Where is the new generation of Arab pop stars?

Lebanese singer Assi El Hallani says the new crop of music talent have their own set of career challenges

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The Arab pop music industry follows its own beat.

While the US and UK scene is known for its rapid elevation – and fall – of stars, the regional landscape takes a more leisurely approach.

In fact, some might say it is downright impossible for new singers to emerge from the Arab world, despite the expanding array of television talent shows and social media platforms at their disposal.

With the exception of a few standouts, the last two decades saw the same group of artists – such as Lebanon’s Najwa Karam, Assi El Hallani  and Nancy Ajram, Egypt’s Amr Diab and Tamer Hosny and the UAE’s very own Hussain Al Jassmi – dominate the industry and only getting bigger with time.

It is enough for any aspiring singer to ditch his microphone in despair, but the aforementioned El Hallani urges them to keep going.

Speaking from Morocco's Mawazine Festival, hours before performing his latest single – the Lebanese folk-pop of Ed Haki – in front of a 20,000 strong crowd in Rabat on June 22, El Hallani says an Arab pop-star is born from context as much as talent.

“Politics plays a role in creating music stars,” he says.

“If you look at what happened in the Arab world over the years, every country that went through challenges gave birth to more stars than those lands that were stable.”

El Hallani points to his own career as an example, which began with his 1991 debut album Mahlana Sawa.

He cites the Lebanese civil war, which ranged from 1975 to 1990, as playing a key role in not only elevating his career, but the likes of his heroes such as the songstress Fairuz.

“During the civil war, you had people like Fairuz singing songs that were nationalistic and revolutionary. These songs rallied the people because we were living in difficult times,” he says.

“That extended to artist like me, who grew up during the civil war but whose career started relatively after it. We were singing songs that appealed to the Lebanese diaspora who fled are living everywhere now. There is an emotional attachment that they have to our songs.”

El Hallani says that same principle applies to Palestine’s Mohammed Assaf (who performs at the Mawazine Festival on June 24) and Syria’s Nassif Zeytoun, both artists who grew out of troubled conditions to become stars with a global fan base.

And Iraq is next. Just like Kadim Al Sahir whose career emerged from the midst of the Iraq and Iran war to become a super-star, El Hallani expects a new generation of talent to develop from the country in the years to come.

However, El Hallani points to a lack of patience exhibited by the new breed of Arab singers. No amount of social media campaigns will replace refining your craft, he says.

“Listen, stardom takes time. Anyone can be a singer, but to reach to that higher level needs a lot of work. When you work hard on yourself you realise your capabilities as a singer and then you make better choices,” he states.

“At present there are too many songs that are sounding the same and that comes from singers not knowing what kind of style works for them. You need to develop your own style and that takes time. For example, it took years for people like myself and people like Ragheb Alama and Nancy Ajram to find that. We all worked hard before we reached stardom to define ourselves as artists.”

El Hallani's insights not only make him a popular and winning mentor in the Arabic version of the television talent quest The Voice, but also the ideal example for his daughter and son, Maritta and Al Walid Hallani to follow.

Both are emerging singers; the former is already on her way with last year's release of debut album, Maritta, while Al Walid dropped his debut single Am Yas'alou in March.

“Because he is my son, there could be some natural aspects that he took for my voice, but over the future you will see Al Walid release songs that are truly his own,” he says. “It is too early to judge him based on one song, but what I can tell you is that we have been working really hard on picking the right songs for him to do. Not only will they be different from me but also from what is happening in the Arabic music scene today. It all needs some time and patience.”