A Pocket Guide to Some of the Legends of Arabic Pop Music

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Fairouz c/o Mahmoud Alkhawaja via Behance.net

“I think we’re about ready for a new feeling to enter music,” declared Brian Eno back in 2005 interview, “[and] I think that will come from the Arabic world.” He predicted that the influence of Arabic music would parallel how “the blues completely suffused the music of the early 1960s, woke it up and got it out of Cliff Richard… and made it kind of dirtier and rougher and more lively and sexy.” It’s been ten years since Eno gave that interview, but most people in the United States have still not added Amr Diab to their playlists. Or Samira Said. Or Sherine. Or any of the other superstars of Arabic music who sell millions upon millions of records each year.

This handy list of 15 legends of Arabic pop music is here to change that and get you started. The next time that you roll up to a party, you’ll be blasting “Gamalo” after “Bitch Better Have My Money.”

Oum Kalthoum — Egypt

Widely regarded as hands down the greatest Arabic singer of the twentieth century (and some say of all time), Oum Kalthoum had a contralto vocal range and a powerful, exquisite voice. In the 1940s and 1950s, when Kalthoum was at the peak of her vocal abilities, Arabic singers and musicians would improvise their songs for a live audience, which meant that songs could vary in length from 20 to, say, 90 minutes or more, depending on both the audience’s requests and energy and the singer’s improvisations in response. The back-and-forth between the singer, the musicians, and the audience was said to bring audiences into a state of musical ecstasy called “tarab”—which Kalthoum did with virtuosity, having honed her improv skills to perfection over her five-decade career.

After her death in 1975, Kalthoum continued to influence generations of Arab world musicians and artists (as well as Westerners like Bob Dylan, Salvador Dalí, Nico, Bono, and Led Zepplin), and her records still sell about a million copies per year.

Fairouz — Lebanon

One of the most popular singers in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world, Fairouz has released around 800 songs since the late 1950s and performed at sold-out concerts around the world, including New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1971. (She also returned here in 2003.)

Her voice is delicate yet versatile, and has been compared to a rare gem (which is where her stage name comes from — “fairouz” is Arabic for “turquoise”). During live shows, she’s known for standing almost motionlessly at the microphone in ornate floor-length dresses and delivering wistful performances (that frequently bring musicians and traditional dancers onstage). Her fans have dubbed her the “Ambassador to the Stars,” the “Neighbor to the Moon,” and the “Jewel of Lebanon.”

For many people, Fairouz’s songs hold a special place because the lyrics reminisce about her experiences growing up in the mountains of Lebanon — including everyday happenings like sleeping on the grass, sitting “in the afternoon between the grape plants,” and riding on the bus from village to village (Arabic music generally shies away from explicit lyrics, as well as songs about practices forbidden in Islam).

Warda Al-Jazairia — Algeria

During her career, beloved diva of the Arab world Warda Al-Jazairia released 300 songs and sold 100 million albums worldwide, but she started like her creative influence, Edith Piaf, by singing at her father’s cafe in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Later, her family was deported from France after her father was caught with an arms stockpile (he was involved in the struggle for Algeria’s independence…from France).

Warda then got her start in Beirut and Damascus, singing revolutionary songs, before moving to Cairo (the eternal music capital of the Middle East) in the late 1970s, where she caught her big break with the hit song “My Times Are Sweeter With You” (and then continued to gain fans by singing love songs). The aforementioned Egyptian icon Oum Kalthoum was one of her teachers.

Warda’s voice has been described as powerful, yet sweet and sultry (earning her the title “The Rose of Algeria”), and she sang in various Arab dialects—her songs giving hope to people of nations that were taking a stand for their freedom against their European colonizers.

Najwa Karam — Lebanon

If your cable network package lets you tune in to Arabs Got Talent , then you’ve seen multi-platinum, best-selling recording artist Najwa Karam judging hopeful street-dancers, singers, and comedians on the show (she’s also the only female judge on the four-person panel).

When she’s not helping discover the next big star, Karam is busy recording her own blend of Arabic music, which fuses traditional and contemporary sounds, and includes the extensive use of Arabic instruments like the trumbakke, mijwiz, and tabal. To date, Karam has sold over 60 million records worldwide, and has a hard time going anywhere without the paparazzi trying to snap a picture—Karam is a major fashion icon whose every dress gets instagrammed, tweeted, and analyzed online.

Her voice has earned her the title, “Shams el-Ghinnieh” (The Sun of Song) and her looks have been used in fitness campaigns, but maybe most importantly, Karam’s career has been credited with helping change the Arabic music industry’s global outreach: sold-out shows abroad, including a popular US tour that saw her presented with the Key to the City of Chicago, have introduced thousands of people worldwide to Arabic music.

