The playlist: the best Middle Eastern and North African music of 2014, with Noura Mint Seymali

From Saudi metal to Egyptian electro, here are some of the very best tracks of the last year from the Middle East and North Africa

Mauritania: Noura Mint Seymali – Tzenni

“Tzenni” is a Hassaniya Arabic word meaning to spin or turn. It is also the name of the rotating dance performed to the music played by Moorish griots across the desert region of Mauritania. And on top of that it is also the title of an excellent new album by a preternaturally talented singer called Noura Mint Seymali which came out via Glitterbeat in June. The title track ended up being on constant rotation for me all year probably because of its vigorous clash of temporally and spatially diverse influences. Noura may come from a very long family line of griot artists but she is patently also a modernising, transformative force in Mauritanian music. It is audibly fair to say that she’s probably a fan of some Western pop and rock – as long as she can use those influences on her own terms.

Egypt: Electro Chaabi spreads to the UK

Over in Egypt, Electro Chaabi continued to dominate social media and public spaces, with bangers like El Madfaagya’s Demagho W Hor Fiha flying out of El Salam City, Cairo and Alexandria on a weekly basis. But it was also thrilling to see how this culture started to chime with some music fans in the UK. The British Council’s Cairo Calling project teamed up such Egyptian MCs and producers as Sadat, Figo and Diesel with UK counterparts including Kode-9 and Artwork. The most thrilling artefact of the trip wasn’t the resultant Boiler Room show (as excellent as that was) but Mumdance’s Mahraganat Mix Tape for Dummy Magazine, which you can listen to in full below. On a more grassroots level there were a couple of outstanding live shows in the UK as well. The first was the most thrilling gig of the year for me – EEK featuring Islam Chipsy at Upset the Rhythm in London, which featured the preternaturally talented keyboard player, flanked by his two drummers, pulverising the audience. Their hyperspeed beats provided a rigid framework for Chipsy whose individual technique included firing out bewilderingly fast blasts of tone clusters deployed by punching, slapping and karate chopping his keyboard at such a frightening speed that his hands became a blur of movement. A close second was the sweaty and immensely enjoyable carnage caused by Dutch electro chaabi crew Cairo Liberation Front during their debut London show. Listen to the sounds of the CLF here.

Morocco: Of Golden Visions – Elodie

When Of Golden Visions frontman Mike Title visited the Berber city of Tiznit in southern Morocco earlier this year he met the charismatic Mourad, who asked him if he was a filmmaker on seeing his camera: he wanted to be a movie star. Mourad ended up loaning his larger-than-life presence and insistent flow to this South African house-inspired track/promo by OGV (a collaborative project between Mike and LV’s Will Horrocks). Along with Younis Jackson and Marion Ravel, they collaborated on this track and accompanying film, which captures Mourad’s rich interior terrain but also some of his loneliness. Title said he wanted to record the day-to-day pace of Mourad’s life, which seemed to involve wandering round the maze-like city. He said: “We seemed to get more and more into a loop: it helped with writing the song.” Mourad apparently loved the video but was slightly disappointed that Title hadn’t edited any scenes featuring motorbikes into the finished product, despite them not filming any.

Niger: Mdou Moctar – Anar

Anyone who was lucky enough to have caught the Mdou Moctar trio on their European tour earlier this year couldn’t have failed to have been blown away by the experience. You can catch some of the excitement surrounding this talented young guitarist from Niger on his filmed tour diary. Those who didn’t get to see him this year however should be able to satisfy themselves with this issue of his previously unavailable debut album Anar – a rawer, more futuristic affair than his normal style with spaced-out Auto-Tuned vocals, broken beats and FX plugins. (It should be noted that I am aware that Niger isn’t in North Africa, geographically speaking. However ,the Tuareg are the Tuareg whether they live in Niger, Mali or Algeria. Modern Tuareg music doesn’t respect borders and neither, in this case, should we.)

