Amazing Rock Artists from around the Arab World
By: Malorie Lewis / Arab America Contributing Author
Rock music established itself in the early 1940s in the United States. Throughout time the popularity of this genre of music is typically characterized by its rhythm esthetic, and the use of particular musical instruments. Foundationally speaking, it is a music of the people. Rock music was given life by lower-class poor people. The people found their voice in this genre of music to speak against injustice and poor living conditions.
Globalization took hold and spread this angsty and rebellious genre throughout the world! The Arab world is no exception to this phenomenon of course. Arab rock was seen emerging as early as the 1940-50’s, but really came into its own in the early 2000’s. Arab Artists taking inspiration from westernized radical music and putting a spin on it creating a new genre in the Arab World. For the purposes of this article, my list of artists is comprised of those falling into the sub-rock categories: Indie, Punk, Metal, Reggae, Psychedelic, and Blues influenced artists. So, Let’s start this list! Will begin in Egypt!
Rock music is by nature rebellious and critical of the establishment. Often referred to as ,“The Voice of the People”, the well-known blind Egyptian composer and singer Sheikh Imam was loved by many and looked at critically by the government. The works of the Sheikh and Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm created music that was critical of the government and living conditions during the 1960s and 1970s. This led to them being imprisoned several times during their lifetime. Some of their songs like “Shayyed Osoorak” and “Nixon Baba” became powerful tools during the revolution in Tahrir Square, as well as during the Arab Spring. They still delivered the same powerful political message they had back then.
Cairokee is an Egyptian rock band that was officially launched in 2003, but really grew in popularity with its revolutionary music following the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Their popularity sky-rocked due to their politically-inspired lyrics and protest songs released following the uprising. Their title song “Ya El Midan”, featuring notable Egyptian singer Aida el Ayoubi who had previously retired in the 1990s, ranked number one on Facebook worldwide for downloads and number eight on YouTube with more than half a million views on the video channel in just two days following its internet release. Cairokee’s lyrics and aesthetic are the perfect meeting point between Western Rock and Arab culture.
Massar Egbari is an Egyptian Rock band that formed and launched in 2005 from Alexandria, Egypt. The band is comprised of 4 musicians: Ayman Massoud (Keyboards), Hany El Dakkak (Guitar and Lead Vocal), Ahmed Hafez (Bass guitar), and Tamer Attallah (Drums). Mahmoud Siam (Guitars) joined the band in 2008. It presents a kind of alternative Egyptian music, mixing rock, Jazz, and Blues, mixed with an Arab flair. “Massar Egbari” means “Compulsory Detour”, the name meant to reflect how society forces people to think and live their lives in a certain way. The band mocks typical social norms and trends.
Wust El Balad
Wust El Balad is an Egyptian Soft rock band, founded in Cairo in 1999 by 2 of its current members, Ahmed Omran and Hany Adel. In Arabic, Wust El Balad means Downtown. The band is considered to be the most successful rock act in Egypt, and the whole Arab world, as it’s the first band in the region to gain such a huge success and acclaim such a large following.The band has finally released it debut album under the Egyptian label Star Gate Records, in 2007.
They contributed to the music of the Revolution alongside Cairokee in the song “Sout el Horeya.”
Emel Mathlouthi is a Tunisian singer-songwriter, musician, arranger and producer. She rose to fame with her protest Song “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word is Free”), which became an anthem for the Tunisian revolution and the Arab spring. Her first studio album, also titled Kelmti Horra, was released worldwide in 2012 to critical acclaim: she married Arabic roots with western flavours. Inspired by the likes of John Baez and Bob Dylan, Emel produced an interesting fusion musical style of Arab Rock music.
Algerian artist Rachid Taha became an iconic groundbreaking body in his adopted French homeland. Because of his eclectic mixture of indigenous rai and chaabi influences, organic punk energy, and rebellious rock and roll attitude, he was received quite well in France. Born in Sig, Mascara Province, Algeria in 1958, Taha then emigrated to France at the age of ten. After meeting two Moroccan brothers Mohamed and Mokhtar Amini, he became the lead singer of the band Carte de Sejour (Residence Permit) in 1980. However, his fame really peaked as he separated and began his solo career. His cover of “Ya Rayah” solidified his fame.
