Best Tracks of 2016
from Middle East & North Africa

Aqsa Alwasat (أقصى الوسط)
“Haga” (حاجة)

Alexandra-based duo Aqsa Alwasat (أقصى الوسط) have been combining Arabic words with folk and all kinds of contemporary influences for almost four years now. And they keep getting better and better at it.

Singer-songwriter Tuqa McAwi and multi-instrumentalist Amr Ezz started their band in 2013 with a simple mission: to blend their diverse experiences (symphonic metal among them) into their very own sound that would be as difficult to define as possible. And they clearly succeeded.

But what stands out most from Aqsa Alwasat’s music is, simply, its beauty. Listeners around the world have quickly recognized the duo’s feeling for melodies, rhythm, and enchanting atmosphere. And the band’s live performances are a thing to look forward to.

Aqsa Alwasat’s latest track, “Haga” (حاجة), is a great example of the talents mentioned above. In less than 3 minutes they manage to draw us into a picturesque musical scenery, with Tuqa’s angelic voice floating freely over an acoustic mini-orchestra.

Aqsa Alwasat on Soundcloud, Facebook, Twitter.

Aziza Brahim
“Abbar el Hamada”

Despite the worldwide popularization of desert-blues in the last couple of years, Aziza Brahim continues to stand as one of the most unique voices in the genre.

Her new album, “Abbar el Hamada”, contains ten concise songs encapsulating the essence of her style. Brahim’s music retains astonishing vitality while demonstrating her rising proficiency as a songwriter.

Texturally rich and beautifully arranged, “Abbar el Hamada” is bluesy and soulful while still firmly rooted in the musical traditions of West Sahara; conveying both a sense of passion and mastery.

With a duration of less than three minutes, “Calles de Dajla” is the shortest song on the album, but Aziza Brahim manages to contain a wealth of musical ideas within. Built around an amazing exchange between guitar and her vocals, it’s an energetic and groovy invitation into her unique world.

Aziza Brahim on Facebook, Twitter, www.

Blu Fiefer

On December 30th, she celebrated her 24th birthday after an intense if groundbraking year. She’s played a number of concerts and festivals around her home city of Beirut, and she released phenomenal debut single, “Jukebox”, which brought her well-deserved attention on international level.

Blu Fiefer not a newcomer, actually. She’s been involved in music since her childhood, she’s played at some wedding parties, and earlier at the age of 15 she went to London to study at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance. London is also where she moved to recently to focus on her music career.

Contrary to what her music sounds like, she does seem to have clear mind about what she wants to do and doesn’t hesitate to follow her own path. In fact, that’s what “Jukebox” is about.

Blu Fiefer on Soundcloud, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, www.


Founded by Jordanian songwriter and singer Muhammad Abdullah almost ten years ago, the trio El-Morabba3 (المربّع) have been constantly breaking boundaries of places and genres to deliver their very own version of Arabic alternative.

While you will clearly hear global influences in this Amman-based group’s music, as well as their affinity for modern electronic producers and even experimental music, precious details like the sound of tabla or quarter tones occasionally remind you where El-Morabba3 actually come from.

In September, they released a follow-up to their 2012’s self-titled LP. Called “Taraf Al Khait“, a it’s a great collection of songs certainly worth a full listen, with “Ilham” among the most atmospheric and memorable moments.

El-Morabba3 on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter.

Emel Mathlouthi
“Ensen Dhaif”

If we were to choose just one track released in the region last year, that would most probably be “Ensen Dhaif” by Tunisian protest artist Emel Mathlouthi.

Even before 2010, her music was banned from radio and TV due to her dissident songs and growing popularity. Despite this, her track “Kelmti Horra” went viral online during the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world, to which she subsequently released her international debut album of the same name.

We haven’t heard much new from her for a couple years, but like all good rebels, almost a year ago she came back with a notable maturity and strength releasing a couple of new tracks on her SoundCloud. “Ensen Dhaif” (Weak Person) is highly rhythmic, pushed along Arabic percussions and a nay that are both digitized to add a sonic texture that is edgy yet familiar to those of us from the Arab world.

It might be also the first taste of her upcoming new album, “Ensen”, coming out this year and one of the reasons we’re looking optimistically for 2017.

Emel Mathlouthi on Soundcloud, Facebook, Twitter, www.


Although clasically trained in his childhood, Khalil Hentati has decided to follow electronic experimentation in his music released under the short monicker Epi.

He’s been sharing his multi-faceted music for about three years now, combining machine sounds with samples of Tunisian tradition both old and new. A good example of that is his take on “Pour Quelques Dinars De Plus” by Imed Alibi.

Released earlier last year, “Khodavanda” is also shows how Khalil avoids the obvious in his music, both genre- and feeling-wise. Is it future-oriented exploration or is it just digging in the past? Does the main theme sooth your nerves or rather comes back to haunt you?

There are no right answers, and that’s what will make you keep Epi’s music on repeat.

Epi on Soundcloud, Facebook.

