How the Middle East’s underground went overground: Selected writings on alternative Arabic music 2014-18

The past few months have seen alternative Arabic music enjoy an unprecedented mainstream embrace – nowhere more so than in the UAE, with the first third of 2018 welcoming second editions of scene-stealing indie festivals Wasla and Step Music, and this weekend hosting inaugural all-dayer Dxbeats at Dubai Opera (on April 28). The fact it’s taking place at an opera house speaks volumes.

It’s been an incredible journey. When I started covering Middle Eastern music for Time Out Dubai in 2011, the chances to see regional indie acts in the UAE were virtually non-existent. The revolutionary fervour of the underground scenes in Beirut and Cairo that we read about in the international press, and pioneering publications such as the (sadly now defunct) Rolling Stone Middle East, were tantalisingly close geographically, but a world away from the like-clockwork stops of mainstream Arab stars Amr Diab and Nancy Ajram. Short of a few notable, often branded, one-off exceptions (hats off to The Music Room, also now sadly defunct), it stayed this way for some years.

After regional indie interest was piqued in Dubai by the awesome (cough, and sadly defunct) gig series The Other Side, over one heady 2015-16 season, the wave crested with the inaugural Wasla festival in January 2017 – and since then we’ve just kept surfing. While me and others have often prophesied an almighty bubble-burst any minute – notably in a long read earlier this year – on the basis of 2018 so far, there’s a real possibility the Arab world’s indie scene has finally found the appreciation it deserves on home turf, for good.

All this nostalgia sent me down a Google hole, digging up some of my previous writings on the alt-Arabia scene and its biggest/best acts, mainly penned for The National. Taken chronologically, they tell quite a story – one I never could have predicted, but am overjoyed to witness.

(I’m largely avoiding UAE/GCC acts altogether, because that’s a whole other scene…)


Wasla 2017 (The National)


14 Middle Eastern indie acts you need to hear (2014)

Flamingods* live review (2014)

Mashrou’ Leila interview (2014)

Alsarah & the Nubatones interview (2015)

The Wanton Bishops interview (2015)

Safar interview (2015)

Bosaina interview (2015)

Zeid Hamdan interview (2015)

Postcards in Beirut interview (2015)

Yallah! Underground documentary (2015)

Who Killed Bruce Lee interview (2016)

Who Killed Bruce Lee – Distant Rendezvous EP review (2016)

Teleferik interview (2016)

47 Soul interview (2016)

Flamingods* interview (2016)

Yasmine Hamdan interview (2016)

Review: Wasla 2017 (Mashrou ‘Leila, Souad Massi, etc…)

Now: The Best of Indie Arabia album review (2017)

Autostrad interview (2017)

Five things we learnt from Step Music 2017

Review: Step Music 2017 (Mashrou ‘Leila, The Wanton Bishops…)

The future of the Middle Eastern indie scene hanging in the balance (January 2018…)

Souad Massi interview (2018)

Emel Mathlouthi – Ensenity album review (2018)

And now Dxbeats … second interviews with Yasmine Hamdan AND The Wanton Bishops, 2018


*No, Flamingods aren’t a GCC band – tbh, they’re not even a Middle Eastern band anymore – but they played an important part in putting the scene on the map, so there.

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