Souad Massi is an Algerian singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Massi joined the Algerian political rock band Atakor, who were influenced by Western rock bands such as Led Zeppelin and U2. She recorded and performed with the group for seven years, releasing a successful album and two popular music videos. Due to the political nature of the music, she was forced to leave the country following a series of death threats. In 1999, Massi performed at the Femmes d’Algerie concert in Paris, which led to a recording contract with Island Records.
Mashrou’ Leila are a four piece indie rock band based in Beirut. Their rousing, sensual electro- pop anthems about political freedoms, LGBT rights, race, religion and modern Arabic identity have challenged the status quo of the Middle-Eastern music industry. A regular Bohemian Rhapsody of the Arab World. Learn more about these guys here!
MEEN is a Lebanese rock band founded by Fouad and Toni Yammine in 2006. The band is best known for its humorous and sarcastic style, and most notably for performing in native Lebanese, not traditional Arabic.
Soapkills is a Lebanese trip-hop duo consisting of Yasmine Hamdan and Zeid Hamdan. They compose melancholic electronic arrangements influenced by classical Arabic repertoire (محمد عبد الوهاب, Asmahan) and diverse contemporary musical moods, such as Chet Baker, Massive Attack, and Portishead.
This Lebanese singer/songwriter, the first “rock star” of the Middle East, was the first internationally successful Lebanese recording artist. Not only that but the first Middle Eastern artist to sing in entirely in English. Lydia also made history by being the first to have music videos shown on MTV Middle East and other MTV channels . “Her musical debut was described as having defied tradition, challenged convention, and transcended millennia-old gender barriers.” She was even inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Lydia is a civil rights advocate who has spoken frequently before the UN Human Rights Commission. She has been involved in humanitarian causes and charity work into and throughout her adult life.
Autostrad is a Jordanian Indie band formed in 2007. Derived from the everyday life in Jordan its slang and traditional song, the group tackles stories of love, struggle, financial challenges, life on the street, and finding one’s self in their music. Gaining a wide fan base amongst the youth because of their innovative correspondence to daily life. The band displays a reggae, bluesy, rock vibe.
El Morabba3, meaning “The Square” in Arabic, is an alternative rock band from Amman that formed in 2009. The fresh rock/post-rock electronic sound, described as euphoric, holistic, spacey and raucous quickly catapulted the band to massive success. and saw them become one of the leading socially and politically relevant bands reviving the Arab Independent music scene.
JadaL is an Arabic rock band, the name meaning controversy in Arabic. Originally formed in 2003, by Mahmoud Radaideh the Composer, Guitarist, and Music Producer in Amman, Jordan. JadaL is one of the first Arabic rock bands in the region, starting their journey by grabbing the listener’s attention with their cover “Kol Ma Gool Al-Tobah” for the legendary Egyptian artist Abdel Halim Hafez but performed in Jada’Ls Arabic Rock style. They then introduced their fans to their hit song “Salma”, composed and written by Mahmoud Radaideh. The song was a hit that created a great following in Jordan.
Akher Zapheer is a Jordanian grunge Arabic rock band from Amman, Jordan, formed in 2007. The band was founded by vocalist and guitarist Basem Sayej who has been the only constant member throughout multiple line-up changes. The current line-up consists of Basem alongside Rami Alqasem (Bass Guitar) Amr Abukhlif (Lead Guitar) and Masis Mardirossian (Drums).
El Far3i is a special mention. He was a member of el Morabba3 and is currently a member of 47 Soul, the Palestinian band we will discuss soon. His solo work is quite interesting and is the first Arab Rock song I had ever listened to. His voice is emotional as he sings along to with is acoustic guitar.
In Jerusalem, Palestine, in 1966, the siblings of the Ashrawi family formed what eventually settled as Al-Bara’em (in English: The Blooms), Palestine’s first original Arabic rock ‘n’ roll band. They began as a cover band performing famous songs by the Beatles, the Who, and Jimmy Hendrix. Originally, they billed themselves as The Blooms before transitioning to writing original Arabic music.
They changed their name to Al-Bara’em and began composing in Arabic, as a result of the 1967 War and the illegal Israeli military occupation of Jerusalem. The war made it clear to Emile and Samir that playing English cover songs wouldnt suffice. So, they began composing their own Arabic songs. The result? Al-Bara’em became the first band to write and perform original Arabic rock music in Palestine. Al-Bara’em was also the first band to feature women literally as the front and center on stage! The Ashrawi sisters, backed by Al-Bara’em, sang rock versions of songs by legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz. They quickly became a sensation, playing sold-out shows around Palestine for crowds numbering in the hundreds.