Faia Younan
“Li fi Halab”

Stockholm-based Syrian sensation Faia Younan surfaced to the alternative Arabic scene in the viral video made in collaboration with her sister Rihan, “To Our Countries” (لبلادي). They mixed Rihan’s spoken Arabic poetry with Faia’s angelic vocals for a touching tribute to the Levant countries torn by civil and political wars.

After a series of sold out concerts throughout the Arab world, Faia started sharing tracks from her debut album, “Baynatna fi Bahr” (بيناتنا في بحر), or “There’s a Sea Between Us”. One of them was “Li Fe Halab” (لي في حلب), which means “Aleppo keeps for me”, a delightful ballad in which the young singer – often compared to the legendary Fairuz – reminisces over Aleppo, where she was born and raised.

She is accompanied by none other than signature Levant instrumentals of Qanoun and Oud complimented by lines of nostalgic strings, producing a jaunty portrayal of a city hardly ever associated with.

Faia Younan on Soundcloud, Facebook, Twitter, www.

“The Boys Who Cried Love”

Born in India, but raised in United Arab Emirates, Gaya combines inspirations as wide as Western folk, Indian classical music, forward-looking singer-songwriters and the best contemporary pop can offer.

To date, the Dubai-based artist has released two EPs and a crowdfunded LP “The Unknown” in 2013, which showed her as one of the most beautiful and versatile new voices in the region. With a natural focus on vocals, her music steers between immediate, enchanting themes and an exploratory edge singers like Björk, Joanna Newsom or Fiona Apple have earned our love for.

“The Boys Who Cried Love” is possibly Gaya’s most impressive song yet, accompanied by a video directed by Noush Anand and the singer herself. A result of months of work, it’s a stirring story about the only remaining sphere where humanity still hasn’t made too much progress yet.

Gaya on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Bandcamp, www.

“Tarha Tadagh”

Southern Algerian blues band Imarhan has been making waves locally for a few years now, but last year’s self-titled debut album clearly brought well-deserved global breakthrough.

Their splendid music seems direct and culturally unequivocal, with characteristic Tuareg rhythms and the guitar sound we’re used to associate with this part of African continent. But at the same time, it escapes easy categorizations, giving us a completely new taste of what “Tuareg music” may sound like.

While you should check out “Imarhan” LP in its entirety, the eponymous video off the album was its first single and one of the record’s most memorable moments.

Imarhan on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Bandcamp, www.

JadaL (جدل)

Led by the composer, writer and guitarist Mahmoud Radaideh, acclaimed Jordanian hard rock group JadaL (جدل) have been around for more than a decade. But their debut album “Arabic Rocks” came out only in 2009, and was followed up by “El Makina” three years later.

Last summer, they released their third full-length album “Malyoun”, a demonstration of the band’s songwriting skills and their dynamic sound. While the record sees the band sound as powerful as ever, the energy has a solid foundation in mature, well-thought-out compositions that tend to keep you from the first to the last second of each song.

Here’s the eponymous song off the album and one of its most powerful tracks, accompanied by a beautiful video story directed by Zein El Cheikh.

JadaL on Soundcloud, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube.

Karima Nayt

Karima Nayt already had an established career as a dancer and actress when she released “Quoi d’autre?”, back in 2012. While it remains her only album to date, it’s a work of abiding appeal.

Featuring top-notch musicianship and timeless melodies spanning multiple cultures, it presented Nayt as an accomplished singer with mature and sensual voice.

Four years after its premiere, a video for “Salam” has emerged. Although obscenely long in the making, it’s a good excuse to go back and listen to her music once more, and to become captivated yet again.

Karima Nayt on SoundcloudFacebookTwitter, YouTube, www.

Lena Chamamyan
“Marsa Zaman”

Singer-songwriter Lena Chamamyan was born to an Armenian family in Syria’s capital Damascus, and has been famous for her astonishing voice and sunny personality – however dimmed by tears over the horrors of the recent years.

Ten years after her debut album “Hal Asmar El-lon”, we can clearly see she’s been more and more open to various influences and her performances include elements of Arabic music, folk songs, jazz singing, African music or even Latin styles.

Last year, she released another lovely album called “Lawnan” (“Two colours”). “Marsa Zaman” is one of its most entrancing and dramatic tracks, dedicated to “those who sailed in the sea and to all of those who were lost with no returns, and to all of those chosen by heavenly mercy”.

Lena Chamamyan on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter.

Marcel Khalife “Andalos Al Hob”

Lebanese singer, composer and oud master Marcel Khalife gave us a mixture of Arabic, classical and jazz music with folk-formed poetry on his fantastic new album, “Andalusia Of Love”, which is actually one long piece.

It’s also a strong manifesto of what Khalife believes in in spite of events of the recent years (or decades): that people of different origin and religion can peacefully live together. Hence Andalusia, a place where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together centuries ago.

Khalife combines his music with poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian writer who died in 2008. It’s hard to pick one piece from this impressive and moving suite, and it’s best to hear the whole thing. But you can start with this beautiful song called “Andalos Al Hob”.

Marcel Khalife on Facebook, Twitter, www.

Mashrou’ Leila

Late in 2015, Lebanese rock heroes Mashrou’ Leila released a new album called “Ibn El Leil“, which stayed with us throughout the next year.

