In recent years, many in the west have become vaguely aware of Arabic popular music through the Belgian singer and dancer, Natacha Atlas, whose albums feature a mix of Arabic songs and carefully chosen western covers performed with a distinctly oriental flavor. While these records have been inspired and well-crafted, Natacha is especially remarkable for her live performances with a small touring outfit, a veritable rock band with appropriate eastern percussion and keyboard. The dates feature jam sections, with Natacha gyrating as though in a hypnotically induced trance, including elements of Sufi whirling and belly dance. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the larger part of her audience, there is a flourishing popular music industry within the Arabic lands. Natacha Atlas does not represent that industry, but is more an ambassador for oriental music in general.
With Arabic music proper, the introduction is often made through Nawal Al Zoghbi, whose series of albums begins in the early 1990s. By 1999 an extraordinary artistic aspiration had become evident. The material reached well beyond the conventional in striving for a representation of Lebanese identity within the parameters of contemporary sound schemes. The disks in question furnished many radio hits and music videos, among which “Aghla El Habayeb” stands out as particularly attractive and informative for western listeners. Appearing in 2007, the video portrays the tribulations of the Arabic pop diva. Her man is absenting himself on a business jaunt involving a binge of bar drinking and loose women, shocking western viewers who labor under the impression that Arab countries uniformly enforce repressive morality, and probably scandalizing many eastern viewers too, although all turns out well with a reunion on the sands of Beirut.
“Aghla El Habayeb” appears on Yama Alou, an album of uneven quality, but some of the preceding disks are quite remarkable. Of the series beginning with Malom (1999), the most accessible and striking is Elli Tmanetoh (2002), containing many powerful tracks, for example “Beyelbalak,” in the video of which the male model of “Aghla El Habayeb” makes his initial appearance alongside Nawal. It is actually a different male model who appears later on the video of “Alf W Meya,” where the poorly shaven character is finally ejected from the happy home on account of his ongoing infidelities amusingly chronicled in the video. This track is from the Ma’rafsh Leh album of 2011, which in many respects represents for Nawal a return to form.
Nawal Al Zoghbi’s music video production has been instrumental in the rise of Arabic pop to prominence in world music, but the most influential video, so far as I can make out, was by other artists. A duet called “Einak Einak” by Faudel, a French Algerian, and Amal Hijazi, a Lebanese, had a seminal impact, something approximating the Beatles for the western music industry, at least on a general cultural level. The evidence of this video awakened the industry to the viability of Arabic pop as world music. Henceforth there would be an awareness of the audience that lay outside the Arab world, on whom the presentation could ultimately be focused. “Einak Einak” appeared on Amal Hijazi’s album Zaman of 2002, which remains one of the most accessible Arabic pop albums, notable for its overall consistency as well as for several memorable tunes. Amal’s Lebanese world sound draws to some degree on the Italian band Radiodervish, whose singer is Palestinian: the track “Hennah” from the first Radiodervish album of 1998 is a clear forerunner of “Weyli Wa” on Zaman.