Underground sounds: The best records of 2020 by alternative Arab artists

Underground sounds: The best records of 2020 by alternative Arab artists
Postcards’ second studio album was one of the first releases of 2020. (Supplied)
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Updated 03 January 2021

Underground sounds: The best records of 2020 by alternative Arab artists

Underground sounds: The best records of 2020 by alternative Arab artists
  • Records from Lebanon, Tunisia, Kuwait, Palestine, Morocco and the UAE made our list this year

Postcards

‘The Good Soldier’

The Lebanese trio’s second studio album was one of the first releases of 2020, hitting the shelves in early January and ahead of several planned tours that were eventually called off for obvious reasons. The record was a prescient opener to a year that would not only see the world descend into pandemic pandemonium, but also the band’s hometown of Beirut — already crippled by economic collapse and civil unrest — succumb to widespread destruction. “The Good Soldier” is a fitting soundtrack to the city’s painful ordeal, weaving shoegaze-y, melancholic instrumental landscapes and memorable vocal hooks into a sonic sculpture that turns catharsis into an art form.

Flugen

‘Poupayee’

Flugen is a one-woman musical army led by the multi-instrumental musical genius of Maya Aghniadis. With “Poupayee,” she has fashioned a stunning alchemy of mostly instrumental pieces that take the listener on a wildly fascinating journey. Mesmerizing tribal beats punctuate passages stepped in dreamy piano and flute-driven melodies, never once letting up in their command of one’s attention. Aghniadis’ music has been labeled as ‘ethno-electro jazz,’ but her latest record makes it strikingly obvious that she’s an artist who will continue to elude categorization with her passion for experimentation.

Sons of Yusuf

‘Shaykh the World’

Kuwaiti brothers Ya’koob and Abdul Rahman Al-Refaie started hip-hop outfit Sons of Yusuf in 2011, and after a string of gripping singles and last year’s EP collaboration with Shafiq Husayn, the siblings finally dropped their first full-length album. Released at the height of the pandemic in April, the two rhyme-slingers offered a much-needed dose of positivity and culturally incisive wit to music fans in a world justifiably enveloped by doom and gloom. “Shaykh the World” is a major achievement for the region’s hip-hop scene, and absolutely essential listening.

Emel Mathlouthi 

‘The Tunis Diaries’

The singer was about to depart her native Tunis and fly back home to New York City when the international travel ban took hold. She capitalized on being stranded by borrowing a classical guitar and laptop, and taking to the rooftop of the building she was staying in. The fruits of her labor became a captivating double album that sees the critically acclaimed songwriter offer up solo renditions of some of her best-known tracks, as well as compelling covers including Nirvana’s “Something in the Way,” System of a Down’s “Aerials,” and David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World.” In stark contrast to last year’s theatrical, electronica-laden masterpiece “Everywhere We Looked Was Burning,” Mathlouthi’s haunting vocal performances this time around draw the listener in with their quiet intensity, as the guitarist’s delicate but deliberate plucking keeps the intimate aura of the proceedings on track at all times.

Faraj Suleiman

‘Better Than Berlin’

The indefatigable Palestinian composer and pianist found form and sense in a chaotic year with a riveting new LP, building on a fast-growing musical legacy of successful releases that earned him an artist residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, where he lives. Suleiman balances emotion and instrumental mastery in an alluring, seamless whirlwind of Western jazz interspersed with Eastern musical influences, playful Arabic lyrics and hints of his penchant for rock music. “Better Than Berlin” is a spellbinding showcase that hits all the right notes and captures the musical ability of an innovative instrumentalist firing on all cylinders.

Bab L’Bluz 

‘Nayda!’

This Moroccan-French quartet plays with such intent and cohesion that it’s hard to believe they’ve been together for only two short years. This debut LP is a powerful declaration of the band’s intention to “reclaim the blues for North Africa.” The enchanting vocal lines delivered by charismatic singer Yousra Mansour are expertly navigated by the delectable grooves of the three musicians that accompany her with hypnotic mélanges of percussion and guembri — the three-stringed bass-lute. Bab L’Bluz (Arabic for ‘Door to Blues’) have emerged as torchbearers for the ‘nayda’ youth movement of artists that sing in the Moroccan-Arabic dialect of darija and are deeply inspired by local heritage.

