Interview: Jordanian Pop Singer Jaafar Al-Saleh On Modernising Arab Music

Jordan, Jafaar, Jafaar Music, Jaafar Al-Saleh, Arab Music, Cheb Mami, Algerian Rai, Music, Middle Eastern Music
Photo: Lina Fansa
He may be the nephew to King Abdullah II of Jordan, his mother may be Princess Zein bint Hussein, but Jaafar Al-Saleh is his own man on a mission to bridge East and West melodically, with aims to modernise Arab music

Jaafar is member of the Jordanian royal family, something that he doesn’t want to get out too much. He grew up partly in Jordan and Miami, Florida. When he started his music career, he dropped his last name so people wouldn’t find out his family background. Not because he’s ashamed. He has his family’s support but he’s adamant about paving his own way.“My family is all very supportive but when people hear that I’m a member of the Jordanian royal family, they often stop focusing on my music,” he laughs.

Photo Credit: Lina Fansa

Rock, Pop, Country- everything inspires Jaafar. “It’s weird, when I was growing up in the Middle East, all I listened to was anything but Arabic music. When I lived in the US, I started listening to Arabic music.”

It was seeing Sting and one of his musical influences, Cheb Mami, an Algerian Raï artist perform live in Jordan that Jaafar knew he wanted to be a singer. The two performed their song Desert Rose and Jaafar was hooked. “It was as if the room stood still. Growing up in Jordan, we only had one English radio station at the time and after that it was concerts. I began to expose myself to a world of different genres: rock and pop. I really started to like these new sounds,” he said. “Middle Eastern artists are often formed in the shape of the people that have come before them, without having to modernise or change their sounds. And that’s very evident in their live shows. It’s the same of what was done in the ‘70s and ‘80s and I want to change this.” 

When he first started making music it was in English but then he realised it had an oriental feel to it, that’s what he was gravitating to, and decided to stick to making Arab music. But, he’s seeing that Arab music needs to innovate. “I think there’s more people my age who want to listen to a fusion of Middle Eastern, and pop/Western sounds. And I hope that the Middle Eastern music industry opens up to that as well, because it’s very stubborn in what gets played on the radio. I want to make it my mission in the Middle East to break down that barrier."

Slowly but surely pop music is becoming more relevant in the Middle East, so is Hip Hop. “People are listening to artists like Drake, and songs like Old Town Road and they’re wanting to hear these sounds in Arab music. Jay-Z did it a lot and in the early 2000s. But after September 11, people in the West were afraid of Arabic music. Now it’s coming up a lot more.”

It’s clear that Jafaar believes Arab music needs to open up to other genres and he believes he is a part of the innovation. “I want to modernise the sounds a bit and what it means to be an Arab artist. Looking abroad, I want to take the sounds we have here and introduce them to people in a way that’s easy to conceive. Arab music is much more complex than Western music. There’s much more colour to paint with musically in this part of the world. I have that in my arsenal and this is what differentiates me in the West because I have these musical tools to use.”

Jaafar’s new single,“OK 3adi” will be released on August 29th.

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Jordan, Jafaar, Jafaar Music, Jaafar Al-Saleh, Arab Music, Cheb Mami, Algerian Rai, Music, Middle Eastern Music
Photo: Lina Fansa