If you ever need recommendations on which artists to listen to from the Middle Eastern independent scene, then it’s best to go right to the source.
From his work with the groundbreaking Arabic-language trip-hop duo SoapKills, to his most recent group Bedouin Burger, Zeid Hamdan, 43, has been viewed as one of the most revolutionary architects of the scene, with more than 20 albums and EPs to his name.
He is also an acclaimed producer and composer, having helmed recordings from fierce singers Maryam Saleh and Hiba Mansouri, as well as scoring the soundtrack to the 2016 Saudi romantic comedy Barakah Meets Barakah.
With such a pedigree as a musical tastemaker, it makes absolute sense for The National to seek him out to list the best regional indie artists we should listen to.
True to form, Hamdan provides an eclectic mix, ranging from Palestinian hip-hop to some Bedouin jazz.
“Compiling a list like this is hard and it requires me to really think about it,” he says. “The scene is so rich and diverse that you can’t just look at it as one thing… I hope people can hear these bands and go out to explore others.”
Check out the list below:
1. The nostalgia of Bu Kolthoum (Syria)
“After the Beirut Port explosion I left Beirut to settle in France. And during that process of moving I have become really sensitive to music that evokes a sense of nostalgia.
“Bu Kolthoum has that quality. He is a Syrian artist with a great voice and beautiful lyrics. I feel that everything he does is organic and spontaneous. His work has been an inspiration to me during these times.”
2. The pioneering veteran: Liliane Chlela (Lebanon)
“Liliane Chlela is a veteran of the Lebanese indie music scene and one of few female producers. She just released a new album called Safala and it is full of her experimental electronic music and sophisticated production.
“She is also a keen collaborator and has worked with everyone from jazz musicians to Hamed Cinno from Mashrou’ Leila.”
3. A voice of resistance: Daboor and Shabjdeed (Palestine)
“Hip-hop from occupied Palestine is the best from the region because there is a real urgency and vitality to it.
“This duo is among voices of the youth and they demonstrate their resistance against Israeli occupation through art. Their style, way with words and technique are great. They are an inspiration for the Arabic hip-hop scene and artists definitely worth following.”
4. The modern and traditional sounds of Ammar 808 (Tunisia)
“He has this interesting electronic sound that is rooted within the region.
“Ammar 808’s speciality is his incredibly powerful beats and bass lines that he matches with traditional music. I learned so much from listening to his work: it is danceable, groovy and retains the beauty of traditional Arabic music.”
5. A potential star: Khansa (Lebanon)
“A complete artist who I think will become huge pop icon. He is a great singer and dancer and a complete showman.
“Ever since the song Khayef came out in 2018 he went on to produce really interesting works. I hear he is about to release an album, I just hope he is surrounded by a good team that can really show his talent.”
6. The guitar attack of Bab L’ Bluz (Morocco)
“A really cool Moroccan trio who play this great blend of traditional Gnawa music with rock.
“The band is led by Yousra Mansour who is this really accomplished singer and musician. She and the group have really great potential and they are still relatively unknown.”
7. The hip-hop OG: El Rass (Lebanon)
“In my opinion he is the most talented hip-hop artist in Lebanon. And this is not just because of the music, but because of the subject matter and the real cleverness of his lyrics.
“He was a former journalist and today he leads the hip-hop scene in Lebanon and collaborates with many artists.”
8. New kids on the block: Ayloul (Jordan)
“They are a fresh new band from Jordan. The have great lyrics and composition and a fine singer – all elements you need to be successful.
“My favourite song of theirs is Emsekni B Eydi; it is beautiful and really shows their humbleness and talent.”
9. The buzz of Donia Waelll (Egypt)
“A cool singer and multi-instrumentalist from Egypt who is really building a nice buzz over there.
“As a producer myself, I am really sensitive to compositions and Donia’s work is great from that perspective. She surrounds herself with interesting collaborators, one of them producer El Waili, and so I think she is part of a really good scene. She has all the ingredients to become really big.”
10. The experimentalist: Yousif Yaseen (Kuwait)
“An innovative artist from Kuwait, he has this unique method of tuning his guitar so he can play quarter tones melodies, which are very much of this region.
“I am a fan and we are in contact to see if there is any way we can collaborate. Yassen already has an album out called Visions which I recommend you listen to as he has this way of blending Western and Arabic music together through interesting vocals and arrangements.”