El Rass

‘Bab Al Doukhoul’

El Rass (Arabic for ‘the head’) is Mazen El-Sayed, rapper and music producer from Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli. His razor-sharp verses and politically charged lyrical diatribes have been the hallmark of his many collaborations and growing repertoire of imaginative, infectiously rhythmic LPs. The specter of economic and societal calamity in his native Lebanon understandably hangs over “Bab Al Doukhoul” with even more urgency than on his earlier releases. This record sees the inventive talent truly at the top of his game while finding new and intriguing ways to elevate his craft.

Sobhhï

‘RED III’

Dubai-born Sobhhï has largely been a man of mystery as his legend continues to grow in the regional R&B scene and beyond. The singer and songwriter has crafted a cryptic persona around his prolific release schedule for the past few years: He doesn’t perform live (although he reportedly plans to), his promotional photography rarely shows his face, and he has repeatedly stated his admirable preference for letting the tunes do all the talking. “RED III” was, in fact, his second 2020 EP (following “PLEASURES” earlier in the year) and it’s a thrilling addition to his catalog of magnetic beats and sultry vocal displays that the artist himself has aptly dubbed “music for late nights.”

Various artists

‘Beirut Remixed’

Featuring remixes of tracks from five luminaries of the Lebanese indie scene  — Mashrou’ Leila, Adonis, Who Killed Bruce Lee, Lumi, and The Bunny Tylers — by veteran EDM maestros Jade and Jad Taleb and acclaimed producer ETYEN, “Beirut Remixed” is an engaging electronic reimagining of some of the artists’ most-celebrated songs. Released by Etyen’s Thawra Records as a tribute to the Lebanese capital in light of this year’s cataclysmic August 4th explosion, the record is a testament to the creative energy that Beirut has regularly summoned throughout the past decade to produce jewels such as this one.


Architect sheds light on Expo 2020 Dubai’s ‘monument to the living’

The monument is located at Expo 2020 Dubai’s Jubilee Park. (Supplied)
The monument is located at Expo 2020 Dubai’s Jubilee Park. (Supplied)
Updated 17 October 2021

Architect sheds light on Expo 2020 Dubai’s ‘monument to the living’

The monument is located at Expo 2020 Dubai’s Jubilee Park. (Supplied)

DUBAI: It took more than 200,000 workers and 240 million hours of combined labor to bring the vast Expo 2020 Dubai site to life.

Now, to express thanks to the workforce, a colonnade of 38 columns has been installed at the site’s Jubilee Park, with individual worker’s names carved in stone.

Reem Al-Hashimi, Expo 2020 Dubai’s director-general, had the idea for the Workers’ Monument and asked London-based architect Asif Khan to design the project.

“It’s such a powerful form of recognition, positive energy and kindness. It’s a very human statement, and a reminder that human beings are at the heart of what has been achieved,” Khan told Arab News.

The monument is located at Expo 2020 Dubai’s Jubilee Park. (Supplied)


 “In general, the people who build all these projects that transform the world and our culture are rarely thanked or, if they are, it’s in an impersonal, general way,” he said.

“What we forget when people are working on projects is that their family and friends are part of the process. They make sacrifices.”

Khan, who also designed the Expo’s massive entry portals, met many of the workers on site during the past five years.

“They are from every corner of the world, especially South Asia, and they all got on together,” he recalled.

However, detailing the tribute was no easy task, with spreadsheets that listed hundreds of names — a challenge that Khan saw as a “fascinating anthropological study.”

Duplicate names, alternative spellings, and names that ranged between one and five words were all honored in the final structure. Each circular, two-meter-high column, made of Omani limestone, is like “a book in a library,” where individual workers can find their name.

“When I first visited the site, it was desert. Through the works of these people — brick by brick, centimeter by centimeter — this site was transformed,” Khan said.

“They are like magicians who changed the state of matter.”

