 saw the veteran Algerian performer make a triumphant return with her sixth solo studio record — her first in almost half a decade. “Oumniyah” was worth the wait. Massi’s inimitable sound, which espouses Algerian Chaabi and a fervent penchant for guitar-driven melodies, is the most striking feature here — not least because it serves as a potent vessel for delivering some very personal lyrics. The folk icon digs deep into her upbringing, summoning memories from childhood to fashion an overtly hopeful message. The gentle, shaker-infused motion of the title track and the invigorating instrumental crescendo of “Ban Koulchi” are just a couple of highlights from a record brimming with them. “Oumniyah” is the work of a songwriter confident in her identity and very much in her artistic prime.


‘Black I’ (EP)



This intriguing, Dubai-based R&B phenomenon took the regional scene by storm in 2019. Sobhhï is somewhat of a prodigy (he started his PhD in applied mathematics at the tender age of 21) and has intelligently crafted a persona that is enveloped in both mystique and superb songwriting. He kept up the buzz about his studio output with strategically timed singles throughout the year, and has been tantalizingly categorized as ‘nocturnal trapsoul.’ With “Black I,” Sobhhï’s infectiously sultry R&B vocals take center stage, navigating viscous beats with the confidence and charisma of a visionary. This is clearly a man with a plan and will be one of the acts to look out for in 2020.


‘The Ugly Ducklings’



The indie heroes of Egypt’s 2011 revolution dropped their sixth studio album, charged with emotion, their trademark political bluntness, irresistible beats and a compelling dose of artistic maturity. The irony of the record’s title is not lost on anyone: the Cairo quintet have undeniably evolved and still stand out from the crowd by setting the creative bar. Their latest attempt at upping the ante is elegantly suffused with electronica, which plays a starring role in dressing up their profound themes with lush textures and melodies. The band pull no punches, and “The Ugly Ducklings” is a captivating musical experiment.


‘Dabaka’ (EP)


OK, so it was technically released at the tail end of 2018, but “Dabaka” deserves a mention as a project that made a genuine impact in 2019. The lineup reads like a who’s who of the Middle East indie scene; Lebanon’s Wael Koudaih (aka Rayess Bek) and Wissam Bou Melhem of Who Killed Bruce Lee, and Syrians Khaled Omran of Tanjaret Daghet and electro-tarab producer Hello Psychaleppo. The project was orchestrated by Koudaih and funded by the UNHCR, and represents a remarkable melting pot of talent from the two countries. The release is punctuated by meaty techno-dabkeh beats and hypnotic vocals, and the quality of the craftsmanship is apparent from the first notes of “Ya Arab,” a disco-dabkeh opener that bristles with the raw talent of the four contributors. Each song is, however, a painful reminder of the fact that this is a one-off release — something the four artists should definitely reconsider.

Zeid Hamdan, Tanjaret Daghet & Muhammad Abdallah

‘Beit’ (EP)



Another supergroup in all but name, “Beit: is an epic gathering of exceptionally talented musicians from three countries. Syrian three-piece Tanjaret Daghet are joined by the singer and bassist of the now-defunct Jordanian Arabic rock pioneers El Morabba3. The godfather of Middle Eastern indie, Zeid Hamdan (of Soapkills fame), completes a stunningly accomplished ensemble of songwriters. Gracefully immersed in Hamdan’s legendary love of electronic music, “Beit” (Arabic for ‘home’) is a moody, delightfully dark three-song EP that lives up to the hype such an extraordinary team-up promises.

Emel Mathlouthi 

‘Everywhere We Looked Was Burning’



The acclaimed Tunisian singer and guitarist has firmly established herself as a musical innovator since 2010 with her unique mélange of North African sounds and fascinating electronic production. Whether she’s singing in Arabic or English, as she does interchangeably, Mathlouthi’s entrancing voice is on full, glorious display on the theatrical “Everywhere We Looked Was Burning.” She wields her intoxicating brand of Arab avant-garde and experimental electronica to alchemize a cinematic piece of spellbinding proportions.





