Out of the sedentary lull of the Jordanian music scene came a zeitgeist of several great (fusion) rock bands that would eventually revolutionise Jordan's musical landscape. Ahmed Yehia explores the bands that made up this powerful counterculture…
Overshadowed by three musical giants: Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, Jordan has always failed to have its distinctive musical identity. Throughout the decades, Jordanian artists have neither ventured beyond their local confines nor brought their auditory traces to Arab ears. Just like the Dead Sea, where fish could not be found, the dead musical scene had a scarcity of acts, except a few plying their trade outside their turf.
The barrenness of the Jordanian music scene wasn't perpetual. In the last few years, it has undergone an irreversible journey by its energetic youth, forming a flourishing alternative rock music scene that imposes itself as one of the top in the Middle Eastern region. With a plethora of homegrown bands, innovative musicians, lively concert venues and luring pubs, local talents started magnetising Jordan's young audiences who were striving to see something out-of-the-box.
Here is a compilation of Jordan's pioneering bands who enjoyed an explosive success and formed a wide fan base despite the daunting musical environment.
Jadal (Controversy) was the first Jordanian band to import rock from the West, chew it up and spit it out blended with Arabic elements, lyrics and most importantly an Arabic soul. Mahmoud Radaideh, a composer, guitarist, vocalist and a producer, formed the band in 2003, to enter the world of music with a rock cover of Abdelhalim's legendary hit "Al Tobah" (Repentance), evoking the curiosity of listeners who presumed that rock music cannot be played except by the West. It didn't take them more than a year for their first original track to come into being. Titled "Salma," a warm tune composed by Radaideh for his newborn nephew, they succeeded in amassing a huge following, cementing themselves as a premier rock band in the region.
Six years of boundless effort made the Arabic rock dream come true and yielded the release of their first album "Arabic Rocks." Their second album "Al Makina" (The Machine) kept their initial momentum due to its diversified collection of well-chosen tracks. The album included a track called "Bakhaf Min el Commitment" (Afraid of Commitment), which manifested their tremendous understanding of how to play audience's interest, hitting the half million bar on YouTube as a result. Jadal know how to experiment while staying true to their principals and polished rock sound. This contributes to them being featured in the third season of Coke Studio alongside the British-Japanese violinist Diana Yukawa to remove dust off the folkloric song "Jaddele Yum El Jadayel" and reproduce a new version packed with galvanising violin strums and electric guitar riffs.
After Yazan Alrousan's first project "Telifizion" had seen the light, he formed the band in 2007 to become the Mediterranean indie band in the region. Autostrad invests in the diversity of its group members to present rich music with expressive lyrics that are inspired by their collective experiences. Their albums "Fe Autostrad," "Autostrad 2011" and "Nitrogen" corresponded with the problems of youth and their satirical local slang lyrics tackled the everyday struggles of Jordanians. Autostrad's music is uniquely structured; the rhythm holds a firm base of an ergonomic structure with the simple yet efficient heartbeat of the bass. It manages to float alongside the cleverly-used keyboards and bewildering saxophone. Yazan's vocals float massively on the surface, giving purpose and clarity to a dreamlike state without awakening its listeners.
Tunisian by birth, Palestinian by origin and Jordanian by nationality, Aziz Maraka has really embraced cultural diversity. Since his childhood, he was always obsessed with music; he memorised his lessons through singing, started playing the organ and composed his original pieces when he was nine and received the 8th grade award from Trinity College London. He attained his bachelor's degree in music composition from the United States and started his professional career back in 2007. He invested his superb musicianship and his wide academic background to invent “Razz,” a style that interlaces the energetic rock melodies with the pure Arabic ideas and the smooth jazz tunes. He collaborated with Jordan’s most prominent musicians to form his own band, which included both oriental and occidental instrumentation. His first album "Master Copy" was sung completely in slang, which added an eastern twist to it and gave its unique tracks an authentic “Ammani” taste.
In order to embark on his musical endeavours and turn his abstract dreams into tangible reality, Bassem Sayej, a computer science graduate and the band's current solo guitarist and lead vocalist decided to quit his job and form Akher Zapheer in 2007. "Akher Zapheer" literally translates to "the last exhalation." The name starts with an opening A and ending a finalising Z, reflecting the fervent devotion, effort and time taken to conceive the band, settle on a musical style, switch songwriting from English to Arabic and save money for recording. They deliver hybrid influences of American, British and Turkish bands like Nirvana, Radiohead, Muse and Duman. 2012 witnessed the release of their first album "E3kes Thaqafeh" (Converse Culture), which aims to convey a message of acceptance, and introduce fans to their customised flavour so as to escape from the routine of living in Amman.
El Morraba3 (The Square) is a post-rock band formed in 2008 and carries in its music Arabic, indie and desert influences. As a square has four equal angles, so does El Morraba3. One angle holds haunting vocals, the other holds meticulously arranged lyrics, and then comes the ambient guitar sounds and intense melodies that fill the air around the rebellious words, and finally the melodic grooves that carry everything out. The bulk of their tracks show the tough realities of a corrupt, polluted and seemingly hopeless Arab world and vent out the anger of its youth. Their notes are deliciously dark and euphoric, charging listeners with an overwhelming sense of elation, while their lyrics crash them down with their intense reality. Their only album "El Morraba3" was released in 2012, successfully reflecting the torrid social conditions of the Arab citizen.
Empty Chair is a rock band that started in 2011 as an acoustic band with three of Jordan’s self-developed talents (they’re five now). Rehearsals started in the guitarist’s house and their first gig was thrown at a pub owned by a friend. Before that gig, one of the members came in with the news about travelling to Dubai after the performance, so they left an empty chair on stage for him, and the name stuck after that. In the same year, they came first in the NYIT Talent Competition in the United States and received a special mention from the eminent jury, which reflected on their local fame and demand to perform in Amman’s largest outlets. The band covered Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” as well as John Legend’s “All of Me” and other classics with an outstanding finesse. With Mohamed Taifi’s mesmerising guitar solos and Kamal Shbeir’s angry vocals that sound uncannily like Five Finger Death Punch’s Ivan Moody, the band gives no impression at all of being Jordanian.
The more impact these acts will create, the more they will bolster the scene in terms of base, output and reputation. Rock music is much more than a loud beat, it is a vehicle of emotion. A vehicle that drives the spirits of people to the land of hope. Nowadays, the Arab youth sees rock as a voice of opposition and a way to rebel against archaic social norms. Rock unites people to celebrate the beauty of taking another breath of life and turning the harsh conditions that the region is living today into a form of true art.