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

‘Oumniyah’

 

 

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.

Sobhhï 

‘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.

Cairokee

‘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 

‘Dabaka’ (EP)




(Supplied)

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.

Shkoon 

‘Rima’

 

 

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.

Sharmoofers 

‘Enfesam’

 

 

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.

DAM

‘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

‘Pantagonia’

 

 

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.


Lebanese publisher launches book project of Arab art created during lockdown

Updated 03 June 2020

Lebanese publisher launches book project of Arab art created during lockdown

  • Dongola Books launches The Mailbox Project encouraging Middle Eastern artists around the world to create art during lockdown

DUBAI: While most artists will say that creating art in isolation is their natural state, the months of lockdown due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic have for many conjured up feelings of restlessness and unease.

“An artist’s mission in the first place is to tell history — their side of history and what they are living every day,” artist and political cartoonist Khalid Albaih, who is based in the Danish capital Copenhagen, told Arab News.

But how does an artist document history while confined to their home?

As the world begins to reopen after months of closure, artwork created by more than 50 Middle Eastern artists will serve as a testament to the power of creativity, as part of the “Cities Under Quarantine: The Mailbox Project.”

“Cities Under Quarantine: The Mailbox Project” was launched by Beirut-based artist and founder of Dongola Books Abed Al-Kadiri. (Supplied)

The initiative was launched by Beirut-based artist and founder of Dongola Books Abed Al-Kadiri.

The scope of the project was not only to create works of art during varying states of lockdown, but to channel challenging feelings of anxiety into creativity.

The project involved the creation of more than 50 hand-made and hand-stitched books, produced in-house at Dongola and designed with each individual artist in mind by Reza Abedini.

Each book had the name of the artist it was sent to on its front cover and was distributed accordingly to Middle Eastern artists around the world working in isolation.

Some of the Middle East’s most prominent emerging and established artists globally participated in the initiative. (Supplied)

Some of the Middle East’s most prominent emerging and established artists globally participated in the initiative. They included Beirut-based artists Serwan Baran, Reza Abedini, Abed Al-Kadiri, Dalia Baassiri, Gilbert Hage, Hiba Kalache, Majd Abdel Hamid, Shawki Youssef, and Mona Saudi.

Albaih said: “I took part in this project because I thought it was a great project through which to document the times we are living. I am trying to document how I feel and how the surroundings look to me at a time when it is hard to produce and when there is little to nowhere that is active right now. Artists produce during good times and times of hardship.”

Portrait of Abed Al-Kadiri. (Supplied)

Dongola continues to believe in the power of artists’ books to harness change and as a unique form of expression that captures and responds to the spirit of the times.

“I began to question what our collective spaces could offer us as we stay apart together,” said Al-Kadiri, an artist known for his large-scale abstract paintings covering social issues around the Middle East.

“What could I, not just as an artist, but as a believer in the power of artistic connection, encourage through my peers? Art has always been exceptionally responsive to the world around us. Through it, we capture the personal, social, political, and environmental issues that we struggle to make sense of.

The project involved the creation of more than 50 hand-made and hand-stitched books. (Supplied)

“These books are an invitation to join me in thinking along the same lines, through a practice I have dedicated myself to for the past few years. I believe in the relevance of the artist’s book today, now more than ever,” he added.

Al-Kadiri pointed out that the initiative was also on a mission to put art outside of gallery walls. He was particularly inspired by American artist John Baldessari’s book “Ingres and Other Parables.” In it, Baldessari writes that “it’s difficult to put a painting in the mailbox.”

However, Baldessari, who died in January this year, had a desire to create hand-held artwork to be viewed away from galleries — something Al-Kadiri also aims to promote in the age of COVID-19.

Dongola continues to believe in the power of artists’ books to harness change and as a unique form of expression that captures and responds to the spirit of the times. (Supplied)

Much of the power of The Mailbox Project lies in the diversity of the artists taking part, working in different countries throughout the world and in different artistic mediums. They were given no artistic parameters. They were only asked to create.

“This will be a great historic witness to the times we are living,” added Albaih.

Al-Kadiri hopes to culminate the project in the future with a compilation of completed works from the artists’ books to then be published as a limited-edition book by Dongola. “We also hope to stage an exhibition of the works in the future.”