Young Arab artists are rediscovering the beauty and complexity of the Arabic language and turning it into a surprisingly simple and accessible medium.
By Farah El Akkad
Always on the lookout for something fresh to work with, musicians are finding a wealth of material in the region’s epic Arabic poems, which are making a comeback through a new genre of music rapidly gaining popularity with Arab youth. This new style is heavily based on poetry, and its distinguishing feature is that it is sung in fusha (Modern Standard Arabic, MSA). Saudi Arabian artists like Abdelrahman Muhammed and Mohab Omar are some particularly promising rising talents. Muhammed, who found fame through the popular TV program Super Star, tries to bring to light the glory of old poems, like those of Antara Ibn Shadad, through modern instruments and his deep baritone voice.
“I sing and compose music to express myself and the passion I have for it,” Muhammed told Saudi Arabian Al Riyadh in an interview. “For me it is like a form of meditation and a personal joy. I refuse to be put in a certain category. In the West, you can find all types of music. Each genre has its own fans who enjoy and appreciate it,” says Muhammed, who now lives in Egypt and regularly performs at local concerts.
In one of their most popular pieces, Lama Talaqayna, Muhammed and Omar sing the words of Shadad, telling the story of the Arabian warrior and his love. The song has managed to attract over 7 million views on Youtube and more than 30,000 likes. Their channel boasts over 260,000 subscribers.
“I hope I have formed my own audience of people who enjoy the music I present and are equally passionate about it,” Muhammed recently told Al-Ain magazine.
The lyrics, however, are not the only thing that make Muhammed’s songs stand out — the composition of his music and his voice are likely huge factors in his success. Omar Khalil, a Conservatoire graduate and music critic, explains that as difficult to comprehend as MSA lyrics may seem, the music combined with the words glorifies their meaning and brings out the charm of a strong language like Arabic. “But this is not to be taken lightly and artists who have chosen this genre of music must have a true talent and a passion for the words they are singing. They need to make their audience feel the deepness of the words in the simplest way. Through his voice, Muhammed has definitely succeeded in encouraging a lot of people, particularly youths, to explore aspects of Arabic culture they knew little about,” Khalil comments.
Indeed, the passion with which Muhammed sings has even sparked the interest of non-Arabic speakers. For instance, DjDarkD comments on the Youtube video of Lama Talaqayna, “I’m Dutch. I picture my own story when I hear this song and the special remix Hazem Beltagui has made of this masterpiece. I thank you for producing this song so Hazem remixes it and I now know of its existence.” Another viewer writes, “Wow! Unfortunately I don’t speak Arabic, but I FEEL something really strong in the lyrics! Very emotional music!”
But it is the appreciation for the Arabic language and its beauty and complexity that is the one common theme that appears in many of the comments on the Youtube videos of MSA music. Viewers note that this type of music is able to convey deep meanings using a very complicated language in a surprisingly simple and accessible manner.
Other popular artists who sing in MSA include Egyptian artist Zigzag, who started his musical career as a Sufi vocalist before moving onto singing classical Arabic poetry. His latest album, The Rules of Love, includes more than seven songs containing poems by Arab poet Ibn El Farred.
However, many artists such as Zigzag and Muhammed, refuse to be categorized as purely MSA singers. “Sufi Music is considered the hardest genre of music an artist can sing. This is how I started and through it I had the courage to experiment with different genres. I am open to singing all types of music, but Sufi and MSA are simply my favorite,” Zigzag explains. Lina Chamamyan, Abir Nema and Rim Banna are other popular artists who sing in MSA but are not as specialized in the genre as Muhammed and Zigzag.
Not only does MSA music evoke ancient glories, it also delivers to listeners stories while inspiring the imagination. With mainstream pop flooding the market, it is no wonder that some listeners seek out and are attracted to something a little more different and meaningful.
Omar Fawzy, another Conservatoire graduate and a fan of MSA music who frequently attends MSA concerts, says he enjoys the stories told through the music. “Even if the song is not based on poetry and delivers a more modern message, it still has a certain deepness and appeal because it is sung in MSA. Fusha music in general, and particularly artists like Muhammed, put you in a time machine and it feels like reading an ancient tale in the most enchanting way ever,” Fawzy explains.
But not all songs are rooted in old poetry, and some artists come up with their own lyrics to convey complex human emotions. Arab-Israeli Mira Awad, for example, writes her own lyrics. In her piece “Our Relationship,” she croons, “Our relationship has closeness, and distance. It is full of contradictions. Contradictions that make me find beauty in the bleeding.”
Khalil, notes, however, that while MSA may be gaining popularity in the Arab World, it is far from mainstream and is anything but commercial. “Unlike most of the artists we see today, those who sing in MSA have real talent. They work hard to produce their songs,” he explains. From choosing the lyrics and pronouncing them correctly, to choosing the instruments and composing the songs, artists who sing in MSA must be fully competent at what they are doing, he stresses. “The lyrics of MSA music are not easy to pronounce, particularly if you are singing a really old poem. The other part of it is making sure people will understand what your words mean. That is one of the main reasons MSA songs are only popular among a specific segment of youths,” he elaborates.