The Shkoon trinity of musicians known only as Ameen, Thorben and Maher are the fruit of a coincidental meeting in Hamburg. The two Syrians and one German all hail from diverse musical and cultural backgrounds, an instrumental factor in their development of a riveting sound that eludes attempts at categorization. By their own admission, the trio are influenced by electronic downbeat, deep house, dub and hip-hop, but their exhilarating efforts to fuse Middle Eastern melodies and western electro in an ‘oriental Slow-House’ whirlwind of piano, violin, synth, percussion and absorbing vocals are the most thrilling aspect of “Rima.” This was one of the most listenable and delectably danceable records of 2019.





Although the sophomore LP by the self-styled Egyptian gurus of groove was originally slated for release at the end of 2018, it actually dropped later in 2019 — and straight into this list. Sharmoofers burst onto the regional scene in 2012 and transformed its landscape with their distinctive variety of often outrageously fun and hard-hitting lyrics, earworm hooks and now-legendary stage presence. As the follow-up to 2015’s “Paranoia,” “Enfesam” (Schizophrenia) is aptly titled. The rowdy septet are as incisive as ever, while broadening their horizons into romantic themes. Hands down, one of the records of the year, and not just in indie circles.


‘Ben Haana Wa Maana’



By any standard, DAM are Arabic hip-hop legends. Founded two decades ago by Palestinian brothers Tamer and Suhell Nafar and Mahmoud Jreri, these rhyme-slinging journeymen have roared about the injustices of poverty and the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in more than 100 singles over the years. The group’s lineup now includes rising indie star Maysa Daw and one need not look further for proof of the value of her contribution than the devastatingly powerful video for “Jasadik-Hom,” a razor-sharp diatribe on the plight of the Arab woman. If you’re seeking substance, DAM deliver with blistering skill.

Galaxy Juice




The Kuwaiti foursome brand themselves as “futuristic, weird and shimmering, pulsating and bright blast of Electro-Pop.” It’s hard to argue. They are that and a whole lot more. Expertly conjuring elating sonic landscapes and dreamy aural contours, Galaxy Juice are clearly an outfit that’s out to inspire with the inexorable beauty of their synth-propelled, reverb- and delay-drenched creations. “Pantagonia” snakes and weaves itself around the listener’s senses and leaves you in a daze of reverie. Best enjoyed on a lazy weekend afternoon.

Stay fresh during summer with 5 Arabian-inspired beauty brands

Updated 11 min 15 sec ago

Stay fresh during summer with 5 Arabian-inspired beauty brands

  • The Middle East has long been revered for its age-old beauty rituals, and here are 5 brands that incorporate the region’s creativity and innovation into their products

DUBAI: It is fairly common knowledge that some of the best beauty secrets have been passed on through generations and never more so than in the Middle East.

From the region’s love affair with fragrance to beauty practices such as the wearing of eyeliner, that originated with Queen Cleopatra, the Middle East has long been a pioneer when it comes to beauty rituals.

Soraya Jouzy, owner and founder of Pearl Tree, a leading distributor of natural, lifestyle, and wellness beauty brands in the Middle East and the British Indian Ocean Territory, said: “I am originally from Lebanon and I grew up watching woman in my family use raw ingredients from the land, including olive oil, rose water, argan oil, jasmine, and dead sea salts, in their beauty rituals.”

During the hot summer months, it is important to take extra care to stick to health and wellness routines to combat the effects of heat.

Here are five brands that have incorporated influences from the region into their products, adding a touch of past lore into contemporary beauty rituals.

Shiffa Beauty Care

“Middle East beauty means taking good care of your skin, making sure it’s clear, glowing, and strong,” said Dr. Lamees Hamdan, founder of homegrown line Shiffa Beauty.

“My grandmother aged so beautifully, in part because they understood that respecting your skin, and not overdoing it with harsh chemicals, was key.”

Hamdan pointed out that it was important that suppliers of skincare products understood skin, how it formed and reacted, and what it needed.

“Some products give you quick results, but in the long term can be detrimental to your skin. That is not what Shiffa is about. I use ingredients that will make your skin look its best now, and in five years’ time.”