The celebratory Dubai tribute is believed to be the first of its kind, with similar monuments traditionally associated with solemnity and loss.

“It’s a monument to the living. In our research, we found no monument of this scale which names every worker individually,” Khan said. “I hope it’s the beginning of being thankful, globally.”

Expo may last for only six months, but the overall site and Workers’ Monument are here to stay, according to Khan, “making sure that future generations knew who made it.” 

 


Arab Fashion Council names Barbie as its 2021 Fashion Icon

The Arab Fashion Council has named Mattel doll Barbie as the Fashion Icon 2021. (Supplied)
The Arab Fashion Council has named Mattel doll Barbie as the Fashion Icon 2021. (Supplied)
Updated 17 October 2021

Arab Fashion Council names Barbie as its 2021 Fashion Icon

The Arab Fashion Council has named Mattel doll Barbie as the Fashion Icon 2021. (Supplied)

DUBAI: The Arab Fashion Council has named Mattel doll Barbie as the Fashion Icon 2021.

In a tribute to the much-loved doll, designer Jeremy Scott will present fashion label Moschino’s archive collection inspired by Barbie and receive the Council’s Medal of Honor at the Fashion Icon Awards on Oct. 24 in Dubai.

Lebanese superstar Maya Diab, who was named the first Fashion Icon last year during a digital celebration streamed Beirut, will present the trophy to Kim Culmone, Mattel’s senior vice president of global Barbie design.

Accepting the award on Barbie’s behalf, Culmone said: “Barbie has always been more than a toy, she is an international icon deeply connected to culture. With fashion being a critical component of our brand DNA, we are inspired by the fashion community, and at times, Barbie has even been a source of inspiration for the very same talented community. For Barbie to receive the prestigious Fashion Icon Award 2021 from the Arab Fashion Council is a true honor and I look forward to the privilege of witnessing the incredible talent showing during Arab Fashion Week.”

“A Fashion Icon is a role model that inspires ideology, change and setting trends,” Mohammed Aqra, chief strategy officer of the Arab Fashion Council, said. “Barbie is this Icon that has been and still inspiring generations of children to embrace the best of over 200 careers. In reference to Fashion, Barbie is always a main figure that ignites the sense of creativity and love of fashion from the early journey of designers’ career. For over 60 years Barbie has been inspiring designers from around the globe including legacy creative directors. It is time for Barbie to be named the Fashion Icon in tribute to its lifetime achievement.”


World’s oldest ghost image found on British Museum Babylon tablet

World’s oldest ghost image found on British Museum Babylon tablet
Updated 16 October 2021

World’s oldest ghost image found on British Museum Babylon tablet

World’s oldest ghost image found on British Museum Babylon tablet
  • Artefact, nearly 3,500 years old, never exhibited as male and female figures so faint
  • Curator: ‘It is a Guinness Book of Records object, because how could anybody have a drawing of a ghost which was older?’

LONDON: The oldest depiction of a ghost recorded in human history has been discovered at the British Museum.

The image, on an ancient Babylonian clay tablet nearly 3,500 years old — acquired in the 19th century — shows a bearded man being led to the afterlife by a woman, with his hands held out before him, tied together.

Dr. Irving Finkel, curator of the Middle East department at the museum, said the tablet — which has cuneiform text accompanying the image, and which has never been on public display — was meant to help the living remove unwanted spirits by aiding them to settle unfinished business.

The nature of the tablet, Finkel said, had been missed for years because the image of the ghosts is so faint and only visible under certain light, while it is also significantly damaged. 

“You’d probably never give it a second thought because the area where the drawings are looks like it’s got no writing,” he told The Guardian.

“But when you examine it and hold it under a lamp, those figures leap out at you across time in the most startling way. It is a Guinness Book of Records object, because how could anybody have a drawing of a ghost which was older?”


