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Is Arab Music the Next Big Thing?

posted on: Oct 20, 2020

Is Arab Music the Next Big Thing?

By: Mykal Kaminski/Guest Writer for Arab America

How Arab Artists Are Changing Music

Khaled Mohamed Khaled, better known as DJ Khaled, is one of the hottest acts on the planet. Khaled requires no ancestry review, his Arab heritage is well-known, as is the fact that he’s a self-described devout Muslim. Born in 1975, in Louisiana to Palestinian immigrants, Khaled doesn’t downplay his Arab heritage in any way, but of course, he’s Arab American. The music he expresses himself through is the most quintessential American modern musical art forms: hip-hop. 

Sure, one might hear a twinge of Arab influence in a song or two, but for the most part, Khaled’s Arab heritage isn’t much of a factor in his art. And that’s not a bad thing, it simply reflects his American upbringing. Hip-hop is the music of the day and has been embraced by artists such as Eminem and Jonathan Park – better known as Dumbfounded, the son of Korean immigrants to Argentina who then crossed into American as undocumented immigrants. 

The point is, for the most part, America takes people from anywhere and offers them an opportunity to express themselves through music – but that music is generally going to be “American” music. 

There are exceptions. Latin music has meshed into hip-hop and rock, for example. But Arabic music has a distinctive sound. Without getting too technical, Arabic music contains what are called microtones. These are notes that are situated in between the notes found in the chromatic scale that the majority of Western music uses. In fact, the only American musical genre that might be said to have something in common with Arab music is jazz; but still, the two only share some similarities. 

The term “Arab music” is, of course, an oversimplification. The Arab world is comprised, by some reckonings, of 22 nations, and each has its own musical traditions, instruments and tonal preferences. Owning to the complexity, we have little choice but to oversimplify and refer to music from the Arab world as “Arab music.” So far, aside from some niche “chill-out” music genres, Arab music has made few inroads into American musical culture; with many only associating Arab music with the stereotypical sounds of the “Aladdin” soundtrack.

No doubt this pains perhaps a grandma or an uncle from “the old country” who wishes their descendants would come to appreciate Arab music, and perhaps frustrates Arab American musicians who attempt to incorporate Arab sounds, but don’t find receptive ears. 

The good news is that change could be on the horizon. An increasing number of young, Arab musicians, DJs and performers are slowly laying the foundations for a global renaissance of Arab music. Some of the artists use the fusion method, blending traditionally Arab sounds into reggae or hip-hop, others are staying traditional, but modernizing the musical production to create powerful reinterpretations of the classical. 

Here are some top picks: 

Think reggae and Arab music are oil and water? Think again. Basil Al Hadi (Karrouhat) – born and raised in Kuwait, is one of the first Arab Reggae artists and his signature sound is now influencing others such as Iraqi-born DJ Mohammed Abood Uraib. Now a popular DJ, Karrouhat is based in Dubai, and earns significant amounts for performances. 

Arab-Electronica is having a bit of moment as well. Pre-pandemic, the Arab American DJ duo Rami Abousabe and Tamer Malk, performing as “Bedouin” were on the cusp of mega-stardom and while they created mostly electronica, there were hints of Arab musical sounds in some of their work.  But while Bedouin may only hint at Arab sounds, Deena Abdelwahed creates electronic music with a distinctly Arab flair. After a move from Qatar back to her native Tunisia, DJ Deena Abdelwahed upended the underground scene and is now based in France where she recently released her EP Klabb

Staying closer to traditional sounds is Zeid Hamdan, who’s now released some 20 albums and EPs. Some of his work might be labeled “trip-hop,” but other pieces are certified “modern-classic” Arab music. 

Maryam Saleh has been called an Egyptian punk artist, and while she’s certainly helped develop “Arabic rock,” listen to her sing the songs of Sheikh Imam and you’re transported to the streets of 1960s Cairo.

If you’re in your teens and simply can’t imagine listening to anything but hip-hop, well, give DAM a shot. Led by Tamer Nafar, this group from Palestine is unapologetically political, and considering where they live and create, how could they not be? Blending Arab music into a distinctive Arabic hip-hop, DAM is the NWA of Palestine.

It’s probably a bit early to predict that America will see authentically Arab music top popular charts, but it’s heartening to know that the framework is being laid. We suggest both older and younger Arab Americans check out some of the new acts that are gaining traction, as the innovation and passion of these young artists is infectious and it’s a good bet the new sounds of the Arab world in 2020 will begin migrating into and ultimately become enmeshed into American – or more accurately – global popular music. 

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