Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

MENA Experimental Music: A Force to be Reckoned With

Political and social restrictions make it difficult for Middle Eastern artists to perform at group and solo events.

MENA Experimental Music
Members of the Lebanese collective “Nuage” play music and laser projections from the roof of a building to entertain residents in their neighborhood of Dekwaneh, on the eastern outskirts of Beirut on April 28, 2020. JOSEPH EID / AFP

Dana Hourany

In a tiny flat outside of Beirut’s downtown area, Sarah Huneidi uses her synthesizer to escape the crisis-ridden reality of Lebanon.

She constructs sound images with the device her friends gave her as a birthday gift in 2019. The world inside Huneidi’s room changes as a consequence.

“Music helps me cope with the events happening outside. As soon as I started playing during the Covid lockdowns, I lost myself in the process for hours on end,” Huneidi told Fanack.

Huneidi, who works as a copywriter and copyeditor, is part of the experimental music scene in Lebanon, which, she says, has grown in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Experimental music attracts young artists into the scene because it’s accessible and pocket-friendly. You don’t need fancy instruments and years of practice,” the musician said.

Amateurs can enter the world of music-making, which has helped some experimental artists from the MENA region gain recognition and success, with as little as a synthesizer, a drum machine, and a laptop.

Artists and industry insiders claim that this genre fulfills a transnational and global need that other genres are unable to meet. Nevertheless, critics of the genre contend that modernism must not jeopardize the preservation of conventional arts or heritage.

What is experimental music?

The term “experimental music” was ascribed to ultra-modernist music practices in the middle of the 20th century that applied unusual composition procedures to generate non-mainstream results.

This subculture thrived in underground nightclubs throughout Western nations before becoming widely popular locally in recent years. Experimental currents interact amongst communities all across the world using phonetics, sound waves, and abstract vocal sounds.

“The process is not possible in many pop music circles for instance. Since mainstream lyrics do not for most part represent our experiences; we have to create a new language where our feelings are expressed and our lives are reflected,” Huneidi said.

There are two prominent types of experimental sounds described by the artist: the soft and the harsh. In her music, melodies and sounds are soft, dreamy, and delicate. ‘Harsh’ sounds, on the other hand, are described as abrasive, gritty, and up-tempo.

“Harsh sounds mirror people’s inner torment, while soft sounds allow listeners to switch mental states and release lingering negative emotions,” she said.

Political and social restrictions make it difficult for Middle Eastern artists to perform at group and solo events. For example, in the Palestinian Gaza Strip, musicians are restricted to their own small piece of land as Israel’s 15-year blockade has made the enclave nothing less than an open-air prison.

Meanwhile, Iranian performers are setting up clubs inside apartments and even out in the open remote deserts to circumvent the regime’s ban on nightlife. It is also difficult for artists, especially women, to thrive in Gulf countries due to religious conservatism.

“Although it is primarily a male-dominated field, both women and men have achieved success in the experimental field,” Huneidi said.

One art, different types of artists

MENA Experimental Music
Underground House, Syria.

For almost a decade, civil unrest and political turmoil overshadowed any form of art in crisis-torn Syria, but underground currents brought the country back into the global music spotlight.

In Damascus, Saade Khoury co-founded Underground House Syria, a leading electronic music organization where people dance and release their anger and frustration to “darker types of futuristic bass music.”

In Tunisia, Shouka – a record label dedicated to the experimental scene in third-world countries – has become a household name for those in the know. Their 2020 release SERA3 is an 11-track collection of sounds from different Middle Eastern countries and they reflect on “destructive sounds from Syria, psychedelic trip-hop from Turkey, and spoken-word ambient from Egypt.”

Huneidi notes that in Beirut, once one of the region’s burgeoning clubbing destinations, a growing community of experimental musicians either incorporate political recurrences into their music or completely disregard them.

“As Lebanese experimentalists, we acknowledge the crumbling environment around us and our job is to deconstruct and reconstruct these emotions and concepts,” Huneidi said.

In the past few years, many people left and the community shrank, but more people are joining now, and we can express our shared traumas and our individual experiences through this community,” she continued.

In Egypt, Adam Shaalan, cofounder of Hizz, a Cairo-based music platform and record label, told Fanack that the experimental scene has shifted significantly since COVID-19 emerged.

The co-founder notes that lockdown measures and an energy crisis combined with an economic recession has dampened a once vibrant and ecstatic community.

“The world is experiencing a general sense of depression,” Shaalan said. “It used to be that people would come to our parties in greater numbers to escape and get inspired by all the new things they were being exposed to. Now, we see that people are solely seeking escapism, no more no less.”

A way to stardom

Shaalan and Huneidi agree that the scene opened up new opportunities for Arab musicians to achieve success and fame in countries beyond their own. Both say the absence of lyrics attracts foreign labels that nurture local talent while maintaining the genre’s abstract and inclusive characteristics.

Yara Asmar and Tarek Atwi are two examples from Lebanon, who, with foreign help, have gained international attention by releasing albums and performing outside their native country.

Egyptian experimental composer Nada El-Shazly went on a worldwide tour following the release of her debut album Ahwar in November 2017.

Syrian artist Wael Al-Kak who traveled to France in 2012, has released three albums that merge Levantine folk tunes with experimental dance sonics, since.

“There are small-scale opportunities for beginners. Experimental musicians can produce short-film scores and receive grants from local or foreign art institutes. It is a way to resettle in Europe or elsewhere,” Huneidi said.

The new versus the old

In spite of its growing popularity in niche circles and party scenes, the experimental current still lacks a clear definition and path for development, according to musical expert Sam Arnellian.

“Like other music genres, experimentalism is a reaction to the outside world. It’s the musicians’ preferred way of communication, even if no language is present. In the past, other genres would omit lyrics to evade social limitations and for fear of retribution,” Arnellian said.

“It’s normal that people will label the new genre as ‘aggressive’ and not accept it at first. Other genres went through a similar experience,” he said.

The musical expert contends that the efforts exercised by the youth to join the ranks of modern musicians should not shroud the importance of preserving Middle Eastern traditional music and art.

Music adorns each country’s heritage and culture, according to Arnellian. Once obliterated, outside influence can infiltrate to impose a new cultural identity on the upcoming generations.

“Any foreign culture can impose its values, languages, and preferred artistic styles if we lose touch with our traditional arts,” the expert said.

As a result, many experimental artists have carried their personal influences into their music, introducing a blend of traditional and modern. Saudi Arabia‘s MSYLMA for instance morphed Qur’anic texts into its unconventional, grimy beats, and Kuwait’s Yousif Yaseen composes guitar tones based on the Arabian quarter tones melodies.

Keeping up with the times is mandatory for people to evolve, Arnellian continues. However, whether the new and vibrant experimental scene – alongside other popular forms of modern music – will be able to drown out the fading tunes of Middle Eastern traditional arts, or intertwine with it to create a new concoction, remains to be seen.

user placeholder
written by
All Dima articles