20 of the region’s biggest musical moments in 2020: From a rare appearance by Fairouz to Kiss in Dubai for New Year’s Eve

Arab artists rallied to create a body of work both stirring and prescient in a year when the live music industry was battered by the pandemic

Fairouz shared this photo of herself and Emmanuel Macron on her official Twitter account, after meeting the French president during his visit to Beirut in August.
Powered by automated translation

What can we say about a year that caused once-in-a-lifetime damage to all aspects of the music industry?

While it was tempting to call 2020 a write-off as early as March, Arab artists and those with links to the region managed to make the most of the situation by creating works underscoring our times.

From innovative songs to heart-warming viral videos and pioneering online music festivals, here are 20 standout musical moments of the year.

1. A 24K magic start to the year with Bruno Mars

Bruno Mars kept it fun and slick at the du Arena in Abu Dhabi on December 31, 2019. Courtesy Flash Entertainment
Bruno Mars kept it fun and slick at the du Arena in Abu Dhabi on December 31, 2019. Courtesy Flash Entertainment

The year began with finesse courtesy of Bruno Mars. The US pop star's concert at Abu Dhabi's du Arena was the region's biggest New Year's Eve celebration, with 20,000 people watching the diminutive singer bust out the moves and hits to kick off 2020 on a hopeful note. If only we had known what was in store ...

2. Stormzy wears the crown

Stormzy performing at Redfest. Courtesy Arabian Radio Network
Stormzy performing at Redfest. Courtesy Arabian Radio Network

He came, he saw and he conquered.

UK grime star Stormzy’s exhilarating show at the RedFestDXB festival in Dubai was not so much a concert as a coronation for one of the music industry's newest stars.

Stormzy knew it, too, with Dubai the first international stop of an extensive world tour, stretching from the region to South-East Asia, the US, Europe and Africa, and a platform for his latest album, the opus Heavy is the Head. However, those well-laid plans were scuppered when the encroaching pandemic slowly but surely cancelled his global victory lap.

3. The pandemic halts the Arab world’s biggest dance music festival

Alesso was going to make his regional debut performance as part of Ultra Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Ultra Abu Dhabi
Alesso was going to make his regional debut performance as part of Ultra Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Ultra Abu Dhabi

The region's entertainment industry first came face to face with the severity of the pandemic when hugely anticipated dance music festival Ultra Abu Dhabi was scrapped.

Set to take place in the capital in March, the event was expected to attract 40,000 people to see sets by some of the world's leading DJs. With travel restrictions imposed worldwide as a safety measure against Covid-19, the festival pulled the plug with a promise to return in "the near future".

4. Dance with Sara

With movement restricted in the region owing to the pandemic, Lebanese dance instructor Sara Karrit brought smiles to our faces in March with a viral video featuring herself, flanked by her husband and six-year-old son, dancing along to the sounds of Afrobeat DJ Neptune. Judging by its viral reception, it seemed the world wanted to groove along, too.

5. Elissa goes pandemic pop with new single

With Hanaghani Kaman Wa Kaman, the Lebanese singer gave us a tune for our times. Translated as "we shall sing again and again", the song, released in April, acted as a message of encouragement as well as a plea for people to stay home amid the pandemic.

The star-studded video was presented in the style of a Zoom call, with Elissa at home, in pink pyjamas, reaching out to friend and fellow pop star Haifa Wehbe, who was also isolating at home.

6. 'I'm proud to be Emirati': Hussain Al Jassmi performs at One World Together at Home concert

UAE pop music king Hussain Al Jassmi represented the region by being the only Arab artist tapped to perform at the One World Together at Home concert.

Held on April 18 and organised by both Global Citizen and the World Health Organisation, the epic affair hosted Al Jassmi dozens of international artists, including Beyonce, Elton John and Paul McCartney, who all performed their hits.

Wearing a white kandura, Al Jassmi took to the piano to play a two-song medley of Bahebek Wahashtini and Mohem Jedan. You can catch the performance by scrolling to minute 46 of the YouTube video above.

7. Saudi Arabian singers shine during all female online music festival

As part of The Beat DXB Lockdown online music series, more than a dozen artists from the kingdom's eclectic music scene teamed up for what was likely the first all-female Saudi music festival.

The April 22 event featured Jeddah RnB singer Sarah Chafei, Los Angeles soul singer Tamtam and UK soprano Sawsan Al Bahiti.

8. Nancy Ajram points the way with rooftop YouTube concert

As the pandemic raged on, Lebanese star Nancy Ajram delivered a concert both soulful and gently ground-breaking in terms of what the online medium offers regional artists.

While peers recorded their gigs in cold and stark studios, Ajram shot her May show on a Beirut rooftop as she delivered stripped-down version of her hits.

9. ‘Rona-rona-rona-virus’ with Mohamed Ramadan

Released in June, this arguably remains the catchiest Arabic ode to the pandemic. Actor and sometime rapper Mohamed Ramadan's song Corona Virus is as much a public safety message as a club banger.

The lyrics are full of vibrant Egyptian colloquiums and scatting. The chorus, teeming with snappy couplets, also referenced Ramadan's Ramadan drama series El Prince.

“I am the prince, I am the gentleman,” it begins. “A mask I wear and gloves as well. I say hello from afar and with no hugs. Coronavirus – that way I am safe.”

10. A message of hope from Baalbeck

To underscore the tumultuous period, the Baalbeck International Festival held a special July concert from one of the ancient city's most prestigious sites. Broadcast live online, The Sound of Resilience orchestral concert, held at the foot of the Temple of Bacchus, featured The Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra as well as some of Lebanon's top choirs.

With the festival cancelled in the wake of the pandemic, the one-off performance served to not only highlight the event's cherished place in the region's cultural landscape, but to provide moments of serenity in what had already been a torrid year.

