To western ears Arabic music sounds at first, well, foreign. It uses beats, rhythms, and scales that our ears just aren't used to. We didn't grow up with it so the music sounds strange. In this post you're going to find some songs that you will likely enjoy, even if you've never listened to Arabic music before.
I've chosen mostly quick tempo songs as slower songs are often described as whiny by western listeners. To tell you the truth, a lot of slow songs sound whiny to me too, but I know that if I say that I don't like Um Kalthum or that Fayrouz's only has a few songs I enjoy, I'm going to make the Arab readers of this post a little peeved. I've never found a western person who will say that they like Um Kalthum though although Arabs are crazy about her. I really believe her music is just something you had to grow up with to like. I've decided to leave out songs from that era and go with more modern music.
These are 15 songs that I like and listen to (some so much that I don't listen to them anymore). I've waded through a lot of songs that I didn't like over my 6 years of learning Arabic and these are the best I've found. I have more, but people don't like long lists so I've limited it to a manageable top 15. I've tried to get most of the regions of the Arab world represented on the list. So, in no particular order:
1. Lebnani - Assi al Helani (لبناني - عاصي الحلاني) Lebanese
This list is a tiny bit skewed toward Lebanese songs (6 out of 15), but that's because the Lebanese have more than their fair share of popular singers nowadays. This song is about Lebanese people being awesome. It's got a quick tempo which, for me, makes me more likely to like an Arabic song. I looked over my favorites list on You Tube and only 2 were slow songs. Does this say something about Americans or just me? :) Another good song from Assi al Helani is و اني مارق مريت. It's worth a listen too, but doesn't pick up until minute 1:30.
2. The Job - Qusay (الوظيفة - قصي) Saudi
In my experience Saudi music, and gulf music in general, sounds more foreign to western ears than Egyptian or Lebanese music. Gulf music is really what I was referring to when I said earlier that the scales and rhythms are different. Although it doesn't usually have the long مواويل (mawaweel, the part that sounds like whining to my American ears) that more traditional Levantine and Egyptian music has. You can definitely tell that The Job by Qusay has a Saudi beat to it, but it's more of a pop song and has a quick pace so I imagine more conducive to westerners. This is Saudi music lite. I wish Qusay had more stuff like this, but most of his other songs are 100% English.
3. Alby w Omry - Brigit Yaghi (قلبي و عمري - بريجيت ياغي) Egyptian
Now this song could pass for an American pop song if you just changed the words to English. I like the song (except for the cringe worthy "go dj" part in the middle). Pepsi used this song in a commercial they did for the region. I've heard criticism that the words to the song are just fluff and are stupid, but whatever, it sounds good and that's what songs are about right? She says things like, "I dance with him and when we finish we dance again." It's not a deep song, but you'll like it.
4. Layky Layky - Wafeeq Habib (ليكي ليكي - وفيق حبيب) Syrian
I just realized this is the only Syrian song on the list. This isn't because I don't like Syrian music. It's probably tied with Lebanese music for the most dialect that I listen to. Lebanese and Syrian sound pretty similar though. Another great Syrian song is وطفي (Watfi). I challenge you to hate that song. It's this guy singing about how his girl is hot but never does any work while he slaves away in the field.
5. Ma Cherie - Cheb Rayan feat. Rima - Moroccan
I can't understand anything Rayan sings in this song as it's Moroccan. Rima is not hard to understand, but the rest might as well be a different language. I've looked at the transcript of the song and it's still hard for me to follow along. The countries west of Egypt have some really good music, but I usually don't listen to them too much as I can't understand their dialect. This song is one of the best I've heard and there's also Cheb Khalid. A lot a singers west of Egypt call themselves Cheb and then their name. Cheb is the way they write شاب (young guy) in French. The "sh" becomes a "ch". It's still pronounced "shab" though.
Cheb Khalid is Algerian. People get mad if you call him Moroccan. I always group them together in my mind though as it's two similar dialects that are incomprehensible to me. I remember listening to Didi right when I started learning Arabic and thinking, "Eventually I'll be able to understand what he's saying!" Nope. Another great song with Cheb Khalid is Henna. The song is half Persian and half Algerian.
6. Al Bint Al Lebnania - Marwan Khoury (البنت اللبنانية - مروان خوري) Lebanese
Similar to the topic of the first song on the list, but this one is about how awesome Lebanese girls are. Good song.
