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I can’t tell you how honoured and lucky I feel that we have this very special list from the lead vocalist of one of of my new favourite bands.

Zohra Atash is the vocalist for Azar Swan and their album “Dance Before War” has not left my playlist ever since I stumbled across it.  It owes its dues to the best of The Cure “Disintegration” era crossed with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus and Kate Bush but yet sounds completely fresh, unique and different to all of it!

I am of the opinion that this lady is one of the most remarkable vocalists of our time. Her voice is just beyond incredible, it transports me to to another dimension, a much more beautiful one, than the world we live in.  She has drawn comparisons to Kate Bush but to simply say that she sounds like Kate Bush would be doing a massive injustice and disservice to Zohra’s unique vocal prowess and beautiful sound.  It is the magic of Zohra’s addictive voice that has really drawn me into the Azar Swan album.

Finding out that Zohra was also into Middle Eastern music, like me, made my day, so I asked her to curate a special Top 10 (that has become a Top 15) focusing on Middle Eastern and Asian vibes and this list goes straight to my heart.  I am in heaven!!!  Some new revelations in this list for me like that heart breaking second Fairuz track, the gorgeous Afro-Turkish vibes of Esmeray and the Afghan Elvis, Ahmad Zahir!!!! Wow!!!

I am sure there will so much new and fascinating material in this list even for those familiar with this kind of music.  It will also serve as a great introduction for those who might not be.  Trust me you will be drawn in after listening to these selections.

Zohra took a lot of time over curating this list and she says:

“I really wanted to curate something special that folks with no background would understand.  I hope this is okay, as I took it to heart and spent a fair bit of time on it.”

Over to Zohra, in her own words!!

25

My name has a curious “h” that confounds most native English speakers as the pronunciation does not warrant the “H”. It is z OR – uh, rhymes with Laura. While I was born in Florida, my parents wanted to keep the essence of it’s Arabic origin, which has a very clear and distinct “h” sound. In Arabic, the “h” creates this beautiful rest between the zo and the ra.

I grew up speaking Farsi/Dari and English, but at the age of five my mother started teaching me Arabic. We would sit on the couch with a stack of blue flashcards and she’d attempt to teach me the points of articulation that were completely foreign to me. At one point, she just put her finger right in the middle of my throat and gave it a light push to get the correct throat sounds, which to a westerner would be akin to a really exaggerated “YUCK”.

Middle eastern music – dabke music and mawals particularly – is inside my heart and in my DNA, and It is absolutely my favorite music to sing to. There are these microtonal movements which have these colors and emotion and nuances that don’t exist in western music.

In my western vocal training there was always emphasis on where your notes were being pulled from: sing from diaphragm with an open throat and a mouth you could fit you whole fist in. The notes flow and and bleed.

There’s so much more freedom singing in Arabic; there’s flow but within that there are these microrhythms because of the rests within words. The notes can be pushed by points in chest, through the nose, or from a lowered or raises larynx. It rises. It drops. It sparkles.

I’m stretching the borders a bit.

Fairuz – Dabke Lebnan/Habaytak Bisayf

This is one of my favorite Dabke songs. It starts at 6:02 and it’s particularly great cos of the female dancers dressed like dudes.

This song just may be one of the most beautiful and powerful songs ever sung.

Omar Souleyman – Leh Jani/Lansob Sherek

I don’t care what folks say in youtube comment sections, Omar Souleyman is fantastic and I love his dabke music.  It’s powerful. I don’t like voices because of technical proficiency.  I’m in it for the soul, spirit, and heart.

Oum Kalthum – Enta Omri

A voice that transcends race, religion, and time.

Ofra Haza – Im Nin’Alu

Yemenite Jew singing in Hebrew and English who’s dueted not only with Andrew Eldridge, but Iggy Pop with the voice of a Goddess.

Abdel Halim Hafez – Ahlif

I always thought Abdel Halim Hafez was the Arab Jacques Brel. Born the same year, they both started their career the same year, both have undeniably powerful voices, both performers sang as if they were slightly to very unhinged, and both died before the age of fifty.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Sansoon Ki Mala

I sometimes feel like we are so small. We are just little specs of light. But Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice was larger than anything I can take in with my eyes. I once listened to this song over and over in a bathroom of a hotel in Paris. I wasn’t having a particularly good time, and there was this bit of vocal acrobatics I needed to nail. Even though it’s at the top of his range, and in a comfortable space in mine, the speed and landings were difficult to maneuver. It’s still not perfect, but I get pretty close. (3:55 – 4:03)

live version:

Kouroush Yaghmaei – Havar Havar

The youtube description says it best, “Sultun e rock e Iran”.

Googoosh – Talagh

It’s Jesus Christ Superstar meets Iranian Orchestral Pop

Natacha Atlas – Fun Does Not Exist

One of the only few contemporary fusion artists of middle-eastern music I don’t want to push out of a window. In fact, I want to give her a great big hug, I love her so.

Esmeray – Nereye

Afro-Turkish voice of velvet.

The Devil’s Anvil – Besaha

I love psychedelic music from Texas to Turkey. The Devil’s Anvil was formed in New York City in the mid 60’s and only released one record creatively titled Hard Rock from the Middle East which is crazy good. And just like this list, the borders are stretched, as there’s a cover of the Greek “Miserlou” as well as the rebetiko-esque sung in Greek “Kley”.

Dead Can Dance – Persian Love Song

I love songs like “Cantara” and “Rakim”, but I chose this song because Lisa Gerrard is actually singing in Farsi. In a strange accent, but farsi all the same. I would recognize the word “jange” anywhere.

Ustad Nainawaz – Khoda Jaan

My father would sit at the harmonium and play every evening. On weekends the house would be filled with the smell of food and booze and tablas and santoors and singing. Music would be played sitting on the floor, in a circle. The sound of non-players reaction to the music was just as much a part of the whole experience. This sound is home to me.

Ahmad Zahir – Khoda Bowad Yaret

Ahmad Zahir is in the hearts of every Afghan. He was trained by Ustad Nainawaz in Pre-Communist Afghanistan. He’s a symbol of the last of hopeful and happy days. He is called the Afghan Elvis, but to me and to so many of us, he means so much more. Music is healing, and this man’s music has pulled people out of darkness. May he rest in peace.

Mohammed Rafi – Jaan Pehchan Ho

Like Bollywood Fosse or something. Good fun.

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Grab the Azar Swan album “Dance Before The War” on I-Tunes!

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