Fun fact: In 2011, Karam released the Middle East’s first 3D music video for her song “MaFi Noum.”

Nawal Al Zoghbi — Lebanon

Nawal Al Zoghbi is a blonde bombshell with the va-va-voomness of, say, Modern Family‘s Sofía Vergara—except that she’s not an actress, but a platinum-level recording artist with a career that has spanned over two decades.

Zoghbi recently wowed on Dancing with the Stars (MTV Lebanon), but her star-dom (pun intended) has long been solidified in the Arab world: “The Golden Star,” as she’s known (more punning), was one of the first female artists in the region to make music videos, and the first Middle Eastern artist to ever be in an advertising campaign (a five year contract with Pepsi).

Mohamed Mounir Egypt

Mohamed Mounir has the laid-back image — jeans, casual shirts, and a full head of wavy hair — of man who could be your friend, but instead is actually a super successful recording artist and actor with a three decade career under his belt.

Fans call Mounir “The King,” which comes from his album The King is The King and not any diva-like behavior, although calling Mounir “The Sultan of Swoon” wouldn’t be off—no, wait, that’s already one of Frank Sinatra’s nicknames. Mounir has had a similar career to Ol’ Blue Eyes (another Sinatra sobriquet), appearing in twelve movies, four television series, and three plays in addition to prolifically releasing twenty official recording albums.

Like Sinatra, Mounir’s music also incorporates jazz elements, but that’s where the comparison ends. Mounir’s sound leans on Nubian music, blues, reggae, and, of course, classical Arabic music. And, unlike Swoonatra (actual Sinatra nickname), Mounir’s lyrics boldly deliver passionate social and political commentary and verge into the philosophical:

A world comes and goes. Who am I, and what is my place? And what is the end of the story? And what is it that has cast me away? O strange path of mine! —From “O, Strange Country!”

Amr Diab Egypt

Amr Diab was on his way to becoming a pop star a good ten years before the Backstreet Boys even decided to get together. In the early ’80s, he was a twenty-something recent graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Arabic Music from the Cairo Academy of Arts. But, his smoldering good looks (strong jaw, dark hair, piercing eyes) made it seem like he had just casually walked off the Baywatch set.

With some early albums on the market (Ya Tareea in ’83, Ghanny Men Albak in ’84), Diab began creating a new musical style that ultimately would mix western beats, arrangements, and finalization with Egyptian rhythms—hence Diab’s “The Father of Mediterranean Music” nickname.

Now, after thirty years in the music industry, Diab still has those good looks — check out this Pepsi commercial with Britney Spears, Beyoncé, and Pink — but has also earned five platinum records and seven World Music Awards.

Samira Said — Morocco

Question: What does a Madonna or a Cher for the Arab world sound like? What does she look like?

Answer: Search no further than Moroccan singer Samira Said, who has changed her look and her sound with the changing times—from very ’80s pop child to whatever this look was in the early ’90s to this late ’90s glam to (fast forward fifteen years) this Lady Gaga-inspired, edgy futuristic look.

Musically, Said has been criticized for bringing (some would say, dragging) Arabic music into the twenty-first century since—like Madonna and Cher—she’s known to constantly experiment with, say, pulsing electronic beats only to layer them with traditional Arabic strings. She’s also been influenced by jazz, tarab, and rai.

Meanwhile, no one can deny the strength and tonal beauty of her voice, which has helped Said sell over 50 million records worldwide—plus given her a chance to sing for the pope, the Prince of Monaco, and for crowds as large as 100,000 festival-goers in Agadir.

Ragheb Alama — Lebanon

Ragheb Alama is everywhere — especially if you’re into Arab Idol (the pan-Arab version of the American show) or into slowing down climate change.

Regarding the former, Alama was known for being the nice judge (“I don’t think we should be there on the show to destroy people”) on three seasons on Arab Idol, compared to his Simon Cowell-esque fellow judge Ahlam, who was known for being…a diva with a temper. Alama hasn’t come back for the latest season of the show, but the singer, dancer, composer, philanthropist and UN climate change ambassador is probably busy trying to stop down global warming and penning some new love songs (which are his jam). Actually, I take that back—Alama has just moved on to being a judge on The X Factor Arabia instead.

But, long after his stints on Arab Idol/The X Factor Arabia will be forgotten, Alama will be remembered for his eighteen studio albums (and twenty-five music videos)…and for being the first Arab artist to have his album sold at Starbucks.

