Swedish-Arab hip-hop duo Ali Jammali and Ibrahim Namro go back to their roots

They tell us about their new outfit, Layali Project, and their hopes of breaking into the Arabic music scene.

Ibrahim Namro, left and Ali Jammali of Arabic language hip-hop group Layali Project. Courtesy Layali Project
Powered by automated translation

Ali Jammali and Ibrahim Namro are household names in Sweden. The former is one half of triple-platinum-selling hip-hop outfit, Medina, who were nominated for the MTV Europe Music Award for Best Swedish Act in 2012, the latter is a founder of hip-hop collective The Order, and has collaborated with big names, including Wu Tang Clan, Method Man & Redman and Shadia Mansour.

Sharjah-born Palestinian-Swede Namro and Tunisian-Swede Jammali are now returning to their roots and oping to break into the Middle Eastern market with their Project Layali collaboration, a modern fusion-style take on traditional Arabic music.

Their second single, Habeltouni (You Drive Me Crazy), has just been released on digital platforms across the region through Universal Music Middle East.

“We’ve known each other maybe 20 years, but this band is almost brand new,” says Namro. “We’d both been doing own things but had always wanted to make Arabic music, but the timing was just never right. Then we got a little bit older, were working in the same job helping kids out in the studio and just did one song – that was the start of everything.”

That track has not yet seen the light of day, but in 2016 the duo recorded the song Layali and things really started moving.

"When we did Layali, that was when things really started," says Namro. "I was dancing in the studio – I never dance. Ali does as he's done a lot of really positive happy music but I never dance in the studio. That's when I knew we were onto something."

The band's Dubai- based manager, Wissam Khodur, took the tracks to Universal in the city, and it wasn't long before Layali was released as the band's first single.

So what motivated a pair of successful Swedish-Arab hip-hop artists to choose a more traditional Arabic form of music?

“I’ve always been inspired by Arabic and North African rhythms – it’s from where my dad comes from,” says Jammali. “I used to spend summers in Tunisia and I just loved the vibe at parties.

“My other group had influences from the Arabic world but we never sang in Arabic because my Arabic just isn’t that good. Then when we started talking about this, it turned out Ibrahim is really good at writing in Arabic so we figured if I produce and you write this might just take off, and it did. It sounded great.”

Although the pair relished a return to their musical heritage, it is clear on listening to Habeltouni that this is no nostalgia project. The Arabic influences are clearly there, but this is most definitely music for the modern age.

“It’s a fusion with dance hall, rap – all sorts,” says Jammali. “Ibrahim calls it Arabic club music. I can go with that description, though there’s Arabic Club music out there already – but not like this.”

The lyrics, too, are a departure from tradition, says Jammali. There is a section of Habeltouni in the Tunisian dialect – and Namro says there is more to come.

“In the past it was all Lebanese and Egyptian in music – now Moroccan’s getting really popular and we just wanted to mix all that, bring in Palestinian, Tunisian, everything,” he says.

“With the music, too, we don’t write in the traditional Arabic, where there’s a lot of repetition, like poetry. We try to write every line in the song as a new line. I love that traditional style and have a lot of respect for it, and we had a lot of discussions about this, but we figured we wanted to do something new.”

They are seeking to break into the Middle East at an interesting time for the industry and it is worth noting that, despite the big-label connection, their single was released digitally rather than on traditional physical platforms. The pair seem certain of where the future lies.

“The biggest thing out there is YouTube – that’s by far the biggest music player in the Middle East,” says Jammali. “We’re very supportive of [regional streaming service] Anghami and the streaming industry over there. It changed the face of the industry in Europe at a time when it was in the doldrums, then Spotify came in and it picked up again. Hopefully there can be a similar thing in the Middle East.”

So what next for Layali Project? Can we expect to see Namro return to his UAE birthplace for a live show soon?

“We’re working towards live shows but we’re still a new group trying to break into the Arabic market,” he says.

“Rather than coming and doing a small gig we’d rather put the songs out and build up a following then come and do something bigger. We’ve got a lot of new music lined up already. We took a lot of time between releasing the first single and the second because we realised we wanted to wait until we had a lot of quality material ready before the next release to really push out.

“We’ve got an EP done, but sometimes I think the smartest thing is to put out singles, so I think that’s what we’ll do now. If it turns out people want to hear an album, of course we’ll do an album.

“But in whatever form, there’s a lot of new stuff to come real soon.”

� cnewbould@ thenational.ae