Bahjat on why the Libyan dialect could be the next big thing in Arab pop music

His latest single 'Halba' leads the influential regional Spotify playlist Arab X

Bahjat Alturjman is bringing the Libyan dialect to the fore. Coutesy: Bahjat
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Western pop goes through cycles, and music from the Arab world is no different.

Where the former incorporates emerging styles such as EDM, hip-hop and reggaeton, modern Arab pop music also tries to adapt and expand by looking around the region for the next big thing.

Nearly a decade ago, the Moroccan song was in vogue, with many leading pop-stars singing in the dialect and adopting the country's sturdy rhythms – including Emirati singer Hussain Al Jassmi and Syrian singer Assala.

Then the attention turned towards the Gulf, with the Khaleeji pop style reigning supreme from around 2015, until the most recent takeover in about 2018. Since then it has been all about the mountainous melodies of the Iraqi folk song and the Egyptian electro lashings of Mahraganat.

But with the arrival and ascendancy of promising singer-songwriter Bahjat, we could be seeing a new regional flavour coming to the fore.

Libyan, with a Swedish twist.

For the last seven years, the 24-year-old Libyan has built an intriguing body of immaculately constructed pop songs, including last year's impressive Istanbul (which has had more than five million streams).

His latest track Halba, which in the Libyan dialect means Too Much, is his best song yet and is set to make a real impression in the Arab world, but also beyond.

Released on Thursday, April 2, it was immediately placed in Spotify’s influential regional playlist Arab X – a guaranteed way to spread the word about the talented independent artist.

It's not hard to see why it got the prestigious slot, as Halba is a wonderfully breezy synth-pop tune composed by a steady hand.

From fleeing Libya to learning under Max Martin

After his family fled Libya in 2011, Bahjat (full name Bahjat Alturjman) spent six years in Malta where he went to high school and composed his own songs.

It was the quality of these home recordings that nabbed him a place in Sweden’s prestigious pop music academy Musikmakarna in 2017.

Among the intensive song-writing and production classes, he also received rare one-on-one instruction by none other than super music producer Max Martin (who's worked with The Weeknd, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry).

That tuneful Swedish know-how is all over Halba, which offers much needed escapist fun in these times of isolation.

"When it comes to me releasing a song, it's not really dictated by anything other than what I am feeling," he tells The National from his now permanent residence in Stockholm.

“Even in today’s times we need to have that summer feeling. And if we can’t go outside, then maybe I can bring that feeling to you at home through your headphones. Hopefully people will live with this song for a while and then in a few months, when we are really in summer and we can finally go out again, then it will really take off.”

The exciting aspect of the release is that it has the potential to travel much further than the region.

If it does, it will be a welcome development, as Arab pop artists have an abysmal record when it comes to creating crossover success.

Attempts to sonically marry east and west has resulted in plenty of dire offerings over the years by some of the region's biggest stars: examples include 2013's clubby but tepid Weynak Habibi by Lebanon's Assi Helani and Egyptian singer Tamer Hosny's 2015 auto-tuned howler, Smile – a three minute aural punishment compounded further by a guest verse from Jamaican singer Shaggy.

Bahjat could be one of the first regional artists to crack that long elusive code.

Halba is a song well and truly constructed in the western pop format. The vocals are devoid of any unnecessary histrionics and remain sharp and focused, while the song is built on a sea of layered synths and bubbling beats that smoothly gain momentum until arriving at a dynamic sun-kissed chorus.

The Libyan dialect, both strident and elastic, is pop music gold

The fact that Halba's Arab roots are subtle is precisely why it works. Unlike Smile, the Arabic melodies don't land on the track like a lead balloon.

Instead, they are deftly weaved in through the spiralling electro keyboard riffs of the chorus that echo Mahraganat music.

Bahjat’s word play is also perfectly pitched: with the track switching between English and Arabic throughout, the words chosen are spot on and never jar.

And this brings us to what could be Halba's biggest revelation, which is just how good the Libyan dialect sounds in pop music form. It is both strident and elastic. It can be elongated to stretch out a note or clipped to sharp staccato to provide an extra surge of rhythm.

Bahjat thinks the dialect has the potential to gain traction across the region, as it offers a singer a variety options.

“One example is the word ‘and’. Now in standard Arabic, it is normally pronounced as ‘wa’, while in our language you pronounce as ‘oooo.’ Now as a pop music songwriter, I can do a lot with that word. It is very handy,” he says. “But the thing is, I eventually learned this in my journey as a songwriter. The real reason why I sing in this style of Arabic is because this all I know.”

We are all connected now. When I look at who is listening to me online, the first country I see is America with 150,000 listeners. Music is now global

And there is nothing wrong with that. Bahjat says people now are more open than ever to experiencing new cultures through music.

“I just feel we are all connected now. When I look at who is listening to me online and the first country I see is America with 150,000 listeners, it makes me realise how music is now global,” he says.

“This makes me want to be attached to my culture and promote it even more. This is already happening anyway with people like [Colombian reggaeton singer] Maluma and [K-pop band] BTS showcasing their country to the world. It makes me realise that I can also crossover and show my Arab culture to the world. This excites me and gives me even more confidence as I continue in my career.”