47SOUL is an electro-mijwez, shamstep, choubi band formed in Amman Jordan in 2013. The members are Palestinian Jordanian, rooted in Bilad Al-Sham. Their reach spanning the divides from Amman to the Galilee, the Golan Heights all the way to Ramallah. 47SOUL rapidly amassed fans in the Middle East and Europe by blasting the electric Arabic debka sound through underground music scenes.
On top of the traditional sounds that have been spread throughout the Middle East for centuries, 47SOUL has created a new genre! The inclusion of analog synthesizers, hypnotic guitar lines, and shattering verses from the four singers has created a new space for artists. Every show ends in relentless dance and trance from all parties involved. Their lyrics, mixing Arabic and English, call for freedom in the struggle for equality inside Bilad Al Sham and throughout the world.
GENE is a Syrian neo-progressive rock band. In act it was one of the best acts in the Syrian rock scene. They started under the name ZODIAC playing progressive rock songs for bands such as ( Karmakanic ) later on they changed their name to GENE. With this they decided to use Arabic lyrics with the progressive rock-esque music, creating a very unique style of their own, proving again how flexible Arabic language can be.
Sound of Ruby
The leader of this Rock group from Saudi Arabia goes by the nickname Al-Hajjaj the Camel. Al-Hajjaj has wide-ranging tastes; his musical influences range from Michael Jackson, to Survivor’s anthem “Eye of the Tiger,” to local talent such as guitarist Omar Khorshid. He started Sound of Ruby in 1996, achieving a notable amount of fame before disbanding in 2010. Four years later, he and his bandmates reunited to record the furious and fantastic album, Serotonin. The crude album art, hypnotically grimy riffs, and especially Al-Hajjaj’s throaty screams call to mind western bands like Nirvana.
From the deepest caverns of the underground scene, comes a band with a fresh and catchy style. This band of which almost no one out of Poland and Yemen ever heard of, despite them originating there. It is a band that’s deeply rooted in both African and Middle Eastern cultures, while simultaneously incorporating European musical styles. With a vocalist from Yemen and a group from Poland, Soomood is a one of a kind group that you have to check out!
This Iraqi thrash metal band formed in 2001, but is based in the US. They often are credited as the first heavy metal group to emerge from Iraq. The original band began with four members and toured during the rule of Saddam Hussein. They became well known outside of the local Iraqi metal scene after Vice magazine featured them. Acrassicauda received even greater coverage when a feature-length documentary, Heavy Metal in Baghdad, was released. It documented the band and its troubles in Iraq.
The United States is the home of the Rock Genre, and so there is most definitely a few Arab American groups that defined the Arab Rock genre. The Devil’s Anvil was a 1960’s hard rock band based in New York City. They released one album, entitled Hard Rock from the Middle East, in 1967, showcasing a mix of 1960s hard-rock sound with Arab, Greek and Turkish songs and melodies. They mix the 60’s rock scene with the Arabian vibes through language, instrumentation, and melodic control. This is one lesser known band that is quite interesting in rock history!
Our Last Artist is Dick Dale, born Richard Anthony Mansour, was an Lebanese Arab American who created an entire genre of American Rock Music. He pioneered the genre of Surfer Rock Music by drawing on Middle Eastern music scales and experimentation with reverb. Dale was known as “The King of the Surf Guitar”, which was also the title of his second studio album. Dale was one of the most influential guitarists of all time and especially of the early 1960s. Most of the leading bands in surf music, such as The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and The Trashmen, were influenced by Dale’s music, and often included recordings of Dale’s songs in their albums.
This is a short list of many unique artists from around the Arab World who have delved into the genre of rock music. This style is born of conflict, strife, poverty, and inequality. That is how the genre was born and how it will continue holding it’s relevance. It is no surprise that the style resonates with the youth and those who feel unrepresented. The melancholic riffs, the sound of an electric guitar, and the sarcastically depressing lyrics are all characteristics of a genre that has transcended borders and languages. What do you think? Did we miss any? If you have a favorite leave it in the comments!
Check out Arab America’s Blog Here!