Ten times Arab musicians teamed up with international stars, from Nancy Ajram to Elissa

Remember the time British pop star Sting sang with Algerian rai singer Cheb Mami on 'Desert Rose'?

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Nancy Ajram has just released her anticipated single Sah Sah.

The track, a collaboration with US DJ and EDM star Marshmello, came out on Friday, but a teaser for the music video was released on Wednesday.

While we can't analyse much based on the 15-second clip it sounds like another fusion of Arabic melodies and bass-heavy dance beats with a signature riff played on the qanoon.

Despite Ajram’s enduring success and stature, however, it remains to be seen if Sah Sah will be a hit — Arab singers, the superstars and those lesser-known, have had mixed luck when it comes to working with international artists, proving even melodies can get lost in translation.

As we wait to see how Sah Sah fares, here are nine other tracks released over the past two decades as part of an Arab-international artist collaboration that were either hits or flops.

1. 'Desert Rose' by Sting and Cheb Mami (1999)

Arguably the best collaboration between an Arabic and western artist.

Desert Rose by British pop star Sting and Algerian rai singer Cheb Mami began out of mutual respect, according to separate interviews The National conducted with both artists.

“I met with Cheb Mami and I told him: ‘Look, I have a song I would like you to perform on,’ but I didn’t tell him what it was about,” Sting recalled in 2016.

“Now, he didn’t speak English and my Arabic is non-existent, but he listened and wrote down some lyrics and came back two weeks later and said: ‘I have something for you.’

“He then sang it and I loved it and I asked him: ‘What are you singing about?’ and he said: ‘I am singing about longing.' I said: ‘Well, that’s remarkable because that’s exactly what I am singing about in English.’”

In a 2013 interview, Mami said the key to Desert Rose's success was down to it being a meeting of equals.

"He made me feel welcome and that I was part of this project.

"For me, Desert Rose felt like a real duet. We worked closely together in the studio and that chemistry I think came through and many people responded."

Stunning, mournful and ethereal, Desert Rose became a world-famous hit.

The single topped numerous charts and the duo performed the track at both the Grammy Awards and the Super Bowl.

2. 'Baddy Doub' by Elissa and Gerrard Ferrer (1999)

Now, this is also how you do it.

Elissa demonstrates the key to successful Arab-western collaborations is to have a clear idea of how the song should sound and how the international guest artist can comfortably fit in the mix.

Baddy Doub fuses pristine Levant pop melodies with flamenco guitar fluttering and vocals of French singer Gerrard Ferrer.

It all sounds natural and genuine and was deservedly a hit across the Mena region.

3. ‘Habibi Dah’ (Nari Narain) by Hisham Abbas and Jayashri Ramnath (2001)

A forgotten classic by Egyptian singer Hisham Abbas and Jayashri Ramnath, popularly known as Bombay Jayashri.

This Arabic-Hindi tune is the kind of carefree pop rarely heard in today's calculated Arab pop music scene.

Abbas goes all in here with spirited and pitch-perfect notes, appealing to both Arabic and Bollywood lovers.

Jayashri also chips in with a lovely vocal performance in the third verse.

With a lush video shot in India featuring actress Riva Bubber, the song was an instant hit in Egypt.

4. 'Leila' by Hakim and James Brown (2004)

Even with James Brown's career dwindling at that point, the fact Egyptian singer Hakim managed to get the godfather of soul on his song remains a massive coup.

Fortunately, Hakim played to Brown's strengths with Leila, an exuberant funk workout full of explosive horns and heaving bass lines.

Hakim is also respectful of the funk music tradition and keeps his vocals light and rhythmic and, in turn, does an impressive job of vocally going toe-to-toe with one of the greatest singers of all times.

5. 'Yalli Naseeni' by Melissa and Akon (2009)

The only conceivable reason why Akon agreed to jump on this dodgy track with Lebanese singer Melissa is the mistaken belief his hit-making streak, at the time, would overcome the paucity of the material.

From the clunky beats and meandering oud to the uninspiring video, everything about Yalli Naseeni seems to have been done on the cheap. Please press skip.

6. ‘Smile’ by Tamer Hosny and Shaggy (2012)

In an interview with The National in 2017, Tamer Hosny pointed to his international collaborations as a way for western artists "to engage with our culture".

If that was the case, everybody seemed to have missed the memo on Smile.

Everything about this big-budget seven-minute video was designed to position Hosny as a possible international star.

It's a pity similar attention wasn’t paid to the song itself.

Smile is built upon stale dance beats and Hosny's vocals manipulated beyond recognition.

Shaggy was equally uninspiring with a stodgy mini-verse that barely made an impression.

An expensive flop, Hosny understandably hasn’t played the song live for nearly a decade.

7. ‘Tomorrow/Bokra’ featuring Quincy Jones and Sherine Abdel-Wahab, rearranged by Kadim Al Sahir (2011)

Only someone with the supreme clout of Quincy Jones can rally the likes of 24 Arab pop stars — including Kadim Al Sahir, Tamer Hosny and Sherine Abdelwahab — and US-Senegalese singer Akon to all collaborate on one epic track.

What also helped was that Tomorrow/Bokra was a charity single with proceeds going to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The fact it works is down to the genuine songwriting collaboration at its core.

Tomorrow is lifted from Jones's 2006 RnB track Tomorrow (A Better You, Better Me) with Al Sahir contributing more regional melodies and Lebanese songstress Majida El Roumi providing the Arab lyrics.

8. ‘Don't You Need Somebody’ by RedOne, featuring Aseel, Enrique Iglesias and Shaggy (2016)

Grammy Award-winning Moroccan-Swedish producer and singer RedOne, real name Nadir Khayat, has that rare knack for creating anthems with global appeal.

Don't You Need Somebody is a case in point, a euphoric summer anthem seamlessly blending ebullient dance beats with tuneful arrangements.

The main verse, provided by Saudi singer Aseel Omran, shows how Arab melodies can seamlessly blend with western pop sounds.

The track remains one of the rare reference points on how to pull off these kinds of collaborations effectively.

9. ‘Bayen Habeit’ by Marshmello and Amr Diab (2018)

This is a case when the guest artist shows too much respect.

Perhaps Marshmello was overawed by Egyptian pop king Amr Diab's stature, as Bayen Habeit never really takes off.

Instead, we are subject to an ultra-bland mid-tempo dance beat and harmonica loop with Diab crooning on autopilot.

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Updated: July 08, 2022, 12:19 PM
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