For many years, Arabic singers have been trying to break into the international market by making music that would appeal to a wider audience. And besides the obvious ones like Cheb Mami, who collaborated with Sting on Desert Rose, many have been incredibly successful, including singers Amr Diab with his song Nour El Ein, and Mohamed Hamaki’s Ahla Haga Feeky.
Even Egyptian band Seneen was recently offered a record contract to release its album, Hawadeet w Hakawy, in France.
With the artists’ huge ambitions to make it big in Europe and the United States, you would be forgiven for thinking the Arab market is of no importance to record companies. But this couldn’t be further from the truth now. The tables have turned, and international artists are now taking on the Arabic language to appeal to a wider audience. The reason? There is a lot of money to be made in the industry, if you play your cards right.
“Arab cities such as Dubai have certainly put the Middle East on the map, so more Westerners have become intrigued by this region,” Rebecca Brinceau, music marketing manager of Music Master Universal, tells Emirates Business. “Therefore, artists are now fusing a bit of Arabic into their songs in order to gain attention and tap into the Middle Eastern market. I guess they think they would be embraced more over here, because the market isn’t as saturated as it is in their home country. So they attract more attention.”
One of the biggest recent examples is German duo Milk & Honey (pictured above), who have taken the region by storm with their album Elbi. Formed in 2006 by renowned German music producer Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen, Milk & Honey comprises Anne Ross and Manel Filali, who is of Moroccan origin. “I used to listen to artists like Fairouz when I was a child, so when we formed Milk & Honey, I decided to show my origins in my music,” says Filali.
“Cheb Khaled’s song Didi was my favourite as a teenager, so that’s why I decided to cover the song and Anne supported me.” Didi became the girls’ second hit in the region; their first being Habibi Je T’aime, featuring a mix of French and Arabic lyrics.
Adding to their appeal is the fact blonde Ross, who has no Arab origins whatsoever, sings in Arabic. She says: “What sets us apart from other international artists is the fact that we sing in Arabic. That’s the appeal of Milk & Honey.” How did she pick up the language? “I learnt thanks to Manel. She is a good teacher. When it came to dancing, we took belly dance classes in Cairo.”
As a result, demand for their songs on radio and videos on music channels has been increasing by the day, and plans to visit more of the region are already in the works. “We have already performed in Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain and Morocco, and have been on several holidays in the UAE – in Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” says Filali. “People recognise us a lot in the Middle East, and we get a lot of fan mail from the region, and it’s amazing, because we didn’t expect this success at all. We are very happy about that. Now we’d like to continue by performing in more countries in the region. We’d love to perform in the UAE – that would be an honour.”
Meanwhile, other artists currently tapping into the market include Indian singer Preethi Kamath, who straddles the dance, breakbeat, and hip-hop genre, and sings in Hindi, English and Arabic. Joining her is contemporary Canadian singer Chantal Chamandy, who sings in several languages, including Arabic, and finally, Swiss house and trance artist Pat Jabbar, who has been working with Moroccan musicians since the 1980s to create his Arabic beats. And of course, there’s Italian singer Princess Bee, who is using Dubai as her inspiration to make it big in the market.
However, it should be noted that not just anyone can make it simply because they know a few Arabic words. “People are not dumb, so to make it over here, you actually have to be good,” says Brianceau. “It’s the talent that will pull you through and make you popular over here.”
Arabic singers hit right note