For the summer months, Hamdan said it was vital to keep skin pores clean. “Shiffa tri-acid peel, used twice a week, helps gently take away dead skin cells that make your skin look dull, and help lighten pigmentation (pigmentation tends to increase in skin during the summer months),” she added.

“I have used a combination of three fruit acids, each with its own function in the skin, and a calming blend of essential oils and marine extracts. I liken my products to food for your skin.”

There was also balancing facial toner, containing bio Sulphur, and Melissa hydrosol which acts as an oil blotter for skin.

“During the hotter months, your skin tends to produce more sebum (oil) and this toner gently helps reverse the overactivity of the oil glands,” said Hamdan. She noted that to tackle the summer sun, “sunscreen, unperfumed and broad spectrum is a first, and then a large hat to protect your face and neck.”

Montroi’s Arabian-inspired Perfumes

Homegrown Dubai-based brand Montroi, specializes in products that enhance a “nomadic lifestyle.”

Montroi’s products are made using the finest materials, most sourced locally in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The brand’s perfumes offer a journey throughout the Middle East and South East Asia, incorporating pure ingredients from across the region.

“We work with more than 20 workshops and artisans across the modern Silk Route,” said co-founder Enrique Hormigo. “In the preparation of our fragrances we source frankincense from Salalah in the south of Oman, rose water from Jebel Akhdar, and oud from the Arabian Peninsula, for example.

“It’s very much a research journey of going back to the essentials and discovering craftsmanship that has been kept alive in those places for many generations.”

Sodashi’s Arabian Oud Spray

For thousands of years, oud has been used in the Middle East and Asia in the form of body oils, wooden incense chips, and fragrance. It is perhaps the best-known scent synonymous with hospitality in the region, particularly the Gulf.

Known in English as agarwood, oud comes from the bark of trees that can only be found in parts of South East Asia.

Now, international brands such as Sodashi, are incorporating its delicious scent and benefits into their products.

Perfect for the summer, Sodashi’s Arabian oud spray offers a distinct blend of damask rose, oud, frankincense, and sandalwood in a 24-carat-gold-printed biophotonic glass.

The mist, which can be left in the refrigerator to maintain its freshness, plumps and tones the skin and is perfect for a quick pick up after running around in the hot outdoors. Available from Dubai-based Pearl Tree at


Morocco is well-known for its beauty rituals, such as traditional hammams and the use of argan oil.

Leading beauty brand MarocMaroc infuses its products with Moroccan beauty traditions. In particular, its Majestic Rose range is ideal for the summer months, incorporating the rose flower, a symbol of Morocco, and evoking smoothness to the skin.

“Women of this region love natural ingredients,” said Jouzy, whose Pearl Tree stocks MarocMaroc. “There’s been a notable rise in the incorporation of natural ingredients, such as rose water and argan oil, in beauty brands over the last two years.

“In a time when people are still not as confident to return to clinics, we are seeing a rise in the use of natural products, such as MarocMaroc, in skincare rituals,” she added.

Two Rivers

Dubai-based entrepreneur Yosor Al-Suhaili recently launched Two Rivers, a natural organic skincare and beauty brand incorporating ancient skincare rituals from her native Iraq and around the Middle East.

“When my mother was 13, her grandmother in Iraq sat her down and told her that from this day on her baths would not only be about washing her hair and body but would also involve scrubbing her face and body with the granules of a small white stone and scrubbing her feet with a pumice stone,” she told Arab News.

“My mother took her grandmother’s advice to heart two to three times a week until this very day. Although I never grew up in Iraq, I too sat down at 13 with the same exact advice which I too took to heart.

“I realized that the constant use of these ancient products and rituals had a greater impact on my skin than any other modern-day product I used.”

Friends and family members asked Al-Suhaili to share the secret to her glowing skin and eventually she decided to launch her own product line.

All Two Rivers’ products incorporate regionally sourced natural ingredients. The brand’s go-to market product, white stone, used to scrub away skin impurities, is not readily known outside of Iraq and Iran.

“I wanted to share these natural time-proven products, that have been in my family for five generations, with the world,” added Al-Suhaili.

They are available on Instagram @tworiversbrand