El Morabba3 frontman Muhammad Abdullah discusses his band’s ANMA win, the evolution of their sound, and the disconnect between indie and mainstream Arab music
Jordanian indie-rockers El Morabba3 recently cemented their reputation as one of the most exciting and innovative bands in the Middle East by picking up “Best Indie Song” at the inaugural Arab Nation Music Awards for their track “Abaad Shwaii”. For the trio – bassist and vocalist Muhammad Abdullah, guitarist Odai Shawagfeh and Odai’s brother, drummer Dirar – the televised award ceremony, at which they performed live (or, at least, Abdullah sang live over a backing track – not the band’s first choice, but a compromise between lip-syncing the whole thing), offered an opportunity to reach an audience that almost certainly had no idea who they are, and were unlikely to have listened to any alternative Arab music before, since the awards focused almost exclusively on the mainstream Arab pop that dominates the region’s airwaves.
For many artists, that wouldn’t necessarily have been an attractive proposition, but for El Morabba3, Abdullah says, it was a chance to take an important step towards one of their ultimate goals.
“In the Arab world, there’s this huge gap between mainstream and independent, or alternative, music,” he says. “There’s either extremely commercial, shitty music, or extremely ‘alternative’, abstract music, where people might relate to the music, but they don’t understand the lyrics. Or the other way around. And one of our goals is to minimise this gap. I feel that, as an independent artist, you do have this responsibility to reach out to more people. So, we were quite excited to have a category for independent music in this commercial ceremony. We thought it was kind of a good start to fill in this gap.”
“A lot of people, when we told them we were nominated, said, ‘No. Don’t put yourself into this situation with these kinds of artists.’ Because fans of independent music are usually totally against mainstream Arabic pop music. But my point of view is; we cannot be too arrogant to participate in such events because the mainstream is shit,” he continues. “This is where the real test comes. This is where you have to prove the [strength] of your music. So we talked about it and decided we don’t mind being on the same stage as these pop artists we’ve always hated and don’t represent us in any way, because – again – we want to spread our music around. We knew we’d be kind of outcasts in the middle of this, because, I mean, it was, what? Elissa and all these big pop stars? We knew what we were getting ourselves into. But we thought, ‘Let’s just do it. It’s going to be good for everyone.’”
Abullah allows there were less altruistic reasons for the band to do it as well – expanding their audience and getting plenty of press. But his words show how aware the band are of the risks and responsibilities facing independent and alternative artists in the Arab world.
The risk of alienating fans is something El Morabba3 are accustomed to and comfortable with. Their 2016 sophomore album, the excellent Taraf Al Khait, was a significant step forward, sonically, from their self-titled debut record. That first album was very good, but it was a fairly conventional indie-rock LP, as Abdullah attests. Taraf Al Khait was far more expansive, with a much stronger electronic influence. And while it’s garnered the band much praise, some fans were surprised by the difference between the records.
“Honestly, it was a decision that was taken subconsciously, without really talking about it specifically,” Abdullah says. “I mean, there were almost three years between the albums, so our tastes… I wouldn’t say they changed, but they evolved, you know? We were exposed to more music and we were interested in more sounds. We didn’t really think we’d shifted enough, you know? But people see it in a different way. They see a huge shift. But we don’t regret it, and we feel like we might just keep on shifting forever. This is freedom.”
Abdullah cites Radiohead as a major inspiration in the way they’ve managed their career. “To me, they are a perfect example of an indie band,” he says. “They do it right, always. Even their content, it’s not 100 per cent political or social, but it tackles everything. They kind of describe the human condition, which I totally relate to.”
There are certain parallels in the two bands’ music. Like Radiohead, El Morabba3 write soaring, anthemic tracks that are melodic and uplifting, but they’re often – in El Morabba3’s case, almost always – tinged with sadness. “We admit it,” Abdullah says. “We have this melancholia in our music. And we relate to it. We always wonder, ‘Can we actually do a happy song?’ I don’t know. Sometimes I feel we should be able to do it, as musicians. But, the mood’s not there. I mean, I can love a happy song by someone else, but I don’t think we can do it. It’s not interesting to us.”
The fact that El Morabba3 write melancholy songs about ‘the human condition’, and do so in a traditionally Western indie-rock format – guitar, drums and bass – means they don’t easily fit into the world of Arabic music. And they’re often asked if they’re a fusion act. They aren’t.
“I hate to call it ‘fusion’,” Abdullah says. “I hate that term when it comes to our music. Fusion’s a different thing. I’m not trying to put ‘this’ with ‘that’. To us, what people call ‘Western’ instruments, these are tools to make music, regardless of where you come from. So, please don’t keep on telling me we’re doing ‘fusion’, because that’s saying, ‘Yeah. You’re Arab. You have to be 1,000 years behind. I only want to see you with an oud, wearing a dish-dasha, and it would be nice if you added some Western things to that.’ But we have the tools and we make the music we want, which is basically whatever’s in our subconscious. And most of that is Arabic, because we’re Arabs, you know? That’s how I see it.”
It may take some time before the rest of the Arab world sees it that way. But El Morabba3 and bands like them in the Arab alternative scene are starting to make that happen.
“The typical Arab ear is used to the Arabic templates – the love songs of the Arabic mainstream. So they’re used to certain words and they expect them. Whenever they hear any song, they expect to hear those words. But when you come with independent music content, it’s totally different, so it always comes off as a surprise, and a surprise which is also not always easy to digest. It requires them to retrain their ears from what they know, so they can relate to it,” Abdullah says.
“I’m sure, if you get into the consciousness of the Arab world, they want a change in content. They want to talk about things that matter to them. They know there’s a problem in the music scene in general in the Arab world – that it doesn’t represent them, or reflect how they feel. But. There’s the other thing, which is how you present it. It’s still inaccessible to them, what we do. But I feel we’re on the way to that,” he continues. “This is just the beginning.”