14 acts from Bahrain and beyond making musical waves
Like a caterpillar shedding its skin, the Middle East’s music scene has enjoyed a marked metamorphosis of late. Too often dismissed as a refuge for flairless cover acts and brainless rock, the region’s musical output is, for perhaps the first time, starting to be taken seriously on the world stage. Among the local success stories are indie poster boys Mashrou’ Leila, who have brought the sound of Beirut’s underground to gigs across Europe, and Bahrain’s very own Ala Ghawas, currently gearing up for dates in the UK later this year. Elsewhere Syrian rockers Tanjaret Daghet have turned their exile into musical poetry, while Jordan’s Kamal Musallam has daringly pit his oud alongside jazz and flamenco musicians in Rome.
Sadly much of this music is still buried in the underground, beneath the status quo of mediocre radio, but for the first time more meaningful statements are starting to simmer to the surface. Here we’ve rounded up some of the most promising new and forthcoming releases, records from heavy metal to ambient electronica which have made our ears perk up over the past 12 months. Plug in your earphones and embark on a round-the-region musical excursion.
Ala Ghawas Armor
Nationality: Bahraini One of the island’s best-known musicians, Ala Ghawas made waves with the recent release of debut album Armor, one of just a handful of Bahraini musicians to put a full-length release on shop shelves. Following up from three lo-fi acoustic EPs, the album saw Ghawas backed by friends and frequent collaborators Likwid, creating an assured, full sound mixing folk and soul influences, which helped the album top local sales charts and pick up regular airplay. With intelligent, observational lyrics and a bare approach to songwriting, it’s a serious, at times sombre, and always compelling work.
Nationality: British/Canadian Former Bahrain bar band staples The Boxtones may have moved on to the bright lights of Dubai, but they’re threatening to invade the entire region with the release of their debut LP. After close to a decade chugging through ‘Roxanne’ et al to party-worn brunchers, the island favourites have performed an about-turn, reinventing themselves as an originals act. Said to be compiled from the best of more than 200 tunes guitarist Gary Tierney has penned over the years, In the Pocket of Clowns mixes punchy radio-ready pop-rock with harder rock workouts, epic stadium-friendly arrangements, widdly guitar solos and lead vocals split between Tierney and partner Louise Peel.
Nationality: Bahraini Cosmo is Bahraini electronic producer Esam Hammad, who crafts meticulous, beguiling ambient tracks which recall the kind of electronica pioneered by UK record label Warp in the ’90s. As well as completing some notable remixes, Hammad released a debut EP at the turn of 2014, A Virus from Outer Space, which he lovingly describes as ‘a soundtrack to a ’70s sci-fi movie’. A million miles away from the predominant rock-led regional scene, it’s an impressive and promising debut. Physical copies are on sale now at Euphoria Bahrain in Seef Mall.
Nationality: Qatari She might be the daughter of one of Doha’s richest men, but Dana Al Fardan is certainly carving a name all for herself. Billed as the ‘first female Khaleeji English language singer’, recent debut LP Paint is already a historic achievement – never mind the fact it’s an assured, modern pop record blending heartfelt lyrics and delivery with mature arrangements and catchy melodies. What’s most remarkable, however, is that all Dana’s musical achievements are blanced alongside her day-to-day life as a wife and mother – indeed, she was pregnant throughout much of the recording sessions.
Listen to: ‘Paint’
If you like: Beth Orton, intelligent pop, singing in the shower
Empty Yard Experiment Kallisti
Nationality: Iranian/Indian/Serbian With a sound and approach as assuredly oblique as their name, Empty Yard Experiment (or EYE) specialise in proggy, epic metal of a very high calibre. We’re talking huge riffs contrasted with doom laden dirges, solemn lyrics and sprawling song structures which bring a sense impenetrable gravity. A cosmopolitan line-up based in the UAE, EYE have warmed up for the likes of Metallica, earning a huge following and a reputation for their live spectacle. Second LP Kallisti – apparently ‘for the most beautiful’ in Greek – packs all of the power and drama of their live sound onto record.
Nationality: Jordanian Jazz-world-fusion explorer Kamal Musallam always has a new album on the horizon. Among the most prolific (and daring) of the region’s acts, the guitar and oud whizz has already clocked up four earlier original LPs, plus a career retrospective. His latest, Homemade in Rome, is compiled from home recordings alongside Italian players on a visit from his Dubai base last year. The result – a simmering blend of Flamenco percussion and progressions with snaky oud melodies, Arabic-tinged modal riffing and able jazz improvisations – ranks among the best world-fusion around today.
