Alternative Sounds of the Middle East

Khyam Allami, Ola Saad, and 47Soul are just some of the names associated with a rising generation of rockers, singer-songwriters, and electronic producers creating alternative music in the Middle East and North Africa. While Western news headlines tend to focus on the struggles of Syrian refugees and the protracted fight against ISIS, the past decade in the region has seen a paradigm shift in the fields of art and music. From Cairo to Tehran, artists have looked beyond borders and mass-market media sources, adopting wifi, social media and home production programs like Pro Tools to establish new networks of collaboration and distribution.

Among the talents are the band 47Soul, who capture the spirit of Arab youth culture and speak to their Palestinian roots with their analog synthesizers, political lyrics, and Levantine dabke rhythms. There’s Khyam Allami, an artist of Iraqi descent who runs the influential label Nawa Recordings, who made avant-garde punk on the soundtrack for the 2015 Tunisian indie film As I Open My Eyes/À peine j’ouvre les yeux and explores the boundaries of Arabic oud with the avant-garde group Alif (which features members from Egypt and Lebanon). And there’s producers like Ola Saad, who engages with her surroundings through provocative ambient electronic music and sound art.

There’s a long tradition of cross-cultural collaboration and avant-garde exploration in the Middle East and North Africa, but this music today is fundamentally unique — reflecting a time of conflict and global division but also of trans-national enrichment and creative possibility.