An Overdue Appreciation for Arabic Musical Heritage

Love it or hate it, pop music has a way of highlighting the trends and themes of the era in which they are produced in, a characteristic which can take us back to unexpected trips down memory lane. Such is the case with me, a person who 1) seldom listens to Arabic music and 2) pretentiously says pop music generally is not that great… despite my having some guilty pleasure songs on my playlists.

A large portion of my adolescent years consisted of my older sister blasting different pop hits from the stereo, both in English and in Arabic. I also spent a lot of time with my cousins, who enjoyed bursting into their favorite Arabic pop anthems whether the occasion called for it or not. My interest in music was limited to pop-punk and alternative, almost all of which were in English. I had no interest in the Arabic songs that my family members and many of my Arabic-speaking friends enjoyed so much. In fact, I recall that my opinion on Arabic music was that they were all sappy love songs that used the noun “habibi” far too much to the point where the word lost its meaning in the midst of the musicians’ trying to create relatable and catchy tunes.

Halfway through my undergraduate studies, I discovered a genre of Arabic music that actually spoke to me – Arabic rock. I was totally caught by surprise when I realized how beautifully the language blends next to a hybrid of rock instruments and Middle Eastern ones. The truth is, I had always been slightly fond of oud and takht sounds, but never cared much for the lyrics that often accompanied them. Since then, Arabic rock bands such as Mashrou’ Leila and JadaL had made it to the list of my favorite artists by having created sounds that I love along with lyrics that I could relate to. I also found myself becoming intrigued with the culture of amateur remixes on YouTube, where people would combine Arabic and Western sounds to create fascinating sounds that, to me, sounded even better than the original songs.

After moving to Philadelphia from the Arabian Gulf region nearly three years ago, listening to Arabic rock/alternative artists had been one of the few things in my daily life that still tied me to my heritage. While I still mostly limit my taste in music to English-language rock anthems, I was caught by a pleasant surprise when I found myself nodding bushraa-150x150engagingly along to a choir of students performing Fairuz’s Nassam ‘Alayna al-Hawa earlier this year. Observing Hanna Khoury’s #iSingArabic sessions was not only pleasant on the ear, but his teaching the background behind each song the choir performed redirected my interest in the meanings behind certain classics. I even recall telling one of my Fairuz-fanatic cousins about the experience after I had come back from an #iSingArabic session, to which she was incredibly amused by how drastically my interest in Arabic music had shifted within the course of a few sessions: “I have been trying to get you into this kind of music for years! Who knew you needed to travel halfway across the world and listen to a live performance was all it would take to pique your interest!”

Alaa Wardi’s Evolution of Arabic Music video went viral several months ago, and I may not have enjoyed it as much had it not been for my newfound appreciation for Arabic music. While a part of my enjoyment may sneakily come from that nostalgia factor and the presence of certain songs during my childhood, I still feel that learning about the historical, social and political contexts of those Arabic hits is what makes me replay that video frequently and of my own volition.

-Bushra Alfaraj, Transformative Leaders Fellow

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