Review: ‘Convergence: Courage in a Crisis’ takes on a gargantuan challenge

‘Convergence: Courage in a Crisis’ is now streaming on Netflix. (Supplied)
‘Convergence: Courage in a Crisis’ is now streaming on Netflix. (Supplied)
Updated 16 October 2021

Review: ‘Convergence: Courage in a Crisis’ takes on a gargantuan challenge

‘Convergence: Courage in a Crisis’ is now streaming on Netflix. (Supplied)

LONDON: For the most part, British director Orlando von Einsiedel’s new Netflix documentary, “Convergence: Courage in a Crisis,” manages to strike a balance between poignant and harrowing without straying too far into self-indulgence. But only for the most part. The filmmaker, the creative voice behind the excellent “White Helmets” and “Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul,” has created a new documentary that is equal parts loving tribute and critical dissection, as he weaves together a series of different story threads, all following those impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Convergence: Courage in a Crisis’ is now streaming on Netflix. (Supplied)

 

The movie’s subjects are varied and diverse — from a first responder in the Brazilian favelas to a couple under lockdown in Tehran. An expectant mother and father in India tell their story, while a Syrian filmmaker volunteering at a hospital in London is also highlighted, alongside a young driver transporting staff and drugs in Wuhan and a doctor and activist working in Miami. Each story has something unique about it. Von Einsiedel’s greatest creative stroke in this movie is giving his subjects the room to tell their own stories, because each is heartbreaking and life-affirming in its own way.

 

Where the movie gets harder to follow is when the director tries to do too much in too short a time. In less than two hours, we get commentary on governmental mismanagement, the Black Lives Matter movement, institutional racism, nationwide inequality, and a handful of other topics made all the more pressing during the pandemic. There are also tantalizing glimpses inside the World Health Organization, and the Oxford University vaccine development program. But we must make do with just a few minutes of each, before we are whisked off to the next story. There is deep, resonant and powerful storytelling running throughout “Convergence” — if only we were given a little more time to take it all in.


Actress Salma Hayek shows off Elie Saab suit in Los Angeles

The actress showed off a leopard-print suit by Elie Saab in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)
The actress showed off a leopard-print suit by Elie Saab in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)
Updated 16 October 2021

Actress Salma Hayek shows off Elie Saab suit in Los Angeles

The actress showed off a leopard-print suit by Elie Saab in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

DUBAI: US-Mexican actress Salma Hayek made an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in Los Angeles this weekend wearing a feisty leopard-print suit by Lebanese designer Elie Saab.

The actress, who is of Spanish and Lebanese descent, appeared on the TV show alongside fellow actor Kumail Nanjiani to talk about their latest film, Marvel’s “Eternals.”

For the occasion, she looked glamorous in a coordinating set by Saab, hailing from the designer’s pre-Fall 2021 collection.

The wide-legged animal-print pants featured a single black stripe on each leg, while the fitted blazer boasted black lapels and was worn over a sheer black top with a high collar.

(Getty Images)

The film’s star-studded cast includes Hayek, Nanjiani, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden and teen Syrian refugee-turned-actor Zain Al-Rafeea, among others.

Directed by Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao, the plot centers on an immortal alien race with superhuman powers who have secretly lived on Earth for thousands of years. The film is set to be released in theaters in November.

While chatting with show host Jimmy Kimmel on Thursday, Hayek revealed why her co-star Jolie smashed her face into a birthday cake in a video that went viral online in September.

When the show host asked about her 55th birthday celebration last month, Hayek said: “There was no birthday party. All of those people were crashers. I said, ‘I don’t want a birthday party this year.’ I had to work all day. Twenty-five people, that I told them there is no birthday party, showed up anyway,” she said, referring to the party documented in her September Instagram post. 

The actress then explained that it’s a Mexican birthday tradition to push a person’s face into their cake — and Jolie was tasked with the job.

In the video, a group of friends are gathered around the actress chanting, “Mordida!” as Jolie pushes Hayek’s face into her birthday cake.

“After you blow the candles, you have to mordida,” Hayek explained to Kimmel. “It means a bite. You have to bite the cake with your mouth, without your hands holding or anything. Then, there’s always one that comes and hits you and sticks your face inside the cake.

“We were starting, ‘Mordida!’ She’s like, ‘What’s happening?’” Hayek said of Jolie’s apparent confusion over the tradition, before she got in on the fun and smashed Hayek's face into the coconut cake.