Egypt:Maurice Louca – Al-Mashoub (Idiot)

Maurice Louca, an exciting underground musician and native Cairene, assembled a who’s who of downtown talent for his second album Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot), which came out on Nawa Recordings in November. Guest vocals came from electro chaabi MC Alaa 50, with additional input from Sun City Girls’ Alan Bishop, Canadian Arabic exploratory musician Sam Chalabi and Palestinian multi-instrumentalist Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, not to mention the engineering skills of Mahmoud Refat of 100 Copies Cairo. With his “post-everything” attitude, Louca captured some of the energising cultural possibilities available in the Egyptian capital in 2014.

Reissue of the year: Omar Khorshid and His Group – Sidi Mansour (Egypt)

The peerless Sublime Frequencies label had a number of great records out in 2014. One of them was this astounding live recording of the legendary Egyptian surf guitarist Omar Khorshid and his group while on tour in Australia just months before he died. On this track Khorshid locks horns with his percussionist Ibrahim Tawfiek on an extended improvised rhythmic battle on which the guitarist abandons his normal surf guitar style to start chucking like Nile Rodgers until he is providing the rhythm and his opponent starts drawing tonal passages out of his drums. If you’ve got a few minutes free you should also check out this amazing time capsule clip of Korshid in a nightclub in Beirut taken from the 1972 film Guitar of Love. Truly a glimpse into a world now gone for good.

Metal of the year: Al Namrood – Estahalat Al Harb (Saudi Arabia)

This three piece – who have to keep their exact location and identities strictly secret – are so far removed from normal Saudi society that there simply is no Western equivalent to what they are doing. They have never played live in front of an audience and have to record clandestinely. They even have to smuggle their instruments out to the US for repair via a secret drop-off spot in Bahrain when they break. If they are ever discovered they will risk severe punishement up to and including – in theory at least – execution by stoning or beheading for apostasy, something that is all too imaginable given their sceptical stance on religion. Despite all that, though, Al Namrood – who are named after the Qur’an equivalent to the Old Testament rebel king and unbeliever, Nimrod, builder of the Tower of Babel – inject a palpable amount of verve and swagger into what they do. New frontman Mudamer’s vocals are unusual for black metal; it’s relatively rare to hear any necro singer enunciating their lyrics with such punkish, almost theatrical, relish, no matter what the language. But the band really come into their own musically, hence the inclusion of this instrumental track from their recent album, Heen Yadhar Al Ghasq. The excitement the music creates is in part caused by a conflict in the instrumentation; not just because of the tonal clash between electric guitars and Eastern instruments such as oud, ney, qanun and darbuka but because the latter have traditional Middle Eastern tunings and the former are tuned to a standard (Western) scale. The microtonal intervals the maqam calls for are achieved by note bending, meaning the threat of dissonance is always present despite never quite arriving. Also Al Namrood are clearly good musicians but everything they record is self-produced under stressful conditions in unsuitable home surroundings on substandard equipment. That means albums such as Heen Yadhar Al Ghasq have the musicianship of early Melechesh but are recorded with the lo-fi, everything in the red, with the distortion of an album like Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger. All of these things combine to create a sound that really couldn’t come from any other region in the world.

Avant garde of the year: 20.SV – The Great Sonic Wave (Lebanon)

20.SV is named after the radiation poisoning threshold beyond which human beings cannot survive for longer than seven days, but more importantly is a master of bleak, austere and clinical electronic sound manipulation who has found an utterly ideal sparring partner in vocalist Alan Dubin. For the uninitiated, Dubin fronted arguably the most harrowing band ever to exist, Khanate (also featuring Stephen O’Malley of SunnO)))) and is capable of the kind of vocal techniques that are not otherwise heard beyond the confines of vextreme horror movies or outside of the night terrors suffered by withdrawing drug addicts. On The Great Sonic Wave, Dubin vocalised at his most restrained, issuing clammy whispers, screeched orders and croaked entreaties rather than soul piercing necrotic howls of abject debasement and despair. His singular voice, combined with 20.SV’s progressive, insectile, ambient industrial electronica, made for a thrillingly tense and disturbing listen that built and built in waves of unstoppable horror. Just superb.

Thanks to everyone who has suggested music to me this year – have a smashing holiday and please feel free to suggest more MENA tracks to me for inclusion in 2015’s playlists.


John Doran

The GuardianTramp

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