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Love & Revenge -

Contemporary music : an Arab story

In the 70’s : com­mit­ted young people with a taste for glo­ba­li­sa­tion and revi­si­ting their heritage 

In the ear­ly 1970s, the Arab world was a hete­ro­ge­neous group of young nation states from North Afri­ca, East Afri­ca, the Indian Ocean and the Middle East, most of which had gai­ned their inde­pen­dence bet­ween the 1920s and 1960s.

The pan-Arab ideal – in vogue in the 1960s – was under­mi­ned by the ideo­lo­gi­cal and poli­ti­cal divi­sion of lea­ders and the Arab coalition’s defeat during the six-day war with Israel in 1967.

Yet, young people in these coun­tries aspi­red to esta­blish a new era of socie­ty and began drea­ming about eman­ci­pa­tion and open­ness, as well as of a strong cultu­ral iden­ti­ty in an increa­sin­gly glo­ba­li­sed world.

At the same time, modern Ara­bic music, which stood out from tra­di­tio­nal scho­lar­ly and popu­lar reper­toires, was contem­po­ra­ry and avant-garde, inte­gra­ting elec­tric ins­tru­ments, Wes­tern arran­ge­ments and crea­tive pro­cesses simi­lar to pop, rock, funk and other ampli­fied music in fashion at the time. This gave rise to bands of many dif­ferent kinds, all tem­pe­red to the quar­ter tone, ter­na­ry rhythms and other regio­nal singularities.

Legen­da­ry groups and artists such as Les Gol­den Hands, Ibra­him El Has­san, Abra­nis, Ziad Rah­ba­ni and Cedars in par­ti­cu­lar spring to mind. We also saw the emer­gence of the Neo-Tra­di­tio­nal trend, which drew on age-old tra­di­tions to deve­lop modern song-wri­ting com­po­si­tion, such as Cheikh Imam, Mar­cel Kha­li­fé and Nass El Ghiwane.


Les abra­nis – Amliyi



Mar­cel Kha­li­fé – Rita

While some purists cal­led it blas­phe­my – bla­ming these aes­the­tics for killing or impo­ve­ri­shing the soul of “Ara­bic” music and its authen­ti­ci­ty – the artists who embo­died these move­ments resis­ted the bigo­try of their pre­de­ces­sors and today, contem­po­ra­ry music lar­ge­ly domi­nates the mar­ket in most coun­tries, espe­cial­ly with regard to varie­ty and popu­lar music, the pri­ma­ry focus for the cultu­ral consump­tion of the Arab streets.


In the 80–90’s : elec­tric popu­lar varie­ties, the ear­ly days of Arab jazz and expe­riences of the diaspora

In the 1980s, musi­cal pro­duc­tion expe­rien­ced a signi­fi­cant aes­the­tic tur­ning point with the pre­do­mi­nance of syn­the­si­sers and other digi­tal organs with a new pop, kitsch and glo­ba­li­sed sound, allo­wing artists from the Arab world to replace string and per­cus­sion orches­tras with elec­tro­nic sounds played by a single musi­cian. This was the explo­sion of the cur­rent ver­sion of rai, dab­keh, chaa­bi and other popu­lar tra­di­tio­nal genres that underwent a sound revi­val and audience rene­wal. It was also the explo­sion of music videos – just like eve­ryw­here else – which repla­ced sco­pi­tones and musi­cals. The lea­ding figures in this varie­ty were Kha­led, Najat Aata­bou, Georges Was­souf, Ragheb Ala­ma and Assa­la Nas­ri, to name but a few.

We also wit­nes­sed the birth of the first jazz expe­ri­ments, often with musi­cians living in Europe, such as Rabih Abou-Kha­lil and Anouar Bra­hem. This was a sophis­ti­ca­ted music that fed off rich impro­vi­sa­tio­nal jazz to bring out the diver­si­ty of Ara­bic music, both in terms of rhythms and scales.


Ragheb Ala­ma – Mogh­ram Ya lail


Kha­led – Didi


Anouar Bra­hem – The Astoun­ding Eyes Of Rita


At a local level, as well as in the dia­spo­ra – more dis­creet­ly but with more unbrid­led crea­ti­vi­ty and una­ba­shed poli­ti­cal com­mit­ment – we wit­nes­sed the birth of alter­na­tive and urban Ara­bic music, heir to the 1970s scene. This is more pro­li­fic today, whe­reas in the 1980s and 90s, with the excep­tion of bands like Carte de Séjour and the Bar­bès Natio­nal Orches­tra – set­tled in the West and sup­por­ted by the music indus­try – inde­pendent Arab pro­duc­tion remai­ned limi­ted due to the autho­ri­ta­rian regimes that gover­ned these coun­tries and pre­ven­ted the emer­gence of a free alter­na­tive culture.


