Playlist #24: 2020 Releases

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How can we sum up 2020 in music? Our last playlist of the year spotlights some of the most evocative songs released in 2020 from the Arabic-speaking world. This was not an easy task, yet this playlist tells a unique story of changes, standstills, absences and explosions, opportunity and a wide range of emotions.

We have cherry picked visually and acoustically diverse, mostly independent sounds from South West Asia and North Africa (presented in no chronological order). 

Hitting it off with Blue Feifer’s Sint El-Ew (The Year of Ew) the Mexican-Lebanese producer and sharp lyricist sums the year up for us. From the global pandemic to the Beirut explosion that has dramatically altered the city’s shape due to the widespread poverty sweeping the cities. Her compatriot Chyno, founder of the Arena (the region’s popular platform for rap and poetry battles), “lyrical soothsayer” and powerful hip hop artist unfolds the vision of this year. Both works from Lebanon are set to the backdrop of Beirut and touch on the stories of ordinary mortals and their troubles. Present in the work is also angry urban poet and political rapper El-Rass.  

Palestinian hip-hop legend Tamer Nafar kept both his and our spirit alive with a stream of DIY productions, and a collaborative production in Ba’do Fiyye Roh (Still Got Soul) with friends and fans who submitted videos of them dancing away during confinement. With his tongue-in cheek humour and spirited cynicism, he addressed the difficulties of confinement, work loss and uncertainty that we have all been living through. 

Both Rasha and Terez chose to pay tribute in their videos to one of the most prominent dancers of the region, Ayman Safiyye, who drowned in the sea this year leaving an artistic vacuum that’s hard to fill. The soothingly poetic works of Terez have punchy rhythms telling the story of lies, poverty, patriarchy, ignorance and authoritarianism in the 21st century. Rasha’s evocative lyrics and wailing violins and guitars summon discord and concord present in her home city of Haifa. 

We cannot forget to mention the latest album release by Palestinian composer and pianist Faraj Suleiman, whose album Ahla Men Berlin (More Beautiful Than Berlin) was released a week ago and whose lyrics were written by the sharp tongued and witty lyricist and author Majd Kayyal. 

Staying lyrically strong and accompanied by exhilarating beats, Egypt has brought forward Molotof with his mahraganat-inspired trap sound heavy with autotune. Felukah, Cairo’s inspiring female rapper brings her neo-soul and boom-bap in a mixture of Arabic and English lyrics empowering women and recalling social issues within Egypt. 

One of the vanguards of the jazz and avant garde scene in Egypt, Maurice Louca produced a spectacular piece in a quarantine session that evokes a cosmic trance to the sounds of Cairo’s streets and rhythms. His influence is also audible on the brilliant work of Iraqi oud player, lyricist and composer and song-writer Natik Awayez, whose song Manbarani ferments with influences of migration, war and longing. 

Syrian-American hip-hop artist, poet and activist Omar Offendum paid tribute to women of the region with his summer hit Samra with reggaeton inspired beats and atmospheric beats. Syrian MC and producer Bu Kolthoum was grateful in his Mamnoun single with soulful sounds and resonant vocals. 

Staying the Levant, Jordanian based rock and grunge band Akher Zapheer produced soothing and evocative works addressing chaos, music and society. Prolific music powerhouse Bisher, the man behind the online music school Izif, presented his melancholic and evocative Oyoun El-Maha (Eyes of the Gazelle). London based Jordanian-Palestinian manifold rapper, musician and producer El Far3i excelled this year with his homegrown tunes, Dry Clean being the perfect example of the cross-cultural implementation of lived experiences. 

From North Africa Emel Mathlouthi produced a whole album called “The Tunis Diaries” contemplating the socio-political climate of Tunis under lockdown. Her compatriots Nuri and Ghoula gifted the acoustic universe their afro-futuristic beats immersing listeners in multicultural and electronic sonic pleasures. The cherry on the top of the acoustic journey is Algerian rap and hip-hop band Gourbilas who offer a rich tapestry of funk, latin and african sounds accompanying their lyrics and talking about the realities of daily life.  

There are not enough words to encapsulate the beauty, generosity and creativity that erupted every day throughout this volcanic year. There’s a story behind each work, and even more if you dive in. This playlist is your musical map of the year from the SWANA region.

Thank you to all the MARSM friends who have contributed their suggestions to the creation of this playlist. You’re part of our music community. 

What are MARSM Playlists?

Marsm’s bi-weekly playlists take on the musical history, trends and upcoming productions from the music scene in the Arabic-speaking countries. Each playlist focuses on a new theme, showcasing both underground and established artists – from the more dance-able to the most experimental – and everything in between.