A Brief History of MENA Pop Music

Since their inception in 2018, Dar Disku have been torchbearers for the rich musical history of the Arabic-speaking world. The duo grew up in Bahrain, osmotically absorbing the classical and pop music tradition that stretches from North Africa to the Middle East. There’s a classic saying about listening to “Fairuz in the morning, and Um Kalthum at night” that speaks to the fundamental relationship the Arab diaspora have with this music; one that transcends geographic boundaries. Both in their DJ sets and discography, they proselytize Raï, Khaliji, belly-dance disco, and just about any strain of dancefloor-ready Arabic music. Who better to dial up a Brief History of MENA Pop Music?

Their mix traces the hybridity of forms like Pop-Raï (there’s even a track here featuring MC Lyte!), showing how cultural diffusion worked both ways towards the end of the 20th century. Consider this Cheb Mami record that sounds like it could’ve been produced by Trackmasters, being made at the same time Timbaland was heavily incorporating Middle-Eastern instrumentation into some of the era’s most forward-thinking rap production – a formative period that Dar Disku have touched on in the past.

In this Brief History, the pair touch on their adolescent encounters with this music, as well as the way much of these productions balance prescience and nostalgia. The mix itself is a stunner: It’s the most transportive hour and a half you’ll spend anytime soon!

Where does your love for MENA pop music stem from?

Our love for Middle Eastern pop music really stems from our upbringing in Bahrain. Having grown up in such a multicultural environment it was easy to stray away from the music that was right in front of us. The ‘love’ for this music is really attached with an element of nostalgia and belonging which really cemented the reason for starting Dar Disku. Melodically, Middle Eastern music is often sonically so different to everything around it and that’s also a reason for appreciating this music.  

What marks out a MENA pop record, compared to the rest of the genre?

The hook. It’s as simple as that. It’s the moment in the track that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, the feeling of pure joy and the physical trigger that makes you want to dance.

What MENA pop record record has left the biggest impression on you as a DJ, and why?

We both fell in love with Cheba Yamina’s ‘sidi mansour’ the first time we heard it. I think it might have been from our friend Vansh during a little blend session we had and we remember just being floored by it. The feeling of pure euphoria has never left. Every time we play that out (the original and the Moving Still edit) it just lifts the floor to another level. I would also say that the song has an element of familiarity given it is a cover of a very popular track, so again it brings back that theme of nostalgia for our childhood and upbringing in the Middle East. 

What MENA Pop record has made the biggest impact on your sound as a producer, and why?

Maz: For me Ahmed Fakroun – Love Words. One of the first and best examples of fusing middle eastern sounds with 80s synths and drum machines. It includes processed string samples, filtered percussion and big choruses. Truly an anthem and ahead of its time in many respects. This plays a big part in how most of the dar Dar Disku releases sound and Ahmed is always going to be an influence. 

Ahmed Fakroun – Awam

This track had to be at the start of the mix we put together. It is so special to us because it sounds so familiar yet new at the same time. The break beat is so reminiscent of 90s life in the Middle East and has this laidback flow to it. Something that could be listened to on a beach in the sun. Ahmed is a true pioneer of this genre and was instrumental in putting Libya on the map for this kind of music. 

Samira Said – Aalbal

Samira! This was really an anthem back in the day. It sticks with us close because of the way the song ‘feels’ – part ballad part foot stomper. The call and response strings and synth and underlying back beat give it an energy like nothing else. It has an almost zouk feel with the drum pattern and the dotted synths really fill in each space in the track. It always sounds good on a system and the vocals are enchanting. Every kid growing up in the middle east would have heard this on the radio. 

Morsy Morsy – Rafeq

What a cover. This is Rafeq’s take on ‘Shy Guy’ by Diana King. The one you hear in our mix is a special little collab with our friends Running Hot who are based in Berlin. It’s for the dancefloor. This song is super special to us because it really reflects what Dar Disku about. It is the ultimate ‘bridging the gap’ tune – something familiar but also new at the same time. It helps bring you into the world of MENA pop and is a real authentic take on western music that was popular at the time. When the pre-chorus hits, i think everyone knows what’s about to go down!! 

Mona Abd El Ghany – Asshab

Mona was the queen of the North African pop scene. This track is testament to that. It evokes such a summer feel and transports you to a brighter place no matter where it is heard. The guitar solo in the middle is also special as that wasn’t very common in arabic music at the time. The male / female call and response was a trend that soon followed after this record came out. Her voice has this fragility and emotion that is hard to put into words. It’s such a beautiful number. I remember playing this out on the lot radio in New York during a recent visit to see my family. The sun was shining, the aperols were flowing, the breeze was entering the studio and for a small moment…. everything was just right in the world. 

Khaled ft MC Lyte – Ana delali

The ultimate cross over. Cheb Khaled was probably one of, if not the biggest pop artists of the MENA region. This tune is the true 90s throw back. MC Lyte bringing the hook and khaled coming in with the rap in the version. Again special to us given the way it fuses western and eastern pop so effortless. His voice was made for this. The beat has an almost timbaland-esque flow with the choppy hi hats and stabs. Really love playing this out at an outdoor stage. 

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