So, a little bit about me. I’m Arab — Egyptian to be specific. I was born in Cairo and lived there until I was about seven years old which was when I moved to Southern California.
And while I would occasionally listen to Arabic pop music growing up, I was definitely one of those kids who would cringe when their parents felt the need to turn on a five-million-hour-long song by Um Kalthoum (though I would like to note that I absolutely loved Abdel Halim Hafez even as a fourth grader, so, go figure).
It was actually not until college that I really got into Arabic music and, for that, I have to thank my dad not only for helping me navigate my way through decades of music history and countless artists and musicians but also for an app he wrote way back in the day, called iMazica, which served as my guide and showed me more Arabic music than I could ever hope to listen to in an entire lifetime. In fact, most of this list consists of music discoveries I made through that app.
Alright, that’s enough about me, now onto the artists and their highly undervalued music.
(Note: I know for many people, a lot of these songs are actually considered quite popular, but I think for my own generation, especially Arab-Americans and others growing up outside the Arab world, things might be a little different)
1. El Toba by Abdel Halim Hafez
I know there’s another song by Abdel Halim with a ridiculously similar-sounding name called Toba and I think out of the two, Toba tends to be the more popular one. I, however, think El Toba is quite the masterpiece. The orchestra playing behind Abdel Halim has always sounded so grand and epic to me. I also love Abdel Halim’s adoption of a southern Egyptian accent — I think it makes this song so much more unique and enjoyable to listen to.
I mentioned earlier that I have loved Abdel Halim ever since I was in fourth grade and it was actually precisely because of this song.
2. Lasta Qalby by Abdel Halim Hafez
So I’ll be completely honest, I have never actually seen the movie this song was originally featured in, BUT I don’t think that makes me any less of a fan of this song. I really love the nature of the lyrics and how this is essentially a conversation that Abdel Halim (or I guess, more technically, Abdel Halim’s character in the movie) is having with his own heart. In essence, he feels betrayed by his heart for loving a woman who does not particularly care for him.
I love the evolution of the tone and demeanor of both Abdel Halim and the music of the orchestra playing behind him. The song starts out slow, sad, and melancholy and then at around 3:45, the music becomes really loud and powerful and almost angry. Abdel Halim follows suit sounding equally as livid with his heart. And then, finally, the song ends with Abdel Halim sounding rather defeated, claiming that his heart is no longer his, but hers.
For more of my favorite songs by Abdel Halim, check out this playlist: https://goo.gl/1ho5Yu
3. We Ghalawtek by Amr Diab
I know what you’re thinking, what in the world is Amr Diab doing on this list? But honestly, I think this song is so cute and despite it being relatively old, I only just recently found it about a year ago. Not much I can do a deep-dive with as with Abdel Halim’s music but this is definitely a really nice, underrated song by the Arabic King of Pop himself.
For more of my favorite Arabic pop music, check out this playlist (There’s a ton of Tamer Hosny on this playlist so just consider yourself warned): https://goo.gl/HpQzhw
4. Dakhalt Mara fi Gonena by Asmahan
I think Asmahan is a generally underrated artist and I think it might have to do with her untimely death at such a young age. That being said, I think she has such a beautiful and unique voice and this song in particular is so touching — really makes you feel for that cute, little, innocent bird who wanted nothing more than to make his wife happy. Gets me every time.
5. Allah Kbir by Fairouz
This song is absolutely out of this world. It actually reminds me of my junior year in college — I think that’s when I first got into it. It’s such a beautiful and calming song and the lyrics are really touching. I believe this song is relatively new. It feels like a lot of Fairouz’s more recent work tends to be overlooked just because her older work is so much more of an integral part of Arab culture and heritage. That being said, I think it’s time we started paying more attention to her newer music.
Side note, I would highly recommend listening to this song anytime life feels overwhelming. It’s a great remedy in my opinion and takes a little of the load off your shoulders even if only for a moment.
6. Asfourat Alshajan by Fairouz
So I feel like songs about birds are becoming a common theme here. This is another really great song by Fairouz. I especially like how the lyrics describe both Fairouz and the bird as not feeling rooted anywhere in particular — I think that really speaks to me.
For more of my favorite songs by Fairouz, check out this playlist: https://goo.gl/djZFrE
7. Enta El Mady by Magda El Roumy
Oh boy. I am one hell of a Magda El Roumy fan. I think as an artist, she is highly underrated. In my humble opinion, this song is basically the ultimate and most empowering break-up song in existence. Here she blasts a former lover for ending their relationship in cold blood, breaking her heart, and then trying to weasel his way back into her life. The music sounds so regal and both her demeanor and the lyrics sound incredibly unforgiving, powerful, and forthcoming — it gave me shivers the first time I listened to it. In general, I think in terms of songs with feminist undertones, Magda El Roumy should always be your go-to.
8. Yaqoul Eni Emraa by Magda El Roumy
Are you surprised there’s another Magda El Roumy song on this list? Honestly, I had to really restrain myself from not turning this into an entire list of Magda El Roumy songs.
This song is basically the polar opposite of the song I just mentioned. In it, Magda El Roumy sings about all the ways her lover describes her. I think the Arabic language is used to its fullest capacity here — the metaphors and imagery created with the lyrics left me speechless when I first heard them. This song is so sultry, sensual, seductive, and overall just so well-crafted. Definitely one of my all-time favorites by her.
For more of my favorite Magda El Roumy songs, check out this playlist: https://goo.gl/qT8rvs
9. Fi Aman Allah by Mohammad Abdou
You can tell this song is extremely underrated by the mere fact that quite literally the only place I can find it is through my dad’s app, iMazica. I fear the day this song entirely disappears off the face of the planet. So please download this song ASAP and upload it wherever you can, I don’t want it to get lost.
Okay, enough about the fears that keep me up at night and more about the song at hand.
I think one area of Arabic music I am generally not super familiar with is khaleeji music. This is unfortunate because all of the khaleeji music I have listened to thus far, I have really liked! I think this song is so innocent and sweet — my favorite part in it is actually the chorus where he describes the woman giving him a lock of her hair. In general, I love when Arabic songs talk about women’s hair, I always find the imagery to be quite powerful. In fact, another song which I think does this well is Abdel Halim’s Qareat Al Fingan. He talks about the woman’s hair twice in that song, once when he says “وَ الشَّعَرِ الِغَجَرِي وُ الْمَجْنُونْ يُسَفِرُ فِي كُلِّ الدُّنْيَا” and again when he says “مَنْ حَاوَلَ فَكَّ ضَفَائِرِهَا…يَا وَلَدِي…مَفْقُودٌ… مَفْقُودْ” (apologies for the weird ordering of the words, it’s a little tricky mixing Arabic and English text).
10. Ya Msafer Wahdak by Nagat El Sagheerah
This was the first song I ever heard by Nagat and I know this because I remember when I first heard it, I thought her voice was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard in my life. This song has such unique, Spanish-influenced music and although I think it’s originally a Mohammad Abdel Wahab song, I definitely prefer the Nagat cover.
And we’ve reached the end of the list!
I think one thing that’s really lacking in Arabic music is any sort of proper record keeping as to who wrote the lyrics for songs, composed and arranged the music, played certain solos, etc. I can only imagine this information getting harder and harder to find as time goes by.
And so, I have a request to ask of you, Random Stranger from the Internet, if you know any of the metadata I just listed above about any of these songs, please do share it in the comments below! I’d really appreciate it.
And don’t forget to let me know which songs you think deserve more recognition!