Playlist #29: Keyboard and Synth Sensations

Click here for the full playlist on YouTube and Spotify.

The last decade has seen synths taken to another dimension. This exhilarating and pulsating playlist plays through a wide array of electronic sounds from sensational synths, to cutting edge keyboard, exploring the evolution of the sound throughout the past seven decades until today. 

Tracing the early beginnings of electronic music takes us back to 1930s Egypt, to explore the genius of Egyptian-American composer and musicologist Halim El-Dabh. His work with wire recorders, electronic music and later synthesizers was at times under recognised, yet it was a profound catalyst to the development of electronic music globally. Synthesizers became highly popularised following their arrival in the Arabic-speaking region, and in the West in the 1960s; they became a staple of music in the 70s and 80s, and the foundation of contemporary music. 

Egyptian musician Magdy El Hosseini, who was a member of Abdel Halim Hafez’s band, is hugely credited for pioneering the use of the keyboard (commonly called “org” in Arabic) in the Arabic-speaking world. He also played with the Om Kolthoum Orchestra, alongside the iconic Egyptian electric guitar genius Omar Khorshid. Both Hosseini and Khorshid had been deeply influenced by beat music and other ‘Global North’ genres that they incorporated into their performances throughout the 60s and 70s.

At the same time, Elias Rahbani,  the rising star and trendsetter of the Lebanese music scene, greatly influenced the region’s evolving music style with his innovative 1974 album Mosaic of the Orient. Rahbani was one of the first musicians to introduce Western drums, electric guitars, and synthesizers to Arabic music and his aforementioned album still enjoys wide recognition and credit amongst music lovers. Elias Rahbani brought his compositions and instrumental choices into the works of other Lebanese artists, many of whom he and his older Rahbani brothers worked with. Within this playlist you will hear his composition for ‘Badna Nzour El 3alam’ by 1980s popular Lebanese singer Adonis Aql as well as his music for Joseph Mikhael Ibrahim  (aka Le Petit Prince) on a full-length album called Le Petit Prince Chante Elias Rahbani from which we have chosen the disco-funk track ‘Kazzabi’. Speaking of Lebanon’s heavily synthesized disco sounds from the 80s, we’ve also selected ‘Lakini’ sung by the iconic deep vocal of acclaimed musician and composer Issam Rajji. 

Moving on to North Africa, the pioneering work of the ‘organ king of Casablanca’ Abdou El Omari was pivotal in bringing the synth in North African music. Fusing folk elements of Gnawa, Sufi, Chaabi and classical Malhun with spaced out modern sounds added a contemporary flavour, combining funk, rock and progressive jazz through his sensational synths. Take in his masterfully psyched, jazzy yet smooth ‘Rajaat Laayoun’.

The use of the synth in the Arabic-speaking world can also be seen as an aural communication of social and class discrepancies. Particularly prominent in Egypt and the Levant, the “org” and synth became an indispensable instrument during weddings and other traditional festivities, most prominently during the 70s and 80s. During the same time, with large groups of North African communities arriving in France, they also implemented electronic and synth music in their works that began to fuse with France’s underground and mainstream sound. 

While the use of the synths and keyboards declined in the 00s with the development of technologies and laptop software that, they have nonetheless enjoyed a staggering revival during the last decade. With the global rise to fame of Syrian wedding singer Omar Suleiman and his masterful ‘king of keyboard’ Rizan Said, they layer their region’s popular celebration music atop bass-heavy beats and electronica, a delectable sound that has taken Europe by storm.

The London-based Palestinian-Jordanian Shamstep band, 47Soul have also heavily relied on the keyboard used in Palestinian and Levantine weddings, and brought dabke tunes to world recognition. Their keyboardist Z The People took his compositions to a higher level of soul with his solo single ‘Loaded’, while their Palestinian compatriots Zenobia’s 2019 single ‘Ksr Ksr Ksr’ revived the 80s dabke classics by iconic Palestinian singer Shafik Kabha. 

One of Egypt’s most gifted, prolific and adventurous musicians, Maurice Louca has expanded and evolved the use of synth playing on its dual socio-cultural symbolism. Whether it’s with his collaborators Sam Shalabi and Alan Bishop in the Dwarfs of East Agouza, or with Maryam Saleh and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh in the Lekhfa project, the works are a skilful interplay between folk traditions to kosmische throb, electro-chaabi and more.

Another unmissable name in the world of synth we did not want to miss is Tunisian multi-instrumentalist, producer and arranger Sofyann Ben Youssef aka Ammar 808 who has worked with a multitude of synths from the Korg to the Moog, both on his Bargou 08 project and more recently on his Maghreb United album, from which we selected “Sidi Kommi”, his collaboration with Gnawa master Mehdi Nassouli.

We also recommend you don’t skip  the modern, synthetic, danceable and more experimental, sounds of Lebanese composer and instrumentalist Radwan Ghazi Moumneh aka Jerusalem in My Heart, the works of Raed Yassin and Paed Conca under the band name PRAED, Syrian-German duo, Shkoon, Palestinian synth master Raymond Haddad  and the trailblazing ensemble from the Occupied Golan Heights, Toot Ard with their latest disco-heavy, and synth enthusiastic album from which we chose the single ‘Open Sesame’.

This playlist comes with a warning: it brings with it an exhilarating and pulsating party vibe, both infectious and enchanting. It is guaranteed to uplift the mood and revive the dancefloor of your body and heart.  


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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.