Mohammed Assaf: I want new generation to rediscover the legends of Arabic music

The Palestinian singer and Arab Idol winner honours the classic Egyptian crooner Abdul Halim Hafez in his new album

Mohammed Assaf performs as part of Mawazine festival in Rabat, Morocco on June 24, 2019. Courtesy Mawazine festival.
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Sometimes it's necessary to take a step back to progress. That is the rationale behind Mohammed Assaf's latest project. Before his recent performance at Mawazine Festival in Morocco, he reveals he is working on a covers album that will be dedicated to Egyptian crooner Abdul Halim Hafiz, who died in 1977.

"What I can say is that I have already started this project, which is to renew these songs for a new generation," he explains. "That said, we are still in the early stages. We are communicating with his estate about doing these songs."

Recording covers may seem like an unexpected career choice for the popular Palestinian singer and former Arab Idol winner. His previous album, Ma Wahashnak, was an entirely modern affair, with its rai-pop single Rani and a collaboration with Cuban reggaeton duo Gente De Zona for Baddek Enayah. But if you have followed Assaf's career, you will know he is a restless spirit. Right now, he is riding high in the regional charts with Makanak Khaly, his latest single, an Iraqi pop tune in which he also sings in the Iraqi dialect. Before that, he recorded the effervescent Aywa Haghani, which found him taking on the Egyptian breezy pop style made famous by artists such as veteran singer Mohamed Mounir.

In a way, this diversity all stems from his days battling it out each week during the live episodes of Arab Idol in 2014. With TV viewers often a fickle audience, Assaf says the talent show instilled in him a zeal to keep trying new things when it came to his music.

"And if we are really serious about it, that is also the mark of a real artist," he says. "From the beginning, I wanted to be known by the diversity of my style. And with all due respect to my colleagues, at the moment, there aren't many people trying as many different things as I am."

But he says he is careful about how he experiments with his songs and is wary of being considered a novelty act. When it comes to Makanak Khaly, Assaf says he wanted to pay tribute to the Iraqi folk music tradition, which is currently making huge waves in the Arabic music scene. 

"This style really is emotional and, as a singer, it really forces you to give it your all. You have to sing it with sincerity," he says. "Also, the lyrics discuss various things, such as love and the agony of separation. It is not only about rhythms; the melodies and lyrics need to work together."

It is for this reason that Assaf looked to the work of artists he admires as inspiration for his latest project. He says the success of Makanak Khaly can help revive a stagnating Arabic pop music industry.

"I am not going to lie to you, there is a problem in the scene at the moment and it's not the fault of the listeners; some of that responsibility lies on the shoulders of us artists ourselves," he says. "We can't simply say we are simply following the market and giving people what they want.

"I have always discussed the importance of good lyricism and composition and the need to really bring the art back to the music. And this is the reason I am increasingly adding more songs from the great classic Arab artists, such as Abdel Halim Hafez, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Umm Kulthum and Fayza Ahmed to my sets, because that is real art and that should be honoured."

Assif wants to pay homage to Hafez with a covers album. Not only will it help enrich the Palestinian as a singer, he says he hopes his popularity among younger music fans will inspire them to listen to songs by some of the region's past stars. "We need to make an effort to revive traditional Arabic music and in doing so we will then reach a stage where the lyrics we are singing about actually mean something," he says. "I am talking about a love that is real and not, I guess, what other songs today are describing it as."

I am talking about a love that is real and not, I guess, what other songs today are describing it as.

That may be his intention, but is Assaf perhaps being a little bit unfair to today's romantic song writers? After all, 50 years ago romance in the Arab world was a more traditional affair. How can we capture that vibe in the age of Twitter? "Love is not limited to a time and place," Assaf says.

"I mean, you only need to look at the fact that people who are not from that era are still singing Abdel Halim songs. These songs are there because love always endures."