11. The lone voice of Tamer Abu Ghazaleh (Egypt)
“He has a very unique way of singing Arabic and he takes his voices to places that are really unexpected. This even applies to his lyrics, which are also written in his own style. It is a mixture of standard prose and slam poetry. This is what I appreciate about him – he is his own artist and there is no one out there like him.”
12. A patchwork of regional styles: Yasmine Hamdan (Lebanon)
“The thing about Yasmine Hamdan is that, vocally, she hasn’t captured the quarter tone (a musical mode that’s key to Middle Eastern music). She is actually rather clumsy with it.
“But her voice has character and when it comes to her lyrics, she takes inspiration from the whole Arab world. So it is patchwork of Gulf, Lebanese and Egyptian movie expressions. It is a mix of everything, and she presents it with very minimal and interesting melodies.”
13. The idiosyncratic talent of Maryam Saleh (Egypt)
“Another untypical singer. Maryam Saleh’s voice is her personality. She doesn’t sound like anyone else and she has this kind of yelling voice, which makes her sound almost like a punk artist. Indeed, she has played an important role in developing the Arabic rock scene. She can also sing the works of [Egyptian folk music hero] Sheikh Imam like no one else.”
14. The mellow stories of Maii Waleed (Egypt)
“The first time I heard Maii Waleed, I thought I was listening to an Arabic version of [US indie singer] Suzanne Vega. She has this creamy voice that is mellow and which always takes me somewhere.
“Another feature of her craft is the lyrics. They are very honest and they tell you the stories of the Arab world today from the perspective of a young woman. I love her honesty and character and I think she is a great songwriter. People should definitely go out and discover her.”
15. The hip-hop powerhouse that is DAM (Palestine)
“Tamer Nafar is the leader of this important hip-hop group. He is the first artist I heard doing Arabic hip-hop and it was a song about the Israeli occupation called Meen Erhabe? (Who is the terrorist?). It really moved me. I reconnected with him recently because he sent me DAM’s latest album Ben Haana wa Maana to give him feedback. The album was great because Tamer really showed his skill in writing both Arabic music and Arabic hip-hop. People should definitely hear it.”
16. The majestic rock of El Morabba3
“I literally fell in love with (El Morabba3 frontman) Muhammad Abdullah one night after a concert with Mai Waleed. He came to the stage and introduced himself and I asked him to perform a song in guitar and he spontaneously accepted. He played Cigara Qabel Ma Nqoom from his band El Moraba33 and, honestly, I cried. It was one of the most beautifully composed Arabic songs I ever heard. This was the gateway for me to discover El Morabba3 and they are just a great Modern Arabic rock band.”
17. The awesome power of Tanjaret Daghet (Syria)
“They are a three-piece band with two singers and they do extremely well executed alternative Arabic rock. Their voices are amazing. Because of the regional situation and the fact they can’t really move around, they didn’t have the impact that they should. In my opinion, they are the most powerful Arabic rock trio that I have seen. Once you see them on stage, I guarantee they will be on your Top 5 list of gigs you seen in the Arab world.”
18. The razor sharp lyricism of Touffar (Lebanon)
“They are a duo and they have written Arabic hip-hop that had the most impact on me. They are both from a neglected city called Baalbek and they have these accents you hear when you are from the Beqaa valley. Their songs have great lyrics about Lebanon and its realities, and they have been very active in the recent revolution here in Lebanon. They have really matured to become great lyricists and you should definitely follow them if you are fan of Arabic hip-hop.”
19. Bedouin jazz with Lynn Adib (Syria)
“I am amazed by her voice, her technique and the quality of her compositions. She writes Bedouin style music with a mix of jazz. I can sense in her work that her potential has not yet been reached, particularly in her very promising first album. I am currently working with her in co-producing her next album.”
20. The pioneering work of Saudi Arabian producer Majed El Issa
“I wish I could meet him. He is an incredibly talented Saudi Arabian producer. He has a YouTube channel where you can see his songs and when you hear them, you can see he took Saudi Arabian and Khaleeji music and modernised it. This was real ear-opening for me and has inspired my production work for the last ten years. His style and sound shows what Saudi Arabia can do on the music scene.”
21. The fine Arabic pop rock of Jadal
“The band’s frontman Mahmoud Radaideh is a very good composer. We worked together a few times and he really knows the recipe when it comes to creating a good pop song. I have seen him evolve in Jadal and this is what makes the band a good option if you want to hear this good Arabic rock music.”
Updated: April 8th 2020, 3:46 AM