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ListenUp: Brownbook Magazine

Unique and rare sounds from the Middle East in a look at the creative publication's current music issue

by CH Editors in Listen Up on 25 May 2014

This week, we check in with Dubai-based Brownbook magazine in celebration of the mix of "legends and underground heroes" included in their current music issue. In addition to a pull-out songbook featuring sheet music from classic Egyptian songstress Umm Kulthum, the informative issue features the father of Ethiopian jazz, Mulatu Astatke, as well as the co-founder of Seattle's cult music label Sublime Frequencies, and visits a Turkish cymbal factory and the only record store in Mauritania. For a taste of the regional music grabbing Brownbook's attention, have a listen to their music issue mixtape in full and check out some individual highlights below.

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Alsarah & The Nubatones: Habibi Taal

Full of nostalgia, handclaps (and hand drums) and a decidedly warm feeling permeating the entire track, "Habibi Taal" (off the debut album Silt) is the perfect introduction to Brooklyn-based, Sudanese-born singer Alsarah and her band the Nubatones. Named “The New Star Of Nubian Pop” by the Guardian, Alsarah is a singer, songwriter and ethnomusicologist who describes her style as "East-African retro-pop." