Mideast Tunes, especially in its new incarnation, will disabuse you of that notion.The ability to create expressive, gorgeous, geographically-agnostic gateways to the human experience is one of the true boons of the social Web. If you're still laboring under the misapprehension that the Middle East is mostly donkeys and dahabiyas,
Lauched in 2010, the site was dedicated to bridging "barriers of faith and geography to unite young people committed to fostering constructive discourse in the Middle East through music." I don't know if that's happened, but it rocks.
"Music is a huge part of our lives here," said Bahrain-based Esra'a Al Shafei, the director of MeT's parent organization, Mideast Youth "Most of the bands we have are young, but many have also been active for over a decade. We have always had an underground music scene for as long as I can remember. The main difference is that in today's age, the Internet allows people to discover and connect with these bands." MeT is becoming an important part of that process.
"The greatest success stories usually come from the PR that results for the bands that were previously unrecognized but have made it to the frontpages of CNN, TIME or NPR as a result of being discovered on Mideast Tunes," she told ReadWriteWeb. "We have seen that happen with several artists and musicians, such as Smouldering in Forgotten (Bahraini metal band), Foad Manshady (Iranian Baha'i rapper), Siwan Erdal (Kurdish rapper), amongst others. Many journalists or event management groups still get in touch with us to request information for coverage on a lot of the bands that are featured."
The redesign, led by developer Navid Safabakhsh, has made the UI much more reflective of the scintillating wash of music across the Arab world and the Mideast in general. A large, bold band of color across the top presents a featured band, and subsequently any band you choose to play. Start a song and the player will continue to feed you that band's music until you choose a different one.
Beneath a slider you are presented with the ability to browse by the most up-voted popular bands, by featured bands or by collections, including a seven-song playlist on the Arab Spring. Other rejiggered navigational buttons - all of which give you the sense that you're operating a sound board, or a space ship - give you access to music via genre (alternative to trance) or location (Afghanistan to Syria). You can search for bands by name or keyword, as well.
Additionally, as you begin to use the site, a new recommendation engine will begin to suggest bands you might like based on your listening history.
There is also a blog on site that acts as a kind of magazine on new Mideast music.
Changes to the site include:
- Completely revamped web application
- Better navigation
- Ability to easily view, share, add and explore bands
- New player
- Ability to create your own personal collection of favorite tracks
- Ability to receive suggestions for other bands based on your favorite tracks
- An iPhone application that syncs with your collection
Another change is the elimination of video, in order to, as Al Shafei told us, "to focus on the music first and foremost... we'll be sending users to these bands' YouTube channels, as it's a better place to subscribe to bands' videos and channels."
Mideast Tunes is made up of user-generated content. From singer-songwriters to traditional oud players to trance DJs, the musicians themselves are involved in putting themselves forward. Given that the Middle East is a region of great variation, that means the music as a whole reflects that.
Richard Savo and Charlie Shaabi's ElectrowaveZ is my new favorite. They are undeniable electro-house-trance. But they are ancient and specific as well, folding Arabic tonality and instrumentation into a thoroughly modern sound. It's just that it's the thoroughly modern sound of Acre, not of Berlin or Oakland. In other words, it sounds like here and now, which is built of there and then. No one listening would mistake it for Finnish music, but they wouldn't mistake it for traditional Arabic music either.
With 1,443 tracks from 409 bands, groups and individuals, you can expect the here and now to shuttle back and forth between a seemingly infinite interplay of times, sensibilities, musical traditions, contemporary genres, languages and landscapes.
There are a couple of things that stick out as less than optimal. For one, Israel, a country not deficient in music, is missing. For another, when a new band is selected it is returned in a pop-up window... which was backward. A reload fixes it, but so does a click on the information icon, so it's hard to know if it's on purpose. (If it is, eep.) Finally, clicking on the band window does not transfer the information to the main site window, which I would much prefer.
According to Al Shafei:
"The core of the project manifested from our desire to promote bands and musicians that would otherwise never be given a second glance in the international scene. We feel that is because most people would never think to look to regions like the Middle East and North Africa for highly thought provoking music. The need to change this is our driving force. We believe music can change the world and that the musicians of the Middle East and North Africa will lead the way."
Whether this music has changed, or will change, the world is hard to say. The goal of focusing attention in a fun, engaging way on a whole world of music, however, seems to have been accomplished.