Album review: Now: The Best of Indie Arabia is really Indie Arabia at its best

Making a sonic sweep from North Africa to the Gulf – taking in indie, folk, hip-hop and electronica – this compilation offers a fascinating snapshot of the Middle East's burgeoning indie music scene.

Jordanian band El Morabba3. Courtesy Universal Music Mena
Powered by automated translation

Now: The Best of Indie Arabia

Various artists

(Universal Music Mena)

Five stars

To expats of a certain age, the “Now..!” brand of music compilation albums are synonymous with the kind of plastic pop wheeled out at social gatherings in the days before iPods or YouTube.

Since 1983, the brand has shifted more than 100 million copies across five continents. Compiling the biggest hits of the day onto a party-ready double-disc set, the thrice-annual Now That's What I Call Music! series recently reached volume 95. Caught in a twisted time-warp, it was this album, on endless repeat, that formed the soundtrack to my New Year's Eve in Luxor, Egypt.

What the staff should have been playing that night was the Arab world's belated entry into the series – Now: The Best of Indie Arabia.

Infinitely cooler than any existing Now..! spin-off, the 17-track compilation shines a much-needed spotlight on the region’s spirited – but often stereotyped, underground scene.

It truly is a slice of "indie Arabia". Where other compilations – from the guitar-centric Beirut Wave One to the electronic Ma'ana: Sounds of Dubai series – have focused on western-sounding music that happened to have emerged from Middle East, Now Arabia sports a distinctly regional flavour. You hear it in Moroccan artist Fayçal Azizi's imploring Arabic vocal over the sharp, electro-vamp Hak A Mama.

It is also in the oud and string flourishes that pepper Lebanese singer Mike Massy's folky longing lament in Ya Zaman.

The vibe continues in Jordanian indie veterans Autostrad's epic, seven-minute groove workout Safar.

The track listing is decidedly “across the board”, taking in indie, folk, hip-hop and electronica on a journey through 11 countries – from North Africa to the Arabian Gulf. The only common thread in the 17 selections is the Arabic tongue.

Highest profile is Egyptian hip-hop duo Asfalt – with 960,000 Facebook fans and counting – who open the disc with summery singalong Ana Satreen.

The emerging underground, urban scene finds a voice in Saudi hip-hop pioneer Qusai's Kattiyour (featuring Hamza), and the slow, spacey electro groove of Abaad Shwaii from Jordan's El Morabba3 – both recently signed to major record label Universal.

New York City-based Tunisian chameleon Emel Mathlouthi – the highlight of last week's Wasla festival – is represented by the angsty, electro rage of Ma Lkit.

The UAE is represented by a patriotic duet between Dubai-based Jordanian fusionist Kamal Musallam and Emirati folk troupe Sokoor Al Magabeel in Wa Dana.

A stellar snapshot that only scratched the surface of the depth and breadth of a most misunderstood scene, Universal should be applauded for investing in sounds beyond the obvious. We are thrilled to report a second volume is already in the works.

* Rob Garratt