Carte de séjour – Douce France


Orchestre natio­nal de Bar­bès – Alaoui


This hand­ful of artists would be the spo­kes­per­sons for young people expe­rien­cing signi­fi­cant social uphea­val, sowing the seeds of rap in the Magh­reb, with pio­neers like MBS and Mus­lim, and alter­na­tive rock and elec­tro-pop in the Middle East, with Scram­bled Eggs and Soap­kills. The blend of tra­di­tio­nal and modern grew with flag­ship bands like Gna­wa Dif­fu­sion. A spe­cial men­tion must also go to Rayess Bek, the Leba­nese rap­per (bap­ti­sed “the MC Solaar of the Middle East” at the time), the first alter­na­tive Arab artist to be signed to a major label !


Mus­lim –  Yali Teb­ni Wt3ali


Soap­kills – Men­ni Elak


Gna­wa Dif­fu­sion – Hmoum Zawalia


In the 2000’s : an alter­na­tive and hybrid scene ver­sus “sani­ti­sed” and manu­fac­tu­red pop

The alter­na­tive music scene explo­ded in the ear­ly 2000s and rea­ched a peak of crea­ti­vi­ty and diver­si­ty unmat­ched in the last five years, most like­ly gal­va­ni­sed by the “Arab Spring” and the new free­dom of speech ear­ned in seve­ral Arab coun­tries. We wit­nes­sed the emer­gence of genuine stars from this scene, such as the rock bands Hoba Hoba Spi­rit and Mash­rou’­lei­la, real regio­nal phe­no­me­na with a wide audience, and rap­pers like Kar­ka­dan, Bigg and Sha­dia Man­sour. Elec­tro did not miss out, with trend­set­ters like Duoud, Hel­lo Psy­cha­lep­po, Mau­rice Lou­ca and Dee­na Abdel­wa­hed. As for the dia­spo­ra, we saw the rise of high­ly sophis­ti­ca­ted pro­jects, a true syn­the­sis of cultures, such as the pro­gres­sive elec­tro-rock work of Speed Cara­van, the dark pop of Bachar Mar-Kha­li­fé, the cool retro­pop of Alsa­rah and The Nuba­tones, Nar­cy’s poli­ti­cal­ly-enga­ged rap, and Soolking’s trap-rai.


Mashrou’leila – Lil watan


Sha­dia Man­sour – AL Kufiyyeh 3arabeyyeh


Dee­na Abdel­wa­hed – Khonnar


Alsa­rah & The Nuba­tones – Ya watan


In terms of varie­ty and popu­lar music, the trend fol­lo­wed that of the 1990s, but incor­po­ra­ted more elec­tro and hip-hop ele­ments. It gra­dual­ly moved away from the ori­gi­nal styles to mir­ror Ame­ri­can pop mixed with “kha­li­jis” – North Afri­can rhythms – and the deve­lop­ment of high­ly manu­fac­tu­red figures with “per­fect” plas­tic beau­ties and poli­shed vocals. It calls to mind Eas­tern babes like Elis­sa and Hai­fa Weh­bé and dark hand­some stran­gers from the Magh­reb like Hatim Ammor and Saad Lamjarred.


Hatim Ammor – Albak Yem­chi Lhalo


Hai­fa Wehbe – Touta


When it comes to jazz, a signi­fi­cant num­ber of artists have emer­ged in recent years, encou­ra­ged by more acces­sible trai­ning in the conser­va­to­ries in their home coun­tries and the suc­cess of Arab jazz musi­cians abroad. The dia­spo­ra has pro­du­ced one of the stars of world jazz, the French-Leba­nese Ibra­him Maa­louf, who has enjoyed extra­or­di­na­ry suc­cess in recent years, sel­ling out concerts at the world’s lea­ding jazz events and some of France’s big­gest venues.

Ibra­him Maa­louf – Beirut


But what would these artists be without the sup­port of venues, events and tire­less sta­ke­hol­ders on the ground and abroad ? Our friends at Ara­besques, in par­ti­cu­lar, a magni­ficent fes­ti­val in Mont­pel­lier that kicks off this week and will see some of the names men­tio­ned above come toge­ther. Now Europe’s oldest fes­ti­val dedi­ca­ted to the Arab world, don’t miss it !

Mounir Kabbaj

Mounir Kabbaj – CEO, Ginger Sounds © Eglantine Chabasseur


Originally from Morocco, Mounir Kabbaj grew up in Casablanca in an intellectual family passionate about art and culture. At the age of 15, he learned to play the bass and founded several rock-metal bands in his city in the early 2000s in a context hostile to extreme music. This would forge his rebellious and anti-conformist nature, as well as his interest in alternative aesthetics.

After a few years of stage and production experience (internships and volunteer work) and studies in cultural project management, Mounir arrived in France in 2004 and worked for three years at the label and concert bureau Accords Croisés and the Festival Au Fil des Voix as head of communications and label project manager.

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