Abir's music tells the story of being an Arab woman in America today

The EP 'Heat' fuses RnB with Moroccan instrumentation

Abir's album 'Heat' was released in 2020. Courtesy Lara Khoury
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The blending of East and West in pop music is fraught territory.

For decades, artists from both worlds have attempted to fuse songs with what they view as a “club sound” or an “Arab feel”.

Some of the results can charitably be described as staid, such as Shakira's Arabian-style guitar riffs and chaotic percussion in 2001's Eyes Like Yours, while the less we say of Egyptian pop star Tamer Hosny's brief dalliance with hip-hop in 2013's Si Al Sayed the better.

One of the rare artists to get it right was producer Timbaland, when he deftly sampled Khosara Khosara for the 1999 Jay Z hit Big Pimpin', only to be rewarded with a copyright claim from the family of late Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi.

But Moroccan-American singer Abir (full name Abir Haronni) is more promising, and her style points a potential way forward when it comes to bridging the best of both worlds.

Her album, Heat, which was released last year, is a captivating melange of styles, with modern RnB tracks sung with Middle Eastern melodies and powered by sturdy North African instrumentation and percussion.

Mixing and matching

This all could have sounded like a mess.

But, as Abir tells The National, the secret to its sonic success is down to her and US producer Mick Schultz's decision to approach the music the other way around.

Moroccan-American singer Abir is challenging perceptions of the region with her work. Courtesy Lara Khoury
Moroccan-American singer Abir is challenging perceptions of the region with her work. Courtesy Lara Khoury

"A lot of times what happens is that an artist will try to replicate the Arabic sound with western instruments," Abir says. "What me and Mick did was the opposite. We used instruments from the region to replicate western instruments. So instead of a snare drum, we would use Moroccan percussion. So the whole process for us was like a puzzle in trying to find out which instruments fit, and that was a lot of fun."

That mix-and-match approach not only gives Heat a certain sense of exuberance, but also an otherworldly pop feel.

Songs such as Galleria and Yallah come with infectious, radio-ready hooks, and an ethereal quality, thanks to some of the off-kilter sounds provided by Moroccan instruments, the qarkabeb (castanets) and bendir, a wood-framed drum.

“The Arabic instruments and scale offers a singer so many new flavours,” she says.

"What is cool about it is that it evokes so many emotions like sadness and nostalgia. But what it really gives a song, from my perspective, is that sense of mystery; a cliff-hanger-like feel that you don't find in the usual pop song."

Sounds of home

That desire to keep listeners on their toes stems from Abir's own journey of self-discovery.

Born in the Moroccan city of Fez, Abir and her family immigrated to the US when she was six years old, where they settled in Arlington, Virginia.

There, Abir, 26, recalls a household teeming with the traditions of her homeland.

"My parents did the best they could to keep me constantly aware of where we came from and [made sure] that we understood our roots," she says. "So I grew up listening to Moroccan music, I know the food, and we would go back to visit during the summer whenever we could."

But even that approach couldn’t prevent the identity crisis that comes with the immigrant experience. There were some questions Abir needed to answer herself.

"When I was about 18 years old, I realised that it wasn't my parents' responsibility to teach me about my culture and there could be some aspects that they didn't know themselves," she says. "I realised it was really up to me to fully connect with who I am, to really do the research and understand where I come from."

Heat is the result of that life-long project.

It is a collection of songs that represent Morocco’s rich music scene, as well as provide an arresting snapshot of the Arab youth diaspora, which is vibrant, modern and dynamic.

A story to tell

Abir relishes the prospect of her music uncovering some outdated misconceptions surrounding the region, particularly around Arab women.

The lead single Inferno is a case in point. It is a slinky RnB number laced with Arab strings. The lyrics are the opposite of subject matter often heard in Arabic pop songs today.

"The songs talk about a woman in her element and acknowledging her choice to tell a guy: 'I am just not interested in you or being in a relationship,'" Abir explains.

“The song goes on to say that we can hang out and be cool or you may be playing with fire and you will get your feelings hurt. It is an empowering song and something we don't hear a lot discussed in the region or anywhere really."

Abir plans to continue to document the deep-dive into her heritage in future releases, and aims to eventually travel to Morocco and record songs with local musicians.

That may be a more arduous approach, but Abir says it's worth it.

"I can't be in this music business without being myself one hundred per cent. Why should I make music that doesn't necessarily paint an accurate portrait of who I am?

"I want people to learn about me and get that different perspective. Let me show you what it is to be an Arab woman in America who grew up in a Moroccan household. I have my own story to tell and I want to share it.”