Elissa — Lebanon

Lebanese sensation Elissa has the total package: the Voice, the Love Ballads, and a Twitter account approaching 6.5 million followers. The “Queen of Feelings” is also a judge on the rebooted The X Factor Arabia (back this year after its 2013 ratings flop), and no stranger to Instagram controversies.

But, in all seriousness, Elissa’s yearning, confessional, feeling-filled lyrics—”My eyes have not slept one night, those long nights of love” or “I never dream of anyone but you” or “My heart is always wounded when I’ve wounded none” or “How can he forget what I did for him?” or “I cant take you out of my eyes or heart” (Okay, you get the picture)—have led to phenomenal record album sales (over 30 million) and three World Music Awards. What’s not to love?

Tamer Hosny — Egypt

Tamer Hosny isn’t shy about the Western influence in his music. Since launching his solo career in 2004, he’s collaborated/partied with Shaggy, Snoop Dogg, and Pitbull and Akon. His music videos with the Western rappers feature lots of ladies, and things like big mansions, big pools, and big wealth symbols, while his solo music videos feature lots of thinking and romantic reflecting done at home. It’s the latter—the romantic strife—that has earned Hosny the “Star of Jeel” nickname.

Sherine — Egypt

Sherine, Sherine—since blasting off her career with the hit single “Ah Ya Leil” in 2000, Sherine has since been involved in several controversies, including a falling-out with her label Free Music Productions and owner and manager Nasr Mahrous and a conflict with Egyptian singer Sherif Mounir which later escalated into a legal issue (and a jail sentence).

She’s spoken openly on talk shows about her separation from her husband, her struggle with her weight, the Arab media, and the conflict in Syria, and is currently a judge on The Voice Middle East.

Mohamed Hamaki — Egypt

Dashing singer Mohamed Hamaki has been releasing soulful albums since the late ’90s, and had a mega viral hit with the “Ahla Haga Feeki” (The Beautiful Thing About You)—featuring Dutch rapper Perry Mystique laying down some bars in English—that ultimately was memorialized as a ring tone in 2006 (when people still downloaded those).

For the past two years, however, he’s been off the market after his marriage to Nahla al Hajari, but—and gossip websites were abuzz with this news—it was recently revealed that the couple had actually gotten divorced back in July 2014. Meanwhile, Hamaki has been playing concerts for massive crowds in Kuwait and Egypt this year, and (of course) Instagramming his adventures.

Mohamed Fouad — Egypt

Are you very sad? Have you had your heart broken? Are there tears streaming down your face right now as you read this? If you want someone to sing how you feel, Mohamed Fouad’s cache of songs will make it seem like you’re not alone in your room—you’re crying together with the superstar Egyptian singer and actor.

He, too, has waited with longing for a lover—”My lover, my lover, my lover, where are you?” or was just straight up dumped and is now wondering why—”I loved her with all my heart, I sacrificed so much to please her.” You’re down, and he understands. Since the release of Fouad’s first album, Fe El Seka, in 1985, he’s followed up with twenty more studio albums, and he might even have had it worse than you (when it comes to love):

The one I was singing for has gone Why did she leave me? The tears were in my eyes She has gone and left my heart scared to death —From “Khayef moot” (Scared to Death)

It wasn’t always like this, though. Fouad started his career with the Egyptian family band 4M in the early ’80s, doing “fresh covers” of popular oldies. The band broke up shortly thereafter, and he’s been crooning Egyptian pop with a Franco-Arab twist since.

Nancy Ajram — Lebanon

Oprah once described Nancy Ajram as “the Britney Spears of the Middle East,” which isn’t too far from the truth considering the whole story arc (minus the shaving-of-the-head breakdown).

Exhibit A, a studio album, Mihtagalak, released at the age of fifteen and put together with support from Ajram’s father. Exhibit B, hits like “Akhasmak Ah” and “Inta Eih,” and then, Exhibit C, going multi-platinum and winning a cascade of awards, including a World Music Award in 2008. Exhibit D, endorsement deals with Coca-Cola, Sony Ericsson, and Damas Jewelry.

If you’re not convinced yet, consider this: both women were born less than two years apart, married commoners (Ajram married her dentist; Spears married and then divorced her backup dancer), and had two children that they adore—Ajram even dedicated her sixth album to her children. Both have graced numerous magazine covers, have been stalked mercilessly by paparazzi, have judged TV singing competitions (Arab Idol for Ajram, X Factor for Spears), and—most impressively—managed to solidify their pop icon statuses over a decade ago.

Case closed? Case closed.