How The Middle East Fell For Country Music

23 March 2020
Country Music, Country and Western, Old Town Road, Music, Arab culture, Arabic Music, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Long Read, Long Reads
With its stories of homesick and heartbreak, Country is a genre that speaks to everyone, regardless of the language it's performed in

Think country music is the preserve of Americans in Stetsons and Bootlace ties? Think again. This all-American niche has found its way into the Arab subconscious. Buckle up partner, because three chords and the truth is about to hit the middle east.

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Country is a distinct genre that’s unequivocally American. But its melodic tunes aren’t new to the Middle East. The Arab world has been listening to country for at least a decade, and it popularity continues to grow.

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In 2019, across 10 Middle Eastern nations where Apple Music operates, there was a collective 75 per cent year-on-year growth of country music. The genre grew 138% in Egypt, nearly the same again in Saudi Arabia and 74% in the UAE. Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up, meanwhile,” was streamed 4.9 million times in the Middle East.

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Jaafar Al-Saleh, a Jordanian Pop singer, is an avid country music fan, having spent considerable time in Nashville, the home of country.

Jaafar-Al--Saleh

Jaafar Al-Saleh by Lina Fansa

“I don’t think it’s something that’s really that new.” He says. “I remember my friends listening to Brad Paisley in high school. Taylor Swift, Lil Nas X, Carrie Underwood, they all get heavy radio play in the Middle East.”

The way Jaafar sees it, Arabs are taking to the genre because of the subject matter. “I find that country music and mainstream Arabic music are quite similar, thematically,” he says.

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He even created an Arabic and country fused song inspired by his trip to Nashville. “I was just inspired by that scene and when I went into the studio to produce it, I incorporated different Middle Eastern musical elements. It happened quite organically. I love that song and I hope to release it one day.”

Bashar Balleh, a Syrian musician and refugee now living in Seattle, USA, mirrors Jaafar’s views. Bashar was already familiar with country’s melodic ballads.

Bashar-Balleh

Bashar-Balleh

“Growing up in Syria, I listened to Alan Jackson,” says Balleh. “I didn’t listen that much but I really liked the style of music, and when I moved to Turkey, I met Owen Harris, an American from Florida and he introduced me more to the genre.”

Today in Seattle, Bahsar mixes Middle Eastern Arabic music with country, with the aim of showing people that there are similarities between the cultures and traditions of the music, “and to show that people from the East and West we can be the same,” he says.

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Country Music as we know it today was birthed out of the American Civil War and it’s no wonder Syrians (especially if they are/were a refugee) take to the genre. Lyrics about missing home, love, loss, and disappointment resonate with their own nine-year civil war, and they have found much in the genre they can identify with.

For Bashar, his route to country wasn’t via an artist, but rather from an interest in the ideas, styles, and reasons behind their ballads. Now that he’s in Seattle, he continues to listen and play country, fusing the  American harmonies and Arabic sounds as a way of expressing himself in a different genre. “We mix the ideas and what the music is showing us, and the similarities between the two genres,” he says. “When country music talks about missing home and loved ones, we were trying to match this with Arabic Music.”

According to the record label BMG, the top five most streamed artists on YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music for 2018 and 2019 in the Middle East were Blanco Brown, Dustin Lynch, Jason Aldean, Chase Rice and Jimmie Allen.

Is there potential for an Arab, melodic country music duo down the road, the way Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus collaborated together? Possibly.

Chase Rice

Chase Rice

“I’d definitely be open to collaborating with an [Arabic artist] but for me to put something like that out, it would have to be right, and if it’s right, I’d do a collaboration with anybody.” Says country artist, Chase Rice

Duo Ryan Michaels and Shannon Haley, who form the group Haley and Michaels, also feel the same and it’s not surprising for them that the Arab world has taken to the genre. Having fans from the Middle East, particularly in the United Arab Emirates, they are open to collaborating with an artist in the region to blend the two genres.

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“The music that comes from that part of the world is so sophisticated, full of things that people in America couldn’t understand musically. It’s really cool that harmonies from America are being well received over there,” says Ryan.

Haley-&-Michaels

Haley-&-Michaels

“It’s inspiring and exciting.” Says Shannon. “Musically it makes sense because for people in the Middle East, music connects to their soul. You don’t always need to speak the same language to feel moved.”

“I think genre lines are fading away,” says Jaafar. “Country music doesn’t necessarily sound like it did a decade or so ago. You have Kacey Musgraves touring with Harry Styles, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched. Arabs are listening to all sorts of music that they weren’t necessarily listening to ten or twenty years ago.”

So, if this is the case, that Arabs have been listening to country music for over a decade, why is that?

Bashar explains: “Arabs are interested in American culture, so if you go to the Middle East, you will see them listening to very random songs. As long as it’s a nice English sounding song, they will listen to it. Country music, the way it is written, is full of notes and music. It’s not like techno. Arabs want to hear lots of notes and harmony.

With its quarter notes, Arabic Music doesn’t have harmony the way English music does. But when harmony has been introduced to Arabs in the form of country music, it’s interesting and fulfilling for them. “It’s something we aren’t used to, it’s nice sounding music.”

Every Monday night in Seattle, Bashar brings together artists to jam and blend music to Middle Eastern sounds. “I write an Arabic song full of harmony, which is not usual for Arabic music, and then I do the opposite, I take a country music sounding song and add a very Middle Eastern sounding solo on a Middle Eastern instrument. These two types of music complement each other. It rarely sounds odd and when you think about it, you think, “this is how it’s supposed to be.” All the artists here are keen on collaborating and blending the genres, so don’t be surprised if you hear a Grammy winning, Arabic country music song coming from your radio in the near future.