'Hadal Ahbek': How Jordanian teen Issam Alnajjar captured the attention of The Weeknd's manager

A remix of the musician's viral track was released on Spotify today

Forget standard pop charts and hot playlists, to really get the lowdown on who the next big music thing is, you need to dig deeper into streaming sites.

There you will find niche yet influential polls charting the most buzzing tracks online.

This includes Spotify's Global Viral 50, a chart measuring how songs are shared on the platform, blogs and social media.

In a two-week stretch beginning from mid-January, Jordanian teenager Issam Alnajjar ruled over that list with his song Hadal Ahbek.

Not only was the Arabic folk tune one of most streamed in similar country specific charts, including in the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and India, but the track was also one of the most-searched titles on music discovery app Shazzam, with 1.7 million hits. Elsewhere, its associated TikTok hashtag #hadal_ahbek came up with more than 300 million results.

A moment of inspiration

Such numbers capture the industry's attention. Now, he is the face of Universal Arabic Music, a fledgling boutique label co-launched by Wassim "Sal" Slaiby, the Lebanese-Canadian record executive and manager of superstar The Weeknd.

Next up is a bilingual remix of the hit track, now called Turning Me Up (Hadal Ahbek), which was released today on Spotify.

As part of the platform’s emerging artist initiative, Radar, the new version carries a distinctly Canadian flavour with a guest verse provided from Ontario artists: the Iraqi singer Ali Gatie and DJ duo Loud Luxury.

“What can I say, man?” says Alnajjar, genuinely stumped by his new circumstances.

"A few months ago I was just that really ordinary teenager happy to sing covers songs by people like Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes," he tells The National from his home in Amman. "To have one song just change your life like that is just unbelievable."

That incredulity stems from the low-key manner in which the song was composed.

With Jordan battling its first wave of Covid-19 in March 2020, a period necessitating the first of a number of social restrictions put in place to help curb the spread of the virus, Alnajjar came up with the key hook and opening lines during a video chat with a friend.

“I was on a FaceTime call and she had her head on the pillow,” he recalls.

“So that’s how the first lyric came, which is ‘put your head on the pillow’. We thought it was a powerful beginning because it was so simple.

“Then the melody just came to me and the song took only like an hour to finish.”

That Arabic touch

This was the first time Alnajjar had written a song in Arabic.

Less than a year into his career at the time, he only had three songs on YouTube: the bluesy original One of a Kind and breezy covers of Nat King Cole's L.O.V.E and Alec Benjamin's Let Me Down Slowly.

His small but dedicated following at the time were keen to hear an Arabic tune by him, so Alnajjar decided to try his luck.

He didn’t wait too long for the feedback.

“I posted the song not long after and people went crazy over it,” he says. “Six months later I won this competition to record the song for free and shoot a music video here in Jordan and we worked on this song.

“It is unbelievable how it turned out. All of it was me being in the right place at the right time.”

And the fact that Hadal Ahbek is a sublime piece in the pop folk genre helps, too. Built on an elegant arrangement reminiscent of singers such as Ed Sheeran or Jason Mraz, the song exudes a gentle melancholy and nostalgia.

With a mixture of candour and conviction, Alnajjar’s lyrics directly address a distressed loved one.

“I will always be with you,” he croons. “Even if everyone is against you I'll keep loving you.”

The best part of all is the ingeniously simple scatting chorus ("Ra-pa-pa-pa-ra-pa-ra-pa"), which makes it hummable from Amman to Amsterdam.

Bringing light amid the gloom

Alnajjar says the song is an ode to friendship, hence why it resonated with people so far and wide.

"What I am saying in the song is 'just rest and everything will be OK and I will always be by your side'," he says.

"Because of the pandemic, we all feel a little bit down and the song is there to give us, let’s say, some kind of hope and good vibes."

And those vibes reached the ears of one of the pop music industry’s most powerful personalities. Enamoured by the tune, and perhaps even stunned that a little-known teenager could out-stream The Weeknd on the Global Viral 50, Slaiby reached out to Alnajjar through Instagram.

Now, as one of the lead artists on his new label, Alnajjar is living the dream.

“I wake up, take a shower and then I go straight to the studio from midday to 7pm,” he says.

“I honestly feel like I am part of an A-list team. Working with (Slaiby) is great because he tells me to stay focused on making music and that’s the only thing I should worry about.

“He cares a lot about my feelings, and gives me advice to make sure I am in the right mental place to make music.”

In addition to today's new song, Alnajjar says there is more music on the way, although he can’t reveal too much about the new tunes or collaborators – yet.

“I can only say that it will be good and different. I am working every day on it and when the time comes it will be a surprise.”