The Soul and Sound of the Middle East

close up of man on his phone listening to music through headphones

Just as the Middle East is home to the world’s first city-states and widespread agricultural developments, the land remains one of the most fertile musical environments on the planet. Millennia of travel and trade have resulted in numerous cultural influences rooting in the lands of (for purposes of this playlist) Armenia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Yemen.

Of course, the Middle East itself is larger than the above list. Tackling every country would result in days of music—not a bad thing, though for brevity’s sake, I focus on nations I know best. I also excluded a number of giant superstars from past eras (save one of the world’s most famous musicians of the 20th century, Umm Kulthum). The decision is based on audio quality, not the music itself. There is a trove of incredible output from these lands digitized from vinyl that I recommend for the adventurous traveler.

While Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan’s “Hal” is from her stunning 2014 record “Ya Nass,” the world was introduced to this song thanks to a wonderful scene in Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film “Only Lovers Left Alive.” Cutting her teeth with the electronic project Soapkills, Hamdan’s solo work combines a wide range of styles. This song’s eerie beauty arrives via an ambient introduction that rises in intensity with Moroccan krakebs driving the rhythm home three minutes in.

Speaking of rhythm, Syrian musician Omar Souleyman’s remix of Bjork is one of the most unique takes on any artist, ever. I deejayed this track for well over a decade and never once did it fail to make the dance floor explode. Souleyman, a singer and farmer from Tell Tamer, is an incredible character and showman. I can think of no other better introduction to his work than this addictive track.

Azam Ali formed Niyaz as a way of fusing Persian music with electronica, enrolling multi-instrumentalist Loga Ramin Torkian and producer Carmen Rizzo. The trio disbanded after three gorgeous albums (their fourth did not include Rizzo), though all parties involved continue to push genres forward. (Ali’s new album comes out this month.) It was hard for me to choose just one track from their catalog, so I decided on the debut that first hooked me, “Allahi Allah.”

Around the same time as Niyaz formed, ney player and DJ Mercan Dede (Ali sings on one of his records, as well) was evolving classical Turkish music with powerful beats. “Napas” is one of the grooviest, but the Sufi fan and academic’s entire range of work is worth a listen.

The beats continue with a wonderful new track by Iranian classical singer Mohammad-Reza Shajarian. To experience the depth of his voice, I suggest checking out this Tiny Desk performance, but the dark electronic rendering of “Bote Man” is certainly not a bad place to start. His epic vocals also can be heard on the Masters of Persian Music project (along with Kayhan Kalhor, below).

The playlist explores three incredible women next: Egyptian singers Maryam Saleh and Natacha Atlas (the latter performing a Moroccan Gnawa song) and Turkish singer and anthropologist Gaye Su Akyol. All involved actively engage in pushing their homeland’s music forward in interesting directions by experimenting with a variety of genres.

The same can be said for Yemeni singer Ravid Kalahani, who plays the Moroccan gimbri and focuses on collaborations between Jewish and Muslim artists. “Mountains Will Dance,” like the Atlas song before, is another Gnawa contribution to this playlist.

Two Egyptian Nubian artists appear, both deceased, both essential to their homeland’s DNA: singer and bandleader Ali Hassan Kuban and oud player and singer Hamza El Din, whose “Music of Nubia” was considered one of the first global breakthrough “world music” albums upon its release in 1964.

Algerian singer Rachid Taha tragically passed away in 2018. His most famous track was a cover of the Arabic classic “Ya Rayeh,” which he performs here with The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians. That group partnered with Damon Albarn’s Africa Express for this charitable concert and record. The record is charming; more importantly, the focus on Syria is necessary.

Palestine is represented first in vocalist Sana Moussa’s jaw-dropping percussion and vocal track “La Tetlaa’i,” followed by oud trio Le Trio Joubran, with their gorgeous instrumental performance “Masar.” Staying in Israel, Idan Raichel’s project with Malian guitarist and singer Vieux Farka Toure was inspired by the idea of Jewish and Muslim musicians collaborating—a focal point for Raichel, who is also one of Israel’s most renowned popular musicians.

“Alem,” the song by the Toure-Rachel Collective, features a Persian instrument, the kamancheh, whose most famous proponent is Kayhan Kalhor. I’ve seen this man four times live (with four different projects) and can never get enough. It was nearly impossible choosing just one song, so I suggest spending a day (or a lifetime) exploring his work.

Speaking of classical artists, Egyptian oud player Munir Bashir is legendary. The set winds down with one of his taqsims before going completely chill with Armenia’s most well-known artist duduk player Djivan Gasparyan. Gasparyan has worked with Sting, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and many other important figures around the planet. You’ve likely heard his work on soundtracks such as “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Gladiator.”

While playlists generally end on a chill note, consider Umm Kulthum’s 41-minute performance a bonus track. Historically, music is not a series of three-minute songs but actual movements through time, space and the range of human emotions. Kulthum is hands down the most famous artist in Egyptian history. Upon her passing in 1975, 4 million Egyptians mourned in the streets. Nothing better encapsulates the fury and beauty of Arabic music than this woman.

Listen here.

Photo credit: ajr_images, Adobe Stock