The Sound of Upheaval in the Middle East Will Make You Dance
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Beyoncé has competition.
By Anjali Vithayathil
TamTam is a Botticelli painting come to life. This musician’s sound, though, warrants a slightly more modern comparison. Fans of Adele, Alicia Keys and Solange will connect with her soulful vocals and danceable R&B beats.
But hers isn’t the typical story of an American pop star on the rise. For one thing, TamTam is Saudi Arabian. And her music has a little more substance than the average pop. A practicing Muslim who respects her heritage, she values music as a socially motivated form of poetry that should be inspiring and uplifting beyond any specific culture. “If I’m going to put my voice out there, I have a responsibility to use it in a positive way, to encourage people,” she says.
TamTam is just one example of a new upheaval in the Middle East — an upheaval of the musical variety. In the wake of the Arab Spring, and thanks to the increasing ease with which tech makes culture accessible, music is proliferating across the Gulf and Levant. Deezer, a streaming service, launched in the Middle East in 2013, and Lebanon-based Anghami and Morocco-based Yala Music both have at least 1 million downloads each since launching several years ago. Anghami, founded by Eddy Maroun and Elie Habib, is the largest streaming service in the Middle East, now reaching about 20 million users, from a user base of 3 million back in 2013. It has a catalog of approximately 15 million songs, the largest for Arabic music.
And the tech isn’t the only shift here. Earlier, Middle Eastern artists such as the Rahbani brothers and Fairuz mixed French chanson styles with Arab instrumentals and tones. But contemporary music in the Arab world spans genres — from rock ’n’ roll, reggae, punk, jazz, heavy metal and hip-hop to even classical music. Intrepid Arabic artists of earlier generations — Umm Kulthum, and, later, Lydia Canaan, Amr Diab and Cheb Khaled — suffered under the tortured bromide “East meets West.” If anything, though, modern music here is straight-up Western. Particularly popular is the grungy underground sound that reigned in the West in the 1990s.
In Cairo, one can see Iron Maiden–esque singers Scarab lament their failed government, while in Beirut, El Rass is a Sufi-inspired hip-hop artist who riffs about Palestinian refugees. Some of these artists have day jobs, and use their home recording equipment and Facebook pages to create their brand at night. Veteran music producer Brian West, who has spent years working with North African and East African artists, calls this the democratization of music. “Artists don’t need to find studios; they can use SoundCloud to share their music from their garages or bedrooms,” West says, adding that Middle Eastern artists can then bypass the strict hands of the state — which often control the popular music showcased on television and radio.
Which isn’t to say that governments are averse to a musical renaissance. After all, popular artists bring in revenue. Along with several new music halls filling the Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi city centers, music festivals like RedFestDXB and Sandance allow local musicians to commune with The Fray, Florence and the Machine and The Killers. The pioneering Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila is a high-demand act for these spaces. Formed in 2008, its lead singer, Hamed Sinno, sings about everything from his experiences as a gay Muslim man to Lebanese politics, lost loves, the culture of gossip and being an immigrant. Politicians are not his biggest fans, but the kids love him. And earlier this year the Jordanian government was forced to revoke a ban on Mashrou’ Leila’s tour in Amman, perhaps due to the band’s widespread popularity in the country, or, as Sinno has insinuated, due to the intervention of Jordanian artists, intellectuals and fans (the government of Jordan did not reply to request for comment). Jordan itself is also a hotbed of indie-music activity: It now has Empty Chair, El Morabba3 and Ayloul. Egypt has Cairokee and EgoZ. In Lebanon, Mashrou’ Leila has been followed by FareeQ el Atrash, Osloob and El Rass, to name a few.
Although this music might sound revolutionary given the geographical, cultural and political contexts, the actual impact may prove underwhelming. Hicham Bou Nassif, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Carleton College, says the contemporary music scene simply doesn’t have the groundwork to mobilize government opposition. “Their ideas are liberal, but their songs are not revolutionary from a political perspective,” he says, adding that they’re unlike the liberal artists who were dominating the music scene in the ’70s in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. If this is indeed the case, artists may have to come to terms with lyrics that are heard and slowly forgotten — much like what has happened with many an activist-artist in the West. And the music industry is relatively tiny to be announcing cultural upheavals of any kind — in comparison with streaming service Anghami’s 20 million users, consider that, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, in 2013, more than a billion digital music singles were downloaded in the U.S., down from 1.39 billion in 2012.
While the struggle lives on in the Middle East’s underground music halls, musicians like TamTam, who has relocated to the United States, bring their voices to more universal conversations. TamTam’s biggest single, “Gender Game,” is a moving piece on womanhood — its video features women of varying ethnicities and ages singing the song while the artist herself remains in the shadow for most of the video. If TamTam sees music as a universal language, then by embracing a larger battle, she sees her sway being made more palpable. And the larger battle motivates her to keep writing and to keep singing. Perhaps it will do so for others as well.
- Anjali Vithayathil, OZY Author Contact Anjali Vithayathil