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.
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
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.
‘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.
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.