Ever since Mohammed Assaf won season two of Arab Idol last year, the Palestinian singer has been on the road playing sold-out shows across the Arab world, North and South America and most recently Australia.
After months of playing cover versions of Arab classics, Assaf can now step back on stage with his own batch of tunes. His debut album is arguably the region’s most anticipated release and no cost has been spared on the production as Assaf teamed up with leading Arab composers and lyricists.
The end result is a mixed bag – Assaf does a fine job in showcasing his singing charm through a heavy supply of romantic ballads. However, what’s sorely missing are the passionate Palestinian dabkas central to Assaf’s appeal. Here is the track-by-track verdict.
A classy opener cinematic strings set a ruminative tone. Assaf’s voice is smooth as he strolls an empty street reminiscing about a lost love. He has always said that his hero was the Egyptian classic crooner Abdel Halim Hafez – this lush number is a solid step in that direction.
Some beautiful melodies here courtesy of composer Mohamed Rahim. The low-key piano intro gives you the impression that a haggard Assaf is in a hotel piano bar late at night. The mandolins then march in as Assaf glides over that syncopated oriental beat with ease.
By now you begin to understand that Assaf is keen to showcase his lover-man credentials over those of a Palestinian folk singer. Jraah is another ballad whose plodding verse is saved by an unexpectedly rousing chorus – a good thing, as the energy was starting to taper at this point.
Assaf switches gears with this Lebanese folk song. Composed by the Lebanese star Melhem Barakat and the lyricist Nizar Francis, Shou Betkhabrouna is affectionate. However, the production, with its emphasis on synthesisers and keyboards, give the track a cheap feel.
Assaf and his label have high hopes for this potential single. It is easy to see why – the Egyptian pop tune has a catchy, repetitive chorus, with Assaf managing to sound uncannily like Mohamed Mounir.
Ward Al Assayel
This ballad has a welcome musical depth courtesy of the veteran Palestinian composer Yasser Omar. Ward Al Assayel's highlight is that middle section full of the dabka's trademark rhythmic percussion.
Min Alshabah Byekhlaa Arbeen
It is here where those digital drums, so apparent throughout the album, begin to grate. The lack of live percussion really saps the character from what could have been a solid tune.
Assaf's secret weapon during Arab Idol was his adept take on Khaleeji music. Ya Bnyaya is perhaps a thank-you to his GCC fans, with a Gulf song full of the region's pop elements, particularly those poetic romantic lyrics and driving beat. Assaf does a fine job with the Gulf accent.
Back to the crooner territory. Taah Neead has a rather swinging chorus that could garner some gentle hand-waving from a live audience. The lilting strings here almost give the song a waltz effect. It doesn't achieve the emotional closer status the album aims for, but it is a decent effort in what is largely a solid debut.
Assaf 360 (bonus track)
Created for the 2014 football World Cup, the song's creation and release received a lot of hype when the Grammy Award-winner Rodney Jerkins flew into Dubai from the United States to helm the production. The East-meets-West pop fusion of Assaf 360 certainly ticks off all the boxes required for a football anthem – however, the bland English lyrics in that huge chorus remain embarrassingly bad: "I'm on your side/ We will survive/ Yalla! Yalla!"
Ya Halali Ya Mali (Bonus Track)
Bittersweet. Ya Halali Ya Mali was the kick in the backside this album sorely needed. For a Palestinian artist, it is remarkable that Assaf didn't contain a few pounding dabkas. Ya Halali Ya Mali is a standout of that genre with its pounding beat and sky-high chorus. It's meant to be played loud and proud, it's just a pity it is a bonus add-on rather than being central to the album.
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