Strange Sounds in Arabic

As the fervent quest for the obscure continues, somehow music from the Arab world has managed to remain largely niche. There are a few people pushing the sound. The Habibi Funk outfit are perhaps the most well known and the Ma3azef show on NTS is definitely worthy of your time. Still, Arabic music has yet to be embraced in the way music from many other areas of the world have been. Many playlists claiming to be focused on the Middle East as a whole end up being almost entirely Turkish (or even veering off towards Iran and India). There is a lot of great Turkish stuff and perhaps that’s part of why the Arabic stuff gets overlooked but there’s more to it than that. Quite simply, searching for Arabic music is far more difficult because the alphabet is different. This might seem trite but it is definitely an obstacle.

I was lucky enough to spend a large amount of my childhood in the Middle East. My mother and I would go into the music shops in Cairo and Dahab and gaze at the walls of mosaiced cassette tapes, picking out things based purely on the garish cover art. Years would go by before we would discover who we were listening to. Eventually, it became a reason to learn to read the language. In the end that random selection process unearthed as many duds as gems but it did create a taste for the myriad of Arabic sounds out there. Below are some classics to whet the appetite.

I recently used this track as an opener on the Uprock show. It’s a pretty solid way to start any conversation about Arabic music in general. Playwright, composer and pianist Ziad Rahbani comes from an illustrious Lebanese family. His mother was Fairuz; arguably the most iconic Arabic singer of all time, certainly if you ask anyone in the Levant. You can tell that Rahbani wasn’t short on resources making this record; he actually went to Greece to record it. It’s also not surprising that the original pressing is somewhere around the one thousand euro mark these days.

Omar Korshid also kept some very illustrious company. He was famously enrolled by legendary Egyptian singers like Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez as they began incorporating electric guitar into their orchestras. Interestingly, whilst Rahbani went to Europe to record, Korshid moved to Lebanon in the 70s where he recorded much of his best work, including this track. The musical outlook in Beirut at the time was far more progressive and allowed him to bring experimental electronics and effects into his more traditional Egyptian folk.

By the end of the 70s, Beirut was a hotbed for Middle-Eastern jazz / funk pioneers. This track by Ihsan Al Munzer sums it up as well as any. The track was reissued on Fortuna Records, who has been unearthing a lot of great stuff in the past few years. It’s hard to find much of a back-story on the artist so I guess we’ll let the Moog do the talking.

Ahmed Fakroun has been deservedly getting a lot of rotation from DJs in the past few years. Originally from Benghazi, Libya, Fakroun spent a lot of time in Europe, firstly at school in England and later on recording in Italy and France. His early 70s tracks like the incredible “Nisyan” were more directly disco driven but moving into the 80s Fakroun became increasingly influenced by art-pop out of Europe and the US as is pretty clear from this track and the accompanying video.

Ahmed Malek was predominantly known for his movie scores. These are definitely worth a listen too but perhaps more interesting are his early experiments with electronic music found here on the aptly titled “Arabic Proto Electronic Music #1” and “Arabic Proto Electronic Music #2”. These two tracks were unearthed by Habibi Funk and are part of two hours worth of recorded jams which had been gathering dust in Malek’s daughter’s house. Whether these were meant to see the light of day is unclear but it’s obvious that electronic music had become a bit of an obsession for the Algerian composer.

It seems right to end on an upbeat number. Egyptian percussionist Khamis Henkesh was nicknamed the godfather of the tarbuka. If you check out some of his solo drum tracks it’s easy to see why, and in Cairo particularly, being a virtuoso on this instrument comes before almost anything. His catalogue has its ups and downs but this early 80s disco-inspired album is solid Egyptian gold.