From Taxi Kebab’s Music to Acid Arab’s Mixes: An Introduction to Arab Electro
The connections between traditional Arab sounds and electronic music are apparent: like the allure of electronic music, listeners around the world are mesmerised by the power of repetition and rhythms found in Arab songs, from the dancefloor and beyond.
Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the combination of these two genres has led to the birth of sounds as captivating as it is addictive. But despite the popularity of “Arabtronica” in some areas of the world, in the West, it’s still considered a minor branch of the Western electro sound.
Over the years, we’ve seen many artistes and producers from the Middle East and North Africa combat this by spreading their interpretation of electronic vibes, seamlessly blending their culture with various genres, from dance to techno and electro.
The result is a fascinating ecosystem of voices from the Arab world that is taking club culture worldwide by storm.
Let’s take a look at the history, development and most interesting acts shaping the Arab electro genre.
A DEFINITION OF THE GENRE
It's actually relatively simple to define Arab electro. The complex part is identifying and categorising its endless interpretation by artistes from different cultures.
Some producers might imbibe their compositions with traditional instruments and rhythms, while others would lean more towards the electronic side, with just subtle references to Arab sonic structures.
Let’s start with the rhythm. Since most Arab electro productions draw inspiration from folklore music, they’re made for dancing.
In these tracks, we often find a careful blend of danceable tempos and Arab folk-dance atmospheres. From the dabke to the traditional Egyptian baladi, Arab artistes have made use of the ecstatic rhythms of their folk music to interpret dance music in a new way.
As for the melodies, the Phrygian scale is undoubtedly the most commonly used scale in Middle Eastern music. Arabic, Northern African, Hebrew Gipsy, and even Hindustani classical music are based on this timeless scale, which makes the genre unique and immediately recognisable.
When it comes to the instruments used in Arab electo tracks, the Middle East and Northern Africa have brought to life so many percussions and string musical instruments that artistes have endless options these days.
From the oud to the evocative mijwiz and the darbuka, you’ll find plenty of Arab eletro tracks featuring these instruments, potent symbols of Arabic culture.
THE EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC SCENE IN THE ARAB WORLD
If I wanted to listen to cutting-edge electronic music in Europe, I’d definitely go to Berlin or London. Similarly, the Middle East features some unmissable destinations if you want to discover the future of Arab electro.
The first crucial stop of your sonic journey would be Beirut. For years, Lebanon has been one of the most creative and inspiring music hubs in the Arab world, with a plethora of venues that made the capital a clubbing destination for people worldwide.
And while Beirut welcomes many established DJs from Europe, there's a vibrant underground community blending and transcending traditional genres into new sounds.
Next comes Cairo. The Egyptian capital offers an incredible techno scene reminiscent of the most dynamic European cities.
Venues like the CCC Floor 18 and Zigzag provide a spotlight for both established and up-and-coming DJs.
If you want to listen to the sound of the future in the timeless atmosphere of Cairo, check out the underground venues in the downtown area: you’ll fall in love with this magnificent city.
In a way, Turkey is the most “Westernised” country of the Arab region, yet Istanbul keeps fulfilling its millennial role as the bridge between East and West by offering the best music both cultures have to offer.
From top-notch nightclubs like Taksim Club IQ to the endless traditional folkloric venues and events, the sonic diversity offered by Istanbul remains unmatched.
Back in the Middle East, another unmissable city that showcases the finest underground electronic music scene is Tel Aviv.
A city that never sleeps and offers endless clubs, from the grandiose Haoman 17 to the unending list of underground clubs promoting Israel's techno scene like Matta, Mondu2000, Slippers, Breakfast Club, Collabo, Gagrin, Bor, Maze, Tel Aviv Calling, B-Side and more.
As you can see, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Finally, Marrakesh (and Morocco as a whole) has become one of the crucial destinations for clubgoers, with incredible festivals like the Oasis, Atlas and MOGA (the latter in Essaouira).
With some prominent DJs, like Amine K, becoming worldwide-known performers, Morocco is gradually becoming one of electronic music’s world capitals.
5 ARTISTES TO START YOUR EXPLORATION OF ARABTRONICA
Credit: Philippe Lévy
I saw Acid Arab live at Rich Mix in London a few years ago and immediately fell in love with their sound.
Their carefully-crafted blend of electro atmospheres and Middle Eastern vibes was born in the cultural cauldron of Paris, where the French-Algerian collective moved its first steps in the mid-2010s.
In Acid Arab's music, the connection between different cultures is seamless, with the vocals and traditional Arab instruments hovering over an intricate electronic texture and amplifying the magnetic properties of their music.
Credit: Robin Aron
The Syrian former wedding-singer-turned-electronic-superstar Omar Souleyman knows how to make music for parties. His songs are entrancing and made to blow your mind: energetic, with a seemingly unstoppable beat.
It’s the kind of music you’d dance to all night long without even realising it.
Souleyman is the man who exported the sound of the Mesopotamia region and made it mainstream. Over the years, he collaborated with some of the finest producers from the West, including Four Tet, Modeselektor and Legowelt.
Bryn Jones was born and raised in Manchester and was in no way associated with Arab culture. Yet, his interest in the conflicts in the Muslim world, and the Palestine cause in particular, led him to develop lifelong research in the music and culture of those people.
It’s hard to identify common elements featured throughout his vast discography, but what fascinates me about Jones’ sound is the perfect combination of folk instruments, ambient soundscapes and organic rhythmic textures.
Despite his short life (he died in 1999, aged 37), Jones’ personal project, Muslimgauze, sent so much music to his associated record labels that they still occasionally publish some of his unreleased material.
Credit: Inès Jiqqir
Over the last couple of years, Taxi Kebab, comprising Leïla Jiqqir (voice, guitar and bouzouki) and Romain Henry (electronics), has ignited various festivals worldwide with their mix of electropunk and Maghreb traditional music.
The duo’s sound is contagious in its constant shifting between different genres and cultures, taking the listeners on a transfixing journey through the human psyche.
Credit: Brandon Lee Michaels
Amine K is a household name when it comes to the Northern African sound spread around the globe.
His thrilling performances in some of the most iconic clubs in the world blend contemporary techno and dance with the Moroccan culture Amine K aims to promote outside of Africa.
He is also involved in developing the club culture of his home country by inviting international promoters and festivals to perform there, further amplifying the importance of Morocco in the electronic world map.
Known as Mr ID, Abderrahman Elhafid’s music is a perfect mixture of African culture, funk and intricate electronic tapestries. His soundscapes are so immersive that one could enjoy them on the dancefloor as much as in the privacy of their own bedroom.
Delicate melodies, timeless vocals and entangled percussions bring to life the moods and atmospheres of northern Africa's ancient kingdoms.
Cover: Inès Jiqqir
Elevate the way you listen to Arab electro with KEF
Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.