Too often dismissed as a refuge for flairless cover acts and brainless rock, the Middle East’s music scene is, perhaps for the first time, starting to be taken seriously on the global stage. Among the local success stories are indie poster boys Mashrou’ Leila, who brought the sound of Beirut’s underground to gigs across Europe, and Syrian rockers Tanjaret Daghet, who emerged from turbulent times to turn their exile into musical poetry.
Sadly much of this music is still buried in the underground, but for the first time, more meaningful statements are starting to simmer to the surface. Here, we’ve rounded up some of the most promising new and forthcoming releases from beyond the UAE, compelling regional records ranging through indie and folk to glitchy electronica that have all made our ears perk up over the past 12 months. Plug in your earphones and find out what’s really going down.
The weary weight of the world hangs heavily over Cairo-based songwriter Adam Awad’s work – song titles like ‘Not that Easy’, ‘Reminisce’ and ‘Lonely Before’ betray a sense of solitary introspection before you even click play. Set for release later this summer on a five-track EP, it’s an undeniably and unashamedly personal debut. Yet there’s a certain maturity to Awad’s coming of age contemplation, which mixes classic 1970s Cat Stevens/Paul Simon-esque songwriting with more modern indie quirks and soaring harmonies. Like all good wordsmiths, we can only see Awad’s talents growing in subsequent releases. Nationality:
Listen to: ‘This City’s Not My Home’
If you like: Daniel Johnston, alt-folk, Jean-Paul Sartre
Among Bahrain’s best-known musicians, songwriter Ala Ghawas is attempting to break out of the island, with debut album Armor set to land on shelves across the GCC at the time of press. Offering a mature mediation on recent events in his homeland, the release sees Ghawas ditching the solo approach of earlier EPs, instead backed by frequent collaborators Likwid, creating an assured, full sound mixing folk and soul influences. With intelligent, observational lyrics and a bare approach to songwriting, it’s a serious, at times sombre but always compelling work.
Listen to: ‘Raven’.
A Virus from Outer Space
Cosmo is Bahraini electronic producer Esam Hammad who crafts meticulous, beguiling ambient tracks that recall the kind of electronica pioneered by UK record label Warp in the 1990s. As well as completing some notable remixes, Hammad released a debut EP at the turn of 2014, A Virus from Outer Space, which he lovingly descries as ‘a soundtrack to a 1970s sci-fi movie’.
Listen to: ‘Binary Essence’.
Dana Al Fardan Nationality:
She might be the daughter of one of Doha’s richest men, but Dana Al Fardan is certainly carving a name all for herself. Billed as the ‘first female Khaleeji English-language pop singer’, recent debut LP Paint is already an historic achievement – never mind the fact it’s an assured, modern pop record blending heartfelt lyrics and catchy melodies.
Listen to: ‘Paint’.
If you like: Beth Orton, intelligent pop, singing in the shower.
Mashrou’ Leila Nationality:
To say that Mashrou’ Leila are big right now is kind of missing the point. Yes, the Beirut indie collective has performed the rare feat of picking up international note and global gigs while singing in Arabic. But it’s closer to home where the shockwaves have been most firmly felt, the band’s contentious lyrics and controversial lifestyles causing a stir around their homeland. But thankfully they’re more than hype: the music is fantastic – a genuine melting pot of smart, noughties indie and traditional Arabic scales, flavoured with a simmering broth of ingredients borrowed from an open buffet of times and places – trip-hoppy beats, Middle Eastern strings, Miles Davis-trumpet, snarled guitars, airy glockenspiels, eerie vocals and 1980s synths brewed into a (somehow) coherent whole. Now approaching a year old, album number three Raasuk is the least new thing on this round-up of new records – but there was no way to avoid including it, and if you haven’t heard it yet, it’s time to catch up.
Listen to: ‘Skandar Maalouf’.
If you like: Arcade Fire, Fairuz, genre-bending interestingness, to have your finger on the pulse. Nationality:
From the opening bars of Pindoll’s debut album, it’s clear they mean business. A renowned live draw who’ve warmed up for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at home in Beirut, Twisted Times takes the kooky quartet away from their own twisted takes of cover classics to offer an arresting set of nine originals. Essentially intelligent indie-rock at its core, the band’s subtle song arrangements are packed with musical and dynamic flair, the rhythm section bopping a backbone of 1920s-ish swing, peppered with the endless inventions of guitar-magician Miran Gurunian. The band’s secret weapon, though, is lead singer Erin Mikaelian, whose whispered, screeched and crowed vocal delivery flits from menace to frailty with a schizophrenic twitch. Balancing moments of twee indie bounce, aching fragility and gothy rock workouts, and all delivered with a tongue-in-cheek burlesque wink, it’s an utterly assured debut well worthy of your time.
Listen to: ‘Keep Walking’.
Tanjaret Daghet Nationality:
The most defining thing about rock trio Tanjaret Daghet is their decision to leave their homeland. Abandoning Syria in 2011 proved to be a wise move: as well as dodging military service, from a temporary base in Beirut the trio have proved themselves among the few bands able to pen Arabic language rock with crossover appeal. With a sonic scope which mixes windswept, mid-tempo rockers, to the wall stompers and mournful dirges, last year’s 180° is a telling sign of the underground potential of the brewing underground energy of region’s music scene.
Listen to: ‘Tanfesseh’
If you like: System of a Down, palm mutes, driving at night.
Wetrobots <3 Bosaina Nationality:
Bosaina II has been turning heads in her native Cairo for years now; the singer’s assertive stage presence, stringing lyrics and unconventional attire a charge against the status quo which has shocked many, but defiantly hooked the loyal few. Despite her intriguing recent contribution to joint EP Bottles (alongside Raw U), the sassy singer’s most definitive work on record is found in collaboration with Ismail Hosny and Hussein El Sherbini as part of Wetrobots <3 Bosaina. Pioneering glitchy, dark electronic sounds in a city many say isn’t ready for them over two EPs, the collective’s first full-length mixtape is set to drop any minute. First single ‘Boom’ is a typically ambient, groovy drone, mixing trippy rhythmns, dub-infused bass and disorientating samples to compelling effect.
Listen to: ‘Boom’.
If you like: Ladyhawke, electro-clash, strobe lights Nationality:
Who Killed Bruce Lee
A heady mix of indie and electro elements, kookily named Who Killed Bruce Lee offer something new in Beirut’s rock-centric scene. Characterised by jagged disco-punk grooves and singer Wassim Bou Malham’s wafting falsetto, the quartet were preparing to drop a debut album as we went to press. If 2012’s self-titled debut EP is anything to go by, we can look forward to smart and catchy compositions, edgy riffs and streetwise cool with a healthy dose of dancefloor-filling fun. Bottled electro-indie club bliss.
Listen to: ‘Room for Three’.
Zahed Sultan Nationality:
Eye Am Sound
Producer Zahed Sultan crafts a slew of atmospheric instrumental soundscapes which, merging electronic beats with live instruments, add a beating human heart to Sultan’s music that is often found lacking in many contemporaries. Following up 2011’s Hi Fear, Lo Love – which attracted recognition with tunes picked up for European compilations – comes this brand new work. Eye Am Sound is an ambitious multimedia concept that combines a live show and coffee-table book with the record itself. Calling on electronica, trip-hop, shimmying with indie, house and even R&B influences, expect engaging and immersive tunes that move the mind and the feet.
Listen to: ‘Reuse Me’.