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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

How Jordanian musicians are finding success with new genres made in the Middle East

Jordanian bands and artists are taking a blend of Arab-western electronic pop to the world stage, we introduct the movers and shakers

Jordanian indie band Autostrad formed in 2007, and has been inspiring musicians from their country since. Navin Khianey for The National
Jordanian indie band Autostrad formed in 2007, and has been inspiring musicians from their country since. Navin Khianey for The National

With the lyrics “My people, moved around, more people move around, my people move around before we all get moved around,” musical group 47Soul puts displacement and mobility at the centre of their most recent album, Balfron Promise.

The four-member band is the most recent alternative group out of Jordan to find mobility through their music as they tour their album across Europe and the Middle East. They are not alone, nor are they the first Jordanian band to go beyond the borders of the Shams region.

From the turn of the millennium until now, bands such as Autostrad, 47Soul, El Morrabba3, and singer ­songwriters such as Ayah Marar and Hana Malhas have been contributing to the contemporary Jordanian

music scene. When Autostrad formed in 2007, collectively produced contemporary music in Jordan had already begun – it was arguably Tareq Al Nasser’s multi-instrumental modern folk band, Rum who did that – that said Autostrad certainly inspired or incited a handful of musicians who continue to build upon a style of music heavily characterised by something of an east-west fusion.

Autostrad were established in Amman and across the band’s first three albums, including their debut Fe Autostrad (2008), Autostrad (2011), and Nitrogen (2013), the band made use of a consistent sonic formula – playful and narratively driven Arabic lyrics set to arguably pastiche Latin, reggae and funk music.

Over the years, the group have made few modifications to their sound, and continue to garner upwards of 280,000 followers on Facebook and book regular regional gigs. An exception to their standard formula can be heard in the album, Turathy (Expansion of the Governorates) which was released last year. The album is a compilation of folkloric songs that are collaborations with more than a dozen musicians across Jordan and other parts of the Shams region.

In the time since Autostrad released their first album, one of their original founding members, Hamza Arnaout, went on to form another band – 47Soul. Around the same time indie-rock band El Morabba3 emerged with a much more sophisticated, complex sound, all while maintaining several sonic elements of east-west fusion.

El Morabba3 break new ground

Formed in 2009, El Morabba3 (which in Arabic means square) was born out of a meeting of musical minds between vocalist Mohamed Abdallah and Tariq Abu Kwaik, the latter known more widely as the prolific socio-political rapper and vocalist, El-Far3i.

Embarking on several jamming sessions, they were later joined by the Shawagfeh brothers, Odai (electric guitar, synth, production) and Dirar (drums), leading to the 2012 release of their self-titled debut album. At the time of their launch, the band scene in Jordan was rapidly growing, with widely consumed indie-pop rock bands like Akheer Zapheer and Jadal.

While El Morabba3’s music is almost entirely western driven, with elements of moody indie-rock, guitar lines, dense, rock crescendos and decrescendos, alongside the occasional tarab textures, their sound is far more mature than their local rock predecessors. Furthermore, their songwriting does not shy away from politics and sharp social commentary, as heard in their debut album, with tracks like Taht el Ard – this track employs surrealist images to express a desire a flee a bitter reality and “dig the underground” to safetly.

Listen to El Morabba3’s Taht el Ard:

In their follow-up album, Taraf Al Khait (Tip of the Thread, 2015), El Morabba3 push their sound further by means of more dance-floor bass textures, pronounced synth lines and modulation effects as heard on tracks such as Abaad Shawii.

Last year, the track won the “best independent song” award at the first Arab Nation Music Awards, where it beat veteran artists such as Lekhfa and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh. Performing across the Middle East, with a particularly large fan base in Egypt, the band has upwards of 60,000 followers on Facebook, while their songs on YouTube have clocked over three million views collectively. But it doesn’t stop there. More of the movement was found when ElFar3i left Jordan, focusing on his rap and solo work, while going on to create yet another four-man group, the dabke-driven, electro-pop, dance-until-you-drop 47Soul.

47SOUL and an “Intro to Shamstep”

Sonically, 47Soul feels like the dance-floor-friendly cousin of El Morabba3. We hear traces of this on the El Morabba track Shiber Maii, where electro-pop textures combine with whispered Arabic vocals over three-count rhythms and coiling synthesisers.

Departing from pure rock textures, 47Soul dropped their debut album, Shamstep, in 2015, which draws influence from the band members’ previous work, including El Far3i’s time with Morabba3 and Hamzy Arnaout’s psychedelic guitar (previously from Autostrad).

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Read more:

47Soul on album Balfron Promise and using a theme of displacement in their music

Youssra El Hawary on the setbacks of trying to make ends meet as an artist

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Combined with Ramzy Suleiman on synth, and Walaa Sbeit on percussions the band members each contribute vocal lines to the tracks, often switching between Arabic and English. This interplay between languages, coupled with the band’s boisterous, bass-rattling rhythms pushed along by the Darbekah, drum machines, and pads situates the band within the Arab context, but also opens them up to dance floors abroad.

Meanwhile, the landscape for regional collaboration in electronic music has been gaining momentum over the past few years. Take, for example, the electronic project Zaed Naes (Plus, Minus), who define themselves as a platform for creating collaborative audio and visual productions. Formed in 2013 by Ammar Urabi (drums, percussion), Amjad Shahrour (bass, guitar, vocals), and Basel Naouri (trumpet, synth, keys), the trio’s synth-laden music has led to some exciting collectively produced work, with artists such as El Morabba3’s Mohamed Abdallah, in addition to Egypt’s singer-songwriter-producers Aya Metwalli and Maii Waleed heard in the tracks Mashoftesh and El Ginena.

Around the same time, synth player Basel Naouri went on to form yet another electronic project, called Arabs with Synthesisers, alongside fellow synth whizz and producer George Rizeq. With a following of more than 40,000 on Facebook, the duo’s sound is defined by the use of analogue machines to create downtempo and deep house music.

Beyond this, the group members continue to move, shake, and collaborate with other artists, pushing further the boundaries of music coming out of Jordan as heard through DJ and producers like Aya Nasif (AYN), and Hasan Hijjawi, aka Kitchen Crowd. Having gigged across Amman, Beirut, Dubai and several resort destinations along the Red Sea, Hijjawi is currently collaborating with multi-instrumentalist and composer, Akram El Sherif, who is known largely for his electronic house band, Soopar Lox.

Listen to Nasi by Hana Malhas:

Until now, and similar to the global industry, the contemporary band and electronic landscape has been largely male dominated. That said, there are several rising artists and breakthrough stars who show signs of leaving their male counterparts in the dust. One of these is singer-songwriter Hana Malhas, whose track Nasi was recently featured in Universal Records’ Mena compilation, Now: Best of Indie Arabia Volume II.

Ayah Marar tops the charts

When looking at electronic dance musicians from Jordan, however, there is only one artist that has landed a place on the global EDM charts so far – Ayah Marar.

In 2013, the Jordanian-born, UK-based singer landed a kush collaboration with EDM’s poster boy producer, Calvin Harris, who was her roommate at the time. In their drop-laden dance floor anthem, Thinking About You, we hear Marar’s pristine vocals set to Harris’s notorious crowd-pleasing synth lines and programmatic pop euphoria.

The controversial video has gathered more than 75 million views on streaming website YouTube.

In 2012, Marar formed her own label, Hussle Girl, where she released her debut solo album, The Real. In the time since then, she has written and recorded dozens of songs by various artists including Jack Penate, Bassline Smith, and DJ Fresh, while also guest-hosting on several radio programmes.

The pathways presented by these hybrid, Jordanian and Palestinian artists point to a fruitful future for music from the region.

Their work suggests that with talent, timing, and touring, artists from the region can succeed in mobilising global dance floors with wholly new genres of music made in the Middle East.