Bedouin beats: How sheilat took the Saudi music scene by storm

With links to nabati poetry, the genre is both modern and rooted in tradition

Sheilat is musical genre which incorporates traditional poetry and dance, and is rooted in Saudi Arabia's Bedouin culture. Reuters
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Songs celebrating weddings, mass gatherings, camel races and tribal pride are going viral across the Arabian Gulf and making stars out of Saudi artists.

The genre in question is sheilat, a pulsating sound blending colloquial Saudi dialects and ornate Arabic poetry with folk melodies and electronic beats.

Such is the form's dynamism, it is now embraced across the Gulf and has become a favourite soundtrack for regional gamers.

The latter is underscored in the official anthem for Saudi festival Gamers8.

The festival runs until August 31 at Boulevard Riyadh City, and GG Geena blares out frequently at the site.

Performed by Saudi-Ecuadorian singer Mishaal and Jordanian artist Llunar and co-produced with Spotify, the Arabic-English dance pop track features an arresting chanting section straight out of the sheilat playbook.

The tune is one of the first times sheilat elements have been used in western pop compositions and Llunar hopes this is only the beginning.

"Sheilat gets you moving, and it is definitely a head-bopper," he tells The National.

"The music is rhythmic, in both the vocals and melodies. And I believe that similar to other genres, like Afrobeat and jazz, it can be fused with other kinds of music.

“This can be done from its percussion elements to the chanting. The music definitely has a lot to offer the world."

A history of poetry

Discussion surrounding sheilat is an old song.

While the genre enjoyed significant popularity nearly a decade ago with the arrival of streaming platforms in the Gulf, it has its roots in nabati poetry – an art form dating back to the Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula in the 16th century.

Deriving from the Arabic root word shaal, meaning to raise, sheilat is defined by its undulating melodies and vocal delivery.

In his 2000 Arabic book, translated to Nabati Poetry: The People’s Taste and the Authority of the Text, Saudi anthropologist Saad Al Abdullah Al Soyyan describes how Saudi nabati poets historically defined the characteristics of their work through its rhythms and metres, otherwise known as its “sheila”.

“Instead of classifying poems according to their themes, as we specialists do, the nabati poets classify poems according to the sheila …. that is, according to the melody with which the poem can be sung,” he said.

In modern terms sheila could also be described as the song’s hook, says Majd Alazem, vice president of product at Alfan Group, a UAE and Canadian talent agency representing more than a dozen Saudi sheilat artists.

"The origin of sheilat music essentially began as traditional poetry where words were the real focus and melodies were improvised on the spot," he tells The National.

"What happened over time is the younger generation updated these traditional sounds by using computers and music software, such as autotune, to sing the same kind of basic melodies but in a new modern way and with a faster tempo.”

Alazem recalls first hearing these souped-up versions on YouTube in 2014 as background scores for viral videos ranging from Saudi landscapes and cultural events to car drifting in the desert.

It was also a period when Liliana Abudalo, head of music for YouTube Music Mena was following the online activity with interest.

"It was definitely trending, but it was too early yet to see if it would actually become a genre," she says.

"The music was first being heard and spread through user-generated content and the music really began to evolve into a genre when the artists themselves started coming on to the platform."

The numbers speak for themselves.

Some of the top sheilat artists on YouTube, such as Saudi Arabia’s Ghareeb Al Mokhles and Abdullah Al Farwan have between them attracted more than 3.1 billion views.

Al Mokhles is also currently the highest ranking sheilat artist on the Saudi YouTube charts.

His 16th place is more impressive considering he is above global pop stars The Weeknd and Black Pink.

Helping to facilitate that transition from local favourites to bonafide Saudi pop stars is Al Fan Group, who moved quickly to sign sheilat artists from 2015.

The pitch to the artists was straightforward – they have sole creative control while the company ensures the music is presented and distributed in the most effective way.

“We spent a lot of time trying to find out who these artists were," Alazem says.

"We would cold call them and send emails. We travelled to Saudi Arabia and convinced them this music, in our vision, has a massive future and we wanted to optimise their work and distribute it everywhere.

“We also explained how we wanted to help introduce sheilat as a new genre from the Mena scene."

The sound of Bedouins

An artist who jumped on board with the company in 2020 was Nader Al Sharari, whose songs, including Allahu La Yawafiqhum (May God Not Make You Prosper) and Tamoun (I embrace your every deed with grace) amassed more than 450 million combined streams on YouTube and Spotify.

“I began like many of my peers as a singer of nasheed (Islamic devotional songs) and it was only after I finished university that I started to focus on sheilat,” he says.

“I remember I released first a motivational song, then a patriotic one and then a sad one.

“This shows you how diverse sheilat can be. It also doesn’t require a deep knowledge of music composition but more an understanding of choosing the right poems to perform and singing them the right way. Enunciation is key in singing sheilat songs.”

Born and raised in Qurayyat, a city located in Al Jawf province in northern Saudi Arabia, Al Sharari says sheilat’s popularity lies partly in its ability to connect Saudi youth with their heritage.

"We are Bedouins and this is really our music,” he says.

“These songs revolve around our heritage and different parts of the kingdom.

“From north to south, each region has their own sheilat songs that talk about their traditions.”

What made certain songs popular in the kingdom, like Al Sharari’s Allahu La Yawafiqhum, however, were the accessible lyrics.

“Many sheilat songs today do not have words or meanings strictly linked to a particular region of Saudi Arabia,” he says.

“This is because we artists want everyone to hear and understand what we are saying.”

From Saudi Arabia to the world

Listeners are already tuning in from beyond the kingdom and the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, according to Nada Elmeri, Spotify’s artist and label partnerships manager for the Gulf.

Ever since the music platform launched an official sheilat playlist in 2019, she says the genre has drawn a diverse audience.

Elmeri notes that among the top five territories listening to sheilat, two countries – Jordan and Egypt – are from outside the GCC.

Also propelling that growth are regional gamers, who view the music as the soundtrack of choice.

“Initially it surprised us how many gamers listen to this while they play,” she tells The National.

“Then again, if you think about it, then it makes sense.

“Sheilat songs can hype you up because of the rhythms and the positive lyrics.”

Such traction partly explained Spotify's move to infuse the aforementioned 2023 Gamers8 official GG Geena with sheilat elements.

“We also had the song appearing on the Spotify billboard in Times Square, New York, and included it on our major global gaming playlist as well," Elmeri says.

"This shows our belief that this music from our region can be exported abroad."

Majed Alrslani, another Al Fan Group artist and known for 2022 hit Adaaj Oyoun (more than 250 million streams on YouTube), is already fulfilling that promise.

From the northern Saudi Arabian town of Rahfa, he is one the few Saudi sheilat artists touring beyond the GCC, including a performance at Jordan's Jerash Festival and Istanbul in 2022.

“I also have shows planned for Bosnia and Erbil in Iraq in the upcoming months,” he says.

“The people love the music because it sounds joyful.

“While those who love poetry will appreciate the lyricism too. I have yet to perform a sheilat that people didn’t like.”

Updated: August 05, 2023, 10:06 AM