Nationality: Lebanese To say that Mashrou’ Leila are big right now is kind of missing the point. Yes, the Beirut indie collective has performed the rare feat of picking up international note and global gigs while singing in Arabic. But it’s closer to home where the shockwaves have been most firmly felt, the band’s contentious lyrics and controversial lifestyles causing a stir around their homeland. And the music is fantastic – a genuine melting pot of smart, noughties indie and traditional Arabia, all boiled into a simmering broth of trip-hoppy beats, Middle Eastern strings, Miles Davis-trumpet, snarled guitars, airy glockenspiels, eerie vocals and ’80s synths which meld into a (somehow) coherent whole. Now close to a year old, album number three Raasuk is the least new thing on this round-up of new records – but if you haven’t heard it yet, it’s time to catch up.
Listen to: ‘Skandar Maalouf’
If you like: Arcade Fire, Fairuz, genre-bending interestingness, being on the pulse mashrou3leila.com
Pindoll Twisted Times
Nationality: Lebanese/Armenian From the opening bars of Pindoll’s debut it’s clear they mean business. Twisted Times takes the kooky quartet away from their own twisted cover classics to serve up an arresting set of nine originals. The band’s subtle song arrangements are packed with flair, the rhythm section bopping a backbone of ’20s-ish swing, peppered with the endless inventions of guitar-magician Miran Gurunian. The band’s secret weapon, though, is lead singer Erin Mikaelian, her vocal delivery flitting from menace to frailty with a schizophrenic twitch. Balancing moments of twee indie bounce, aching fragility and gothy rock workouts, all with a tongue-in-cheek burlesque wink, it’s an utterly assured debut.
Nationality: Bahraini One of the few rock bands on the island to stand out with an originals record, The Relocators put themselves on the map with last year’s self-titled five track EP. A classic power trio line-up, the band serve up a refreshingly chilled, no-frills rock sound with a deep rooting in the blues. Expect smart Hendrixisms to butt heads with a chilled, ’60s-inspired West Coast vibe. Here’s hoping for a full LP release soon.
Nationality: Lebanese Over the past few years Dubai-based drummer Afif has earned a reputation as one of the most versatile and in-demand sidemen in the region. Now striking out with his solo debut, Zourouf is a mature and accomplished release which represents a huge career leap. Recorded in the USA last year alongside New York session pros Tarek Yamani, Troy Roberts and Alexander Claffy, in composition and execution Zourouf ranks proudly among the best of modern jazz releases, mixing inventive time signatures and Arabic inflexions with a free post-bop approach.
Nationality: Syrian The most defining thing about rock trio Tanjaret Daghet is their decision to flee their homeland. Leaving Syria in 2011 proved to be a wise move: as well as dodging military service, from a temporary base in Beirut the trio have proved themselves among the few able to pen Arabic language rock with crossover appeal. With a sonic scope which mixes windswept, mid-tempo rockers, to-the-floor stompers and mournful contemplation, last year’s 180° is both a call to arms, and a telling sign of strength from the region’s underground music scene.
Nationality: Egyptian Bosaina II has been turning heads in her native Cairo for years now; the singer’s assertive stage presence, stringing lyrics and unconventional attire has shocked many, but defiantly hooked the loyal few. Despite her intriguing recent contribution to joint EP Bottles (alongside Raw U), the sassy singer’s most definitive work on record is found in collaboration with Ismail Hosny and Hussein El Sherbini as part of Wetrobots <3 Bosaina. Pioneering glitchy, dark electronic sounds, the collective’s first full-length mixtape is set to drop any minute. First single ‘Boom’ is a typically ambient, groovy drone, mixing trippy rhythms, dub-infused bass and disorientating samples to compelling effect.
Nationality: Lebanese A heady mix of indie and electro elements, kookily named Who Killed Bruce Lee offer something new in Beirut’s rock-centric scene. Characterised by jagged disco-punk grooves and singer Wassim Bou Malham’s wafting falsetto, the quartet were preparing to drop a debut album as we went to press. If 2012’s self-titled debut EP is anything to go by, we can look forward to plenty of smart and catchy compositions, mixing edgy riffs and streetwise cool with a healthy dose of dancefloor-filling fun. Bottled electro-indie club bliss.
Nationality: Kuwaiti Producer Zahed Sultan crafts atmospheric instrumental soundscapes which, merging electronic beats with live instruments, add a beating human heart to Sultan’s music which is often found lacking in many contemporaries. Following up 2011’s Hi Fear, Lo Love – which attracted note globally with tunes picked up for European compilations – comes this brand new work. Eye Am Sound is an ambitious multimedia concept which combines a live show and coffee table book with the record itself. Utilising elements of electronica and trip-hop, shimmying with indie, house and even R&B influences, expect engaging and immersive tunes which move the mind and the feet.