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Mada Mix: El-Morabba3
El-Morabba3’s second album leaves politics behind but pushes regional indie music forward
Courtesy: Mahmoud Zinc

Jordanian band El-Morabba3 have been gaining ground lately. In Beirut this April, their song Abaad Shwaii 1 won the “best independent song” award at the first Arab Nation Music Awards, beating the Gulf’s Flipperachi & Daffy, Tunisia’s Ghoula, Algeria’s Imarhan and Palestine’s Tamer Abu Ghazaleh. It was the only award given to artists operating outside big regional record companies; the rest went to mainstream productions.

El-Morabba3 came together in 2008 when vocalist Mohamed Abdallah met Tariq Abu Kwaik (known more widely as the rapper El-Far3i). After a series of jamming sessions they were joined by the Shawagfeh brothers, Odai (electric guitar, synth, producer) and Dirar (drums), and evolved into El-Morabba3 – Arabic for “square” or “four.”

Their self-titled 2012 debut album was politically charged and received positive reviews and a wide reach, quickly placing them among more established Jordanian bands with regional followings, such as Autostrad, Jadal and Akher Zafeer. In late 2014 Abu Kweik, who is one of the founding members of 47Soul (which coined the term “shamstep” for their electro-Arabic dabke sound), took a step back from El-Morabba3 after he left Jordan, leaving Abdallah and the Shawagfeh brothers to carry on the project.

El-Morabba3 has a huge fan base in Egypt. In 2015 I attended a concert they gave at Alexandria’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where many young people sang along word for word. Showing off Odai’s fresh riffs and heavy synth alongside Mohamed Abdallah’s non-traditional vocals and their powerful lyrics, they performed most of their 10-song second album Taraf al-Khait (Tip of the Thread, 2015), which includes the award-winning Abaad Shwaii 1.

The sound felt completely new to me, perhaps because they had spent two years working on refining these compositions instead of rushing the recording process. In their debut album they presented themselves as post-rock, but they now resist placing themselves in a defined category. In Taraf al-Khait, El-Morabba3 mix an emergent taste for indie-rock and synth-pop with more electronic sounds and drum machines. Acoustic and electric guitars were the lead instruments in El-Morabba3, but the best songs in the new album largely leave the acoustic guitar behind, giving Odai space to bring forward his meandering synth lines.

Traces of the new approach to the album can be found in Abdalla’s independent collaboration with Jordanian electronic band Zaed Naes for a track called Onsor Falat (Fleeing Element) in 2014. Abdallah introduced a certain level of lyrical vagueness and refrained from rhymes. The track, like El-Morabba3’s new album, uses oriental scales amid bassy trip-hop electronics, Abdallah’s distorted vocals, trumpets and drum machines.

The lyrics, unlike the debut album, is almost void of the explicit political discourse that pervaded music projects following the Arab uprisings six years ago. Perhaps this is partly due to Abu Kwaik’s absence, as he is known for his politically driven lyrics.

Taraf al-Khait’s lyrics are by Abdallah, and they are full of symbolism, ambiguity and more existential questions.

This is most evident in the album’s seventh track, El-Mokhtalifeen (The Different), which was the first single to be released. Its composition echoes songs from the band’s previous album, with Odai’s acoustic oriental riffs functioning as its backbone, but a thick synth bass is also used for the first time in an El-Morabba3 song. Its music video is also very distinct, directed by Dirar, the drummer. It is an ambiguous, minimal drama with eye-catching insect-like costumes and engaging choreography.

The opening track, Ilham, begins “I found the tip of the thread, and then I lost it,” a clear reference to the album name. A common female name, Ilham means “inspiration” and Abdallah is referring specifically to the inspiration to write music and lyrics. Released a year later than the first single, Ilham goes a step further in offering unconventional synths, and applying dynamic distortion to Abdallah’s vocals.

In general Abdallah’s voice is astoundingly flexible, ranging from thick and bassy to pitchy and thin. Combined with dense bass lines, loud snares and hi-hats and thick synths, it contributes to the album’s diverse sound. In the fifth track, Shiber Mae (Span of Water), a song heavily reliant on drums and bass, his vocal creativity is particularly strong, using a ghostly voice that’s fresh and rare.

As for the eighth track, the five-minute 100,000 Malion Meel, I believe it is one of the most notable accomplishments in modern Arab indie music, with its tense lyrics, and the energetic interplay of Abdallah’s clear, versatile voice and Odai’s vibey synths.

A hundred thousand million miles
A hundred thousand million infiltrators
All the energy we want to collect

El Bath El Haii, in which El-Far3i contributes as co-writer, returns to the band’s former style with excessive vocals and obscure lyrics, although the accompaniment of a string quintet is distinctive and including a part of Egyptian legend Sayed Darwish’s song Ahu Da Illi Sar is a great touch. The last song, El Raai, also feels overly familiar with its acoustic based rhythms, although the end is more interesting, with Bedouin clapping set against an oriental guitar riff.

El-Morabba3 crowd-funded Taraf al-Khait. Going with the phrase Men Nafs al-Nas (from the same people) from the song Tarweej (Promotion) in their debut album, they raised US$46,000 (although they were asking for 40,000) through the Lebanese platform Zoomal, promising to continue making music that talks about their society, experiments with sound, creates a new Arab identity and most importantly maintains full independence from production companies.

Similar ambitions were communicated through Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila’s successful crowd-funding campaign on Zoomal two years prior. For El-Morabba3, their Zoomal campaign not only enabled them to record and master the album in New York with the renowned Masterdisk Studios, but also to sign a contract with the prestigious Universal MEA to distribute the album worldwide.

In my opinion, what makes El-Morabba3 great is how they refrain from traditional Arabic rock clichés in lyrics, composition and instrumentation. Their lyrics do not revolve around love or revolt. Their music uses guitars and electronics in a unique way that clings to Levantine folk textures while still incorporating global urban beats. This experimentation hints at the huge potential for modern alternative Arab music. And as the title Taraf al-Khait suggests, we are just getting started.

This article was commissioned and edited by Rowan El Shimi.

Ahmed El Sabbagh