Playlist #30: Female Instrumentalists from SWANA

Click here for the full playlist on YouTube and Spotify.

To mark International Women’s Day this year, we are showcasing women from South West Asia and North Africa as composers, performers and instrumentalists. Diverging from the mainstream, we delve into the less seen and less heard pieces by some of the region’s most prominent female musicians.

In the music world, women are often seen through a male gaze and are hence portrayed as beautiful “objects”, fronting bands. For a long time Arabic-speaking women were presented only as singers and performers, their contributions as astute instrumentalists were left behind in the shady corners of past archives.

From prominent figures like Egyptian icon Om Kolthoum or the mighty Kuwaiti singer Odeh Lemhanna, to contemporary musicians such as British-Bahraini trumpetist Yazz Ahmed or Lebanese violinist Layale Chaker, this playlist is an inspirational showcase, presenting Arabic-speaking women across time who use their command to create music.

This instrumental journey starts with one of the most powerful and inspiring women of the 20th century, Badi’ah Masabni. Badi’ah was a singer, musician, actress and dancer known for establishing her own club, the Casino Opera, back in 1925. She introduced special matinees for women to attend theatre performances and shows, and welcomed some of the most prominent figures of the art scene at the time. 

Her Casino Opera was a place for innovative dance styles and artistic expression as she taught renowned belly dancer Taheyya Kariokka how to dance, as well as being the launchpad for artists like Farid al-Atrash. In “Raqs Badi’ah – رقص بديعة”  (The Dance of Badi’ah) we hear finger cymbals that are assumed to be played by Badi’ah herself as she dances.

Egyptian diva Om Kolthoum is rarely shown playing an instrument, however in “Bi Ridaka Ya Khaliqi – برضاك يا خالقي” taken from her fifth film in 1944, she is seen playing the oud and singing, embodying the role of a maid dreaming of becoming a famous singer and liberating herself through music.

Equally revealing is the powerful posture and stance of pioneering Kuwaiti singer and musician Odeh Lemhanna, whose mastery of Kuwaiti singing styles and women’s group eclipsed her oud dexterity. Staying in the Gulf, Ibtisam Lutfi’s warm voice and musical ingenuity saw her become the first woman in Saudi Arabia to sing on the radio in the 1950s and challenge social norms not only as a woman, but also as a visually impaired artist.

Oulaya El Tunisia’s song takes us to the privacy of her home, where she is hosting an intimate party with friends and famous personalities from the Tunisian and Egyptian cultural scene. Oulaya smoothly plays the oud, leading the band and instructing them on  how they should play.

We also feature two women from Sudan who are seldom given the glory and spotlight they deserve. Zakeyya Abulqasem was considered the first guitarist to emerge in Sudan in the 1960s, and was often seen performing with her husband Sharhabeel Ahmed. Ahmed gained international prominence  for his innovative jazz style and was recognised as the “King of Sudanese Jazz”. During the same period, Asma’ Hamza was said to be one of the first female oud players and composers to emerge from the African continent. Asma’ was born with a deficiency in her vocal chords which stopped her from singing, yet her father bought her a oud after hearing her whistle in harmony, encouraging her to pursue a musical path.

Not often enough do we see women as percussionists but Simona Abdallah, a Palestinian percussionist and darbouka player, stormed the world’s festival stages with her energetic percussive beats, claiming the position of the first female percussionist from an Arabic background. Acclaimed Palestinian musician, singer and songwriter Kamilya Jubran’s lengthy and illustrious experience in the music field has seen her play the oud and qanun, while experimenting with a varied array of modes and music, paving the ground for many women to take centre stage not only as singers, but also as musicians.

Dubbed “The Lady of the Qanun”, Imane Homsy innovated the rhythms and methods of playing this intricate string instrument usually reserved for men, while also accompanying Lebanese diva Fairouz. She performed with oud master and composer Marcel Khalife and carved a singular place for the playing of the qanun as a standalone instrument. London based Syrian qanun player and virtuoso Maya Youssef appears to have followed in Homsy’s footsteps. In the chosen video she is accompanied by her Syrian compatriot and brilliant oud player Rihab Azar.

There’s no doubt that Souad Massi’s “chanteuse” image singing with her guitar also greatly contributed to shedding a different light on female instrumentalists from the region, and brought new influences of rock, roots and fado into her music. The list continues with female instrumentalists like British-Bahraini trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed who molded her own flugelhorn to play quarter tones, enchanting Lebanese violinist Layale Chaker, Syrian Naissam Jalal playing the nay and leading her band Rhythms of Resistance, and Moroccan Asmaa Hamzaoui who broke through the long lineage of guembri players as the first woman to master the instrument. Egyptian Nada El-Shazly’s compositions, production and often appearances playing the keyboard are also worth lauding in a world reigned by ‘kings of keyboards’. 

With much to explore, take a tour through the corridors of time and enjoy the powerful performances portrayed in this playlist of women taking action through music and standing center stage in the creative world. 


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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.