A Pocket Guide to Some of the Legends of Arabic Pop Music

Fairouz c/o Mahmoud Alkhawaja via Behance.net
Fairouz c/o Mahmoud Alkhawaja via Behance.net

“I think we’re about ready for a new feeling to enter music,” declared Brian Eno back in 2005 interview, “[and] I think that will come from the Arabic world.” He predicted that the influence of Arabic music would parallel how “the blues completely suffused the music of the early 1960s, woke it up and got it out of Cliff Richard… and made it kind of dirtier and rougher and more lively and sexy.” It’s been ten years since Eno gave that interview, but most people in the United States have still not added Amr Diab to their playlists. Or Samira Said. Or Sherine. Or any of the other superstars of Arabic music who sell millions upon millions of records each year.

This handy list of 15 legends of Arabic pop music is here to change that and get you started. The next time that you roll up to a party, you’ll be blasting “Gamalo” after “Bitch Better Have My Money.”

Oum Kalthoum — Egypt

Widely regarded as hands down the greatest Arabic singer of the twentieth century (and some say of all time), Oum Kalthoum had a contralto vocal range and a powerful, exquisite voice. In the 1940s and 1950s, when Kalthoum was at the peak of her vocal abilities, Arabic singers and musicians would improvise their songs for a live audience, which meant that songs could vary in length from 20 to, say, 90 minutes or more, depending on both the audience’s requests and energy and the singer’s improvisations in response. The back-and-forth between the singer, the musicians, and the audience was said to bring audiences into a state of musical ecstasy called “tarab”—which Kalthoum did with virtuosity, having honed her improv skills to perfection over her five-decade career.

After her death in 1975, Kalthoum continued to influence generations of Arab world musicians and artists (as well as Westerners like Bob Dylan, Salvador Dalí, Nico, Bono, and Led Zepplin), and her records still sell about a million copies per year.