From Mohammed Assaf to Mashrou’ Leila: 10 Arabic pop songs that defined the decade

The most influential political, emotional and spiritual Arabic songs of the last 10 years

Mohammed Assaf will perform an online gig for the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation. Courtesy Mawazine Festival
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There were some interesting and, in some cases, surprising developments in Arabic pop music this decade. Emirati singer Hussain Al Jassmi scored the biggest hit of his career with a song that was basically a public service announcement, Palestine's Mohammed Assaf won Arab Idol and subsequently our hearts, Lebanon's Mashrou' Leila became one of the Arab world's most important bands and nasheed music went mainstream. Here's our pick of the 10 songs that helped shape an era.

1. 'Ya Nabi Salam Alayka' by Maher Zain (2011)

It's a track that took the burgeoning nasheed music industry global. Where previously – with the exception of works by the UK's Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens) and South Africa's Zain Bikha – Islamic spiritual music was viewed as niche, Zain made it mainstream with this anthem. Beautifully produced with lyrics praising the Prophet Mohammed, the song crossed over as it managed to successfully marry traditional instrumentation with Zain's pop vocals. The track is now a Ramadan staple, played during the Holy Month across the globe, with the tireless Zain recording versions in English, Arabic and Turkish.

2. 'Izzay' by Mohamed Mounir (2011)

With the uprising in Egypt inflaming all sectors of society in 2011, many Egyptian pop stars took a back seat and refrained from providing commentary on the unfolding situation. However, Mohamed "El King" Mounir waded in with the powerful Izzay, meaning How Come. Mounir followed the popular template of protest songs with lyrics built upon a series of rhetorical questions. Over sharp rock riffs, he compares his Egypt to a quarrelling lover. He asks: "How can you agree with this my love? / I adore your name while you increase my confusion / You cannot feel my kindness, how come?" Then in the song's finest moment, he finds the resolve and declares: "By my life I will keep changing you 'til you bless me!" Mounir rarely plays the song live, yet it remains viewed as one of the most significant releases in modern Egyptian pop.

3. 'C'est la vie' by Cheb Khaled (2012)

The singer remains the Arab world's only real international star. While Egyptian ­crooner Amr Diab and Lebanese singer Najwa Karam may sell more records, they operate solely within the region and their global recognition is often limited to the diaspora. This is not the case for Khaled. The Algerian Rai singer is known across Europe, thanks to a sound that often blends traditional North African folk with the blues and rock. This was until C'est la vie was released and showed that Khaled's dramatic vocals could also work in the clubs. Sung in Algerian Arabic and French, C'est la vie is joyous and life affirming. Not only has it topped the charts from France to the Czech Republic, it went on to become a favourite in football stadiums across Europe and got a salsa makeover in 2013, when Marc Anthony covered the track.

4. 'Lil Watan' by Mashrou’ Leila (2013)

The measure of a great song is not only that it has to be timeless, but that it has the ability to comment on the present situation. Such is the case with Lil Watan by Mashrou' Leila. Six years after its release, the electro-pop track has lost none of its potency and has recently been played on the streets of Lebanon during the protests that have gripped the nation. It's not hard to understand why the song became an anthem. Its sound and lyrics encapsulate the exuberance of the young people who have taken to demonstrating. "They told you 'enough preaching, come dance with me for a while'," frontman Hamed Sinno sings. "Why are you frowning? Come dance with me a while."

5. 'Ali al-kuffiyeh' by Mohammed Assaf (2013)

It remains one of the great moments of Arabic TV. Fresh from being declared winner of the 2013 season of Arab Idol, singer ­Mohammed Assaf from Palestine concluded his dream, which played out on the talent show, by performing a blistering version of this Palestinian folk classic. Translated to Raise the kuffiyah, the song is a thumping ode to the Palestinian traditional scarf, which has become a symbol of the struggle against Israeli occupation. Performed in a Beirut studio, the song was beamed live to cities across Palestine where thousands of people danced along in the street to celebrate the country's newest cultural icon. While Assaf went on to score original hits of his own, his version of Ali al-kuffiyeh remains his signature anthem and testament to how resilience can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.

6. 'Boshret Kheir' by Hussain Al Jassmi (2014)

The Emirati pop star may have released the track as a fun public announcement, but Boshret Kheir went on to become the biggest hit of his career. Released before the Egyptian election in 2014, this fun and giddy track was composed as a rallying cry for Egyptians to vote. Backed by a video that was shot in eight different provinces, which went viral, the song's appeal spread across the region with versions sang in the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian dialects. Al Jassmi went on to perform Boshret Kheir in Moscow after receiving the gong for Most Popular Artist from the Middle East and North Africa at the 2016 Bravo Awards – essentially the Russian Grammys.

7. 'Lm3allem' by Saad Lamjarred (2016)

A breath of fresh air that proves Arabic pop can be adventurous when artists have the will. Everything about Lm3allem, from its sonic to visual presentation, is brilliant. It is built upon a first-rate stuttering beat and a stalking, icy synth riff that sounds exciting and futuristic. Lamjarred's assertive vocals are also a far cry from the mindless histrionics of his peers, being deep, powerful and joyful. Complemented by a slick video that resembles images from a Hassan Hajjaj artwork, the track amassed more than 780 million views on YouTube.

8. “3 Daqat” by Abu ft. Yousra (2017)

This summer hit was a collaboration between rising star Abu and acclaimed actress Yousra, both from Egypt. The song was an instant hit, trending with more than 125 million views on YouTube in the first three months of its release. Launched at the first El Gouna Film Festival, the music video featured a number of Arab celebrities, including Nabeel Eisa, Sherine Reda, Jamila Adel Awad and Eygptian actor Ahmed Malek.

9. 'Majbour' by Nassif Zeytoun (2017)

Despite scoring plenty of hits, Nassif Zeytoun has yet to reach the superstar status his talent deserves. Then again, the Syrian singer has always been concerned with longevity as opposed to being a flash in the pan. He has well and truly achieved that with Majbour. Not only is it a haunting ballad in its own right, but it also serves as the opening theme to hit Ramadan crime drama Al Hayba. With the series set to return for its fourth season next year, expect to hear this song once again to be played in coffee shops across the region.

10. 'Ila Kol Elli Bihebbouni' by Elissa (2018)

A major part of Elissa's appeal is the distance she keeps from her fans. While her songs can be soulful, there has always been a lingering sense that Elissa keeps her innermost thoughts to herself. With Ila Kol Elli Bihebbouni, the Lebanese artist lets us in, so to speak. The song is essentially a love letter to fans for staying the course over the years and not abandoning her "even for a second". Elissa sang about her breast cancer diagnosis, and the song's accompanying music video showed the difficult journey she went through. This track was a touching gesture, and fans responded by sending it to the top of the charts.


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