Playlist #25: Arabic Christmas Songs

Click here for the full playlist on YouTube.

Click here for the full playlist on Spotify.

As the festive season is approaching, here’s a MARSM gift to you, showcasing Christmas carols and songs from the Arabic-speaking world. The musical genres reflected within are wildly varied, from liturgical hymns to Western melodies of famous Christmas songs that stem from the Christian communities in countries like Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. 

The story of Christmas songs goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. The church, with its institutional structure, helped create and preserve Byzantine, Coptic, Maronite and Syriac musical styles. Towards the end of the Ottoman era many Western churches built missionary institutions, including schools and universities, that influenced the musical language of the region through daily prayers and song. This resulted in a Christmas repertoire borrowing from Western melodies while working with Arabic language, in some cases incorporating new instruments such as the piano, keyboard, clarinets, cellos, various synths and more. Other communities,  including the Assyrians and Copts, preserved the musical traditions passed on within the community. 

One of the Arab world’s largest musical icons Fayrouz, sang many Christmas carols and hymns. Some were composed by French composer of the Romantic era George Bizet, and others were composed by the Rahbani Brothers. Other icons like Lebanese singer Majida El Roumi, daughter of the renowned Palestinian singer and composer Halim El Roumi, worked with original carols from the region, adding orchestral instrumentation; while Julia Butros and Heba Tawaji borrowed form Western instrumentation and styles.

Mansour Labaky, a Lebanese Maronite priest, is known for composing and writing Christian songs and hymns that were inspired by his environment. He worked with children of all religious denominations especially during the Lebanese Civil War, and his songs, like “Albi Mhayya Mghara” (My Heart is a Manger) are wrapped in a humanist feel.

Syrian-Armenian singer, songwriter and composer Lena Chamamyan revives folkloric songs from the Syrian, Armenian and lately Bahraini heritage with modern styles and arrangements, creating a link between classical Eastern music and contemporary Western music.

Other songs include Syriac songs like Fayrouz’s “Amanou Morio”, which comes from the Syriac heritage, as an example of a local style preserved through religious practice. There are more contemporary compositions like “Arsala Allah” (أرسل الله) by sister Marana Saad, who is a composer and a doctor of liturgical music from Lebanon.

What would a Christmas songs playlist be without including songs from Bethlehem and Palestine? Believed to be the birthplace of Christ, Bethlehem is the birthplace of a number of composers and singers. Rising Palestinian star Lina Sleibi is a Bethlehemite singer who sings covers of famous songs inspired by her community. In the featured song “’Asimet Al Milad” she performs on the main stage of Manger Square in Bethlehem, where Christmas celebrations usually take place. Her compatriot, Yacoub Shaheen, who rose to fame through the Arabic version of American TV show Arab Idol, also hails from Bethlehem and has performed several Christmas songs, including his “Dawwa El-Kawn Kello” (ضوى الكون كله) composed by Lebanese composer, arranger and producer Jean-Marie Riachi.

Zuhair Francis, born to a Lebanese father and Palestinian mother, based in Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas is also one of the Palestinian singers to be mentioned for their important work on the music scene and often lights up the city’s wonderful Christmas parties.

Many of the songs give an insight into the cities, and rituals practiced in and around them, reflecting the history of the region through changes to musical composition. At the same time, these songs preserve a universal musical theme understood by anyone who wishes to listen to a different version of Christmas carols.

Happy festive season!

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.