11. Beauty amid the wreckage

An eminent Italian classical music festival paid tribute to the region in July. As part of the Ravenna Festival, the 24th Roads of Friendship concert was held at the Paestum archaeological site in southern Italy.

With this year's performance dedicated to Syrian archaeologist Khaled Al-Asaad and Kurdish-Syrian politician Hevrin Khalaf, both killed in Syria's civil war, nine musicians from Europe's Syrian diaspora performed as guests of the acclaimed Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra under the baton of founder and maestro, Riccardo Muti.

12. Classic Lebanese anthems give comfort in wake of modern tragedy

Lebanese citizens sought the voices of the past for comfort in the aftermath of the August 4 explosion at Beirut port.

From Wadih Al Safi's Ma'lesih Ya Lebnan to Fairouz's Bhebak Ya Lebnan, social media channels in Lebanon were flooded with songs by local legends whose humane lyrics provided light amid the darkness of despair.

13. Amr Diab and Dina El Sherbiny confirm they are a match

August finally revealed one of the Arab entertainment industry’s biggest open secrets.

After countless reports that pop star Amr Diab and fellow Egyptian actress Dina El Sherbiny had married, the pair somewhat confirmed their relationship status in a lavish music video.

While the visuals for Diab's single, Amaken El Sahar, show the couple without wedding rings, their connection appear to be the real deal to the delight of their fans.

14. Concerts return to Saudi Arabia

One of the Arab world's first large-scale music performances took place in Saudi Arabia throughout September to celebrate the kingdom's 90th anniversary. Arena concerts took place in Jeddah and Riyadh featuring the cream of the Arab pop world, including Egypt's Amr Diab and the UAE's Ahlam.

15. French President Emmanuel Macron meets Fairouz

Fairouz shared this photo of herself and Emmanuel Macron on her official Twitter account.
Fairouz shared this photo of herself and Emmanuel Macron on her official Twitter account.

The much-loved and enigmatic Lebanese singer Fairouz made a rare public appearance on August 31, hosting French president Emmanuel Macron in her home on the outskirts of Beirut.

Macron bestowed on Fairouz, 84, the Legion of Honour, France's highest order of merit for military and civil merits.

"I told her everything that she represented to me, of a Lebanon that we love and that many are expectant of, a nostalgia that many have," he said of the meeting.

16. Mika's ode to Lebanon is unforgettable

Mika has often spoken about his affection for Beirut, but he has never expressed it so clearly as in this entertaining and affecting online concert dedicated to his native Lebanon.

Blending performance with documentary-style images of Beirut's extensive destruction in the wake of the port explosion, as well as interviews with survivors, September's I Love Beirut concert remains a stirring tribute to a resilient city picking itself up from the wreckage.

“My irrepressible Beirut. Your flame has never been extinguished, it flickers on,” Mika said in the concert opening. “You witnessed my birth under the falling bombs in 1983 but I have never forgotten that I was also born of your grandeur. My beautiful Beirut, you are not alone.”

17. Mohamed Ramadan’s face in New York City lights

Mohamed Ramadan's new single was promoted in Spotify's billboard in New York. Courtesy Spotify
Mohamed Ramadan's new single was promoted in Spotify's billboard in New York. Courtesy Spotify

The Arab music scene notched another international moment on September 8 when Egyptian actor and pop star Mohamed Ramadan had his face projected on Spotify's billboard in New York City's Times Square.

The moment coincided with the Dubai launch of his single Ya Habibi, the video for which was also shot in the emirate.

Ramadan is the second Arab music artist to appear on the display, following fellow Egyptian singer Amr Diab’s appearance in November last year.

18. Kimaera makes Majida El Roumi see red with black metal cover of Lebanese pop music classic

When heavy metal group Kimaera released their thunderous version of Beirut Set El Donya, they got more than they bargained for.

As well as ecstatic reviews from the region's metal community, the group got a stern letter from El Roumi's management stating her intention to file a copyright claim against the group for what she alleges is an unofficial use of the song.

While legal discussions continue to take place between both parties, El Roumi's intervention only served to highlight one of the most interesting and innovative cover songs to come from the region. "The video doubled its number of views within two days of what happened," keyboardist Charbel Abboud told The National in November. "I think the more people see it, they will understand our artistic intentions."

19. Israeli musicians perform special concert at Dubai Opera

On December 8, a landmark concert take place at Dubai Opera.

Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli flew into the UAE to perform a private concert alongside a number of Israeli musicians.

Dubbed A Celebration of Peace, the gala event was held in honour of the UAE and Israel's formal ties as part of the Abraham Accords. In attendance were a group of UAE dignitaries and Israeli officials, including the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who documented the show on social media.

20. Giving 2020 the big Kiss-off

The UAE is gearing up to end this challenging year on a bright and explosive note with a Kiss concert in Dubai on New Year's Eve. The rock behemoths will perform on the grounds of Atlantis, The Palm, in front of a limited live audience.

Most fans will catch the mammoth gig on the small screen, with the concert being streamed live. Kiss will arrive in Dubai with 400 crew and the show will feature attempts to break the world record for the "largest-ever pyro display".

Speaking to The National, bassist Gene Simmons said the show will aim to turbocharge us into what will hopefully be a better year.

"Forget about 2020, it's been a pain in the butt,” he said. “2021 is going to be a much better time for planet Earth, for everybody.” Let’s hope he is right.


Read more:

Lights, camera, no action: how the pandemic brought film industry to its knees

Covid Conversations: UAE artists explore emotions ignited by pandemic in new show

12 celebrity biopics coming in 2021: from Pamela Anderson and Elvis Presley to Whitney Houston and Madonna