In November last year, they presented a new video “Bahr” shot “on a raft in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea”, which was organized in collaboration with Greenpeace. Just like in the case of Lena Chamamyan’s song (see next), we don’t feel there’s anything to add to the music itself, so let’s just quote the last verse:

“My brother lies with the mermaids, bring him back to me
My brother was stolen by the waves, won’t you bring him back to me
My brother left me with the break of dawn, never to return to me
He lies upon the ocean floor, never to return to me”

Mashrou’ Leila on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, www.

Massar Egbari

Alexandrian veterans Massar Egbari (مسار إجباري) are one of the longest lasting underground bands in Egypt. Actively involved for the past 10 years between representing Egypt in numerous live festivals along with two widely successful studio albums, it is no surprise they are often dubbed as the “Egyptian Dire Straits”.

Their video “Cheerophobia” (شيروفوبيا) draws its title from a term invented by lyricist Ahmed El Rawy to express the phobia of being cheerful. Matching the lyrical mood, the video sees a calm girl staring at a mirror before quickly resembling several contradicting emotions through happiness, sadness, confusion, anger, depression and everything in between.

While the song is a bit of a departure from Massar’s famous rock style into modern pop, coming across in the cow-bell drenched intro to midway claps, it’s refreshing to see bands reinventing their musical style.

Massar Egbari on Facebook, Twitter, www.

Sail Into Night

Duo Sail Into Night constists of Zara (harmonium & vocals) and Nabil (guitars, drum machine & vocals). They both come from Pakistan, but for almost a decade they’ve been living in the United Arab Emirates’ most populous city, Dubai.

Their debut album “Passenger” was recorded in Texas at The Echo Lab near Denton, and produced by Matt Pence, who “also produced the amazing stonegaze band True Widow – they’ve had a major influence on our music,” the band said.

Over 25 minutes of their debut, Sail Into Night literally submerge us in the “mood for inner contemplation”, their very own mixture of alternative / post rock and electronic music. The song “Parade” was also our favourite track off this unexpected record.

Sail Into Night on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram.

Salalem (سلالم)

Alternative Egyptian sextet Salalem (سلالم) captivated us last year with an accessible yet imaginative single “Nefsi”.

The Cairo-based group have been around for more than decade. During that time they’ve developed their own distinctive sound (mix of folk, rock, funk and local influences). Simultanously, they’ve gained a well-deserved recognition far outside the local/regional underground scene – in spite of the fact that they sing in Arabic.

“Nefsi” (نِفْسي), meaning “I would like”, is a great example of their style. Combining memorable themes and a composing edge Salalem’s been known for, they make you unsure where they’ll take you as long as the song is playing.

Salalem on Soundcloud, Facebook, YouTube.

Tamer Abu Ghazaleh

Palestinian-Egyptian musician Tamer Abu Ghazaleh (تامر أبو غزالة) is also the head of Eka3, one of the most important independent music labels in the Middle East, and a quiet supporter behind many regional talents.

Last year, he released his new album “Thulth” (ثلث), which features such instruments like buzuq, oud, and harmonium next to electronic and rock instruments and once again demonstrates the musicians unpredictability and his limitless musical imagination.

One of the most intense (even irritating on the first listen) track off the album, “Namla” ( نملة) features lyrics by Palestinian poet Tamim Al Barghouthi, interpreted by Tamer Abu Ghazaleh in his characteristicly erratic, fascinating way.

Tamer Abu Ghazaleh on www, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud.

Youssra ElHawary

Over the last years, Youssra ElHawary has become one of the larger alternative acts to book in Egypt, with her concerts garnering a couple thousand people and a respectable online following.

Meanwhile, the composer-singer-songwriter-accordionist is often experimenting with different forms of musical expression, be it her role in co-founding the Cairo Complaint Choir, which later became the Choir Project, or her track in Mohammed Khan’s “Factory Girl“, and of course her role as a vocal performer in the Al Tamye theater group.

Late last spring, Youssra released the track “El Alam” (“The Flag”) featuring Abdallah Abu Zekry, with her accordion-noir sound signature and poignant self-reflective and social commentary – plus a simple live video.

Youssra ElHawary on Soundcloud, Twitter, Facebook, www.

Za’ed Na’es feat. Aya Metwalli

Acclaimed Jordanian trio Za’ed Na’es continue to deliver some of the most exciting electronic music in the region as well as collaborations with talented singers.

Last year, the Amman-based group teamed up with Aya Metwalli, an Egyptian singer/songwriter already introduced on beehype with her oneiric solo work, for an fantastic new single called “Mashoftesh” that combines talents of both parties.

The song starts minimal, but grows quickly layer after layer until a high-frequency climax. “Mashoftesh” delights both with the toned-down parts and when Aya climbs an octave above the verses level, while Za’ed Na’es vibrate around her with their electronic textures.

Eventually, the single’s only defect is being about twice too short.

Zaed Naes on www, Soundcloud, YouTube, Facebook.
Aya Metwalli on Soundcloud, Facebook, YouTube.