7. Wahishny Eh - Myriam Fares (وحشني ايه - مريم فارس) Egyptian
Myriam Fares is actually Lebanese, but a lot of her songs are sung in Egyptian dialect. I think singers are getting away from this somewhat, but even recently people would sing in Egyptian even if they weren't from Egypt because the Egyptian audience is the largest in the Arab world and Egyptian dialect is widely understood. Wahishny Eh is Myriam Fares's most popular song. Other good ones are Ha'aliq Rahtak and Nadini.
8. Joumhoureyet Alby - Mohamed Eskandar (جمهورية قلبي - محمد اسكندر) Lebanese
This song is about a dad who's daughter wants to get a job, but he doesn't want her to because she's his little princess. The song starts at minute 0:41 where she says بدي اشتغل (I want to work). The mijwiz (or at least a synthetic mijwiz on a keyboard) is used in this song. It sounds kind of like a kazoo and is commonly used in traditional music in the Levant region. I didn't like it at first, but it's grown on me and I really like how it sounds now. It's used a lot in debka, the Levantine dance where everyone holds hands and dances while walking around in a circle. Here's a mijwiz mix. This is something people would debka to.
9. Shasawi - Asma Al Munawar (شسوي - اسماء المنور) Saudi
I discovered this song while listening to MBC FM on my iPhone. That station only plays music from the gulf so if you want to find some good Saudi songs it's probably the best radio station to listen to. That being said, it's hard for me to find gulf Arabic songs I like. There are a few songs I like. This is one of them. Asma is actually Moroccan, but sings in gulf Arabic as well. Others that I've found are حلم رومانسيي (Romantic Dream) and كم الساعة by Shada Hassoun.
10. Khetyar 'Ala Al Akkaze - Faris Karam (ختيار على العكازة - فارس كرم) Lebanese
Another great Lebanese song. Faris Karam is actually my favorite Arab singer. In fact, I've listened to his songs so much that I don't really listen to them anymore, but that just tells you how good they are. This song is called "The Old Man on the Cane". It's about some girl that everyone in the town is crazy about, even the old men and the kids in school. Other good Faris Karam songs are الحمد لله and التنورة.
11. Iyyak Tilhagni - Mona Amarcha (اياك تلحقني - منى امرشا) Saudi
Mona Amarcha is another Moroccan who sings in gulf Arabic. This song's title means "don't chase after me". In the song she is engaged, but there's another guy who likes her and she tells him not to bother. Listen to the drum in this song, especially at the beginning. That type of drumming is found in almost all gulf songs. It's a good way to identify what type of music you're listening to.
12. La Li Leih - Aline Kahalf (لا لي ليه - الين خلف) Lebanese
I'm not sure if the title of this song actually means anything or if it's just like "la la la". I mean, you can translate it as "no, for me, why", but I don't know if it's supposed to be translated. I'm guessing it's just "la la la". That's really all I have to say about this song. It sounds good.
13. Wayn 'A Ramallah - Folk Song (وين ع رام الله - اغنية تراثية) Palestinian
This song is about going to Ramallah. There's a trumpet used which is rare for Arabic music. This is a newer version of the song which is probably why.
14. Boos Al Wawa - Haifa Wehbe (بوس الواوا - هيفاء وهبي) Egyptian
I had to put Haifa Wehbe on here. She's got to be the most famous Arabic pop singer of all time. Some of her songs are decent. I like this one and also بابا فين (Where's Dad?). The music starts at 1:45. بنت الوادي (Girl of the Valley) is good too. Again, these songs are in Egyptian even though she is Lebanese. Boos Al Wawa (Kiss the Booboo) isn't a serious song obviously. She's babysitting a kid and then her boyfriend wants to go out to dinner, but they have to bring the kid with them.
15. Ahl Al Hima - Omar Al Abdallat (اهل الهمة - عمر العبداللات) Jordanian
This is the only Jordanian song on the list. When I visited Jordan I bought a bunch of their folk/nationalistic songs and started to like them. Most praise the king and the country and the army, but they sound good so I listen to them. Omar Al Abdallat sings a lot of these patriotic songs, but there are some really good ones. This song in particular is about the strength of the Jordanian people. Other good songs in this vein are دير بالك ع بلادك (Look after your country). I imagine Omar isn't so famous outside of Jordan because of the subject of his songs. Is a Syrian going to want to listen to how great the Jordanian king and people are? Probably not. I just care about how the song sounds though.