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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Mohammed Assaf: 'This is the album that I want to introduce me to the world'

The former Arab Idol winner talks about his ambitious new album Ma Wahashnak

Mohammed Assaf. Courtesy MBC
Mohammed Assaf. Courtesy MBC

The one thing that continues to sour the Arabic music industry is that it has so far failed to produce a bona fide international star.

While some of the region’s leading lights, such as Lebanon’s Nancy Ajram, Egypt’s Amr Diab and Iraqi crooner Kadim Al Sahir regularly sell out their world tours, these are often targeted jaunts catering to the Arab world’s large international diaspora, which stretches from Australia to North and South America.

And with singers earning a comfortable living from their music, the general consensus seems to be why bother stretching the genre further.

Mohammed Assaf, who launched his career on Arab Idol back in 2013, says he made this observation when he first began working on his much-anticipated yet delayed second album, Ma Wahashnak, more than a year ago.

“It really shouldn’t be that way,” he says. “I do believe we have so much talent and skills in the region that it amazes me we haven’t broken through yet.”

Speaking from the offices of his Dubai-based label Platinum Records, the singer, who is known as Al Saroukh (The Rocket), lays most of the blame on the region itself, pointing the finger at everyone from the artists and labels to sections of the media.

“To be honest, there is a lot of fear,” he says. “A lot of the artists we know are too scared to stretch [themselves] and try different styles because of the reaction from fans and the press. They feel they have to stay within that path and cannot try new things. I want to explore what I can do instead, and this album is my first steps towards that.”

Ma Wahashnak accomplishes exactly what a second album should. It picks up where Assaf’s 2014 big-selling self-titled debut left off and has built on that success.

The 27-year-old tackles a variety of new genres, in addition to polishing up the sounds of his familiar sounds – Palestinian folk, Egyptian and Khaleeji.

What is most apparent this time around, though, is how confident Assaf sounds. When he won the second season of Arab Idol four years ago, he was shy and seemed almost apologetic for his sudden success.

Now, Assaf is at ease with his stardom, and instead of talking about dreams, he is all about the targets.

“This is the album that I want to introduce me to the world,” he explains. “It’s now about going the next step, challenging myself and taking it to the new level of my career.”

Ma Wahashnak’s global hopes lie in a pair of tracks featuring guest appearances by international stars. The first one is the new single Rani, which is accompanied by a colourful, Marrakech-set video that is due for release this week.

Featuring French-Algerian singer Faudel, Rani is a bright and summery raï number that sees Assaf singing in both Algerian-Arabic and French.

With the audio version of the single garnering more than two million plays on YouTube in a little more than a week, Assaf says the reception makes the hard work in the studio worth the effort.

“Well, I don’t know French,” he says. “So I spent a lot of time not only learning the words but how to pronounce them in the right way. We did a lot of takes for that song, because the sound engineer would comment if the words didn’t come out right.”

It is the next single and album highlight that could have Assaf gain a new international audience, however.

Baddek Enayah is a brilliant blend of Arabic pop and reggaeton in which Assaf teams up with Cuban duo Gente de Zona (who sang the hook on Enrique Iglesias's 2014 smash hit Bailando).

Backed with effervescent production and featuring a club beat, horns and flamenco guitar strumming, Assaf lets rip in that mountainous Palestinian tenor of his in the verse before Gente de Zona bring it home with a beach-ready chorus.

“We are so happy with that song,” Assaf beams. “I think it has that nice modern touch that my Arabic fans want now from their music. They hear these western styles every day – I mean, just look at how big Despacito [the current global chart-topper by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, also released in remix form featuring Justin Bieber] is around the world – so I want to tap into that and prove that I, as an Arab artist, can do that, too.”

There is no denying that Assaf's almost fairytale story is more conducive to international stardom than those of his peers.

Born in Libyan city Misrata, Assaf moved to the Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip at the age of 4. After building his reputation locally as a wedding singer for hire, Assaf undertook an epic, near-week-long car trip in November 2012 from Gaza to Beirut (including a two-day delay at the Egyptian border) to audition for Arab Idol.

When he eventually won the competition seven months later, the streets of Gaza erupted in celebration, with fireworks and thousands of supporters cheering his name. The life-changing experience was immortalised in 2015 biopic The Idol, which was directed by esteemed Dutch-Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu Assad.

Assaf says that the film was a good experience, but not everything was accurate.

"This is a movie and I learnt to understand that it is a different art. So some of the action scenes in the film didn't happen. But what's more important and satisfying to me is the film spoke about the importance of not losing hope. That is my story. I am a living example of that lesson."

Assaf says he sees examples of that optimism among young Palestinian artists and students during his frequent visits to refugee camps and schools.

He took it upon himself to reach out to Yacoub Shaheen when the Palestinian won this season’s Arab Idol in February.

“I love him,” Assaf says. “I am so proud of what he did, not only as a Palestinian but as a fellow artist.”

It was that pride, he says, that pushed him to include Ala Hadhihi Al Ard on the new album.

The string-laden Palestinian dabka song uses the lyrics of the late cultural icon Mahmoud Darwish.

“It’s something I wanted to do, and particularly that poem because it resonates with everyone in the streets of Palestinian,” he says.

“Every child as little as 5 would know the opening line to that poem, which is: ‘This land that holds life’s meaning within its girth."

With world domination on his mind, Assaf is ready to hit the road again and has a string of dates in Europe followed by shows in North America. An appearance at a South Korean talent show has also been discussed.

“It is just an exciting time,” he says. “I feel like I have a lot to give and there is still that hunger inside to give it my best. Now it’s about showing that to the world.”

Ma Wahashnak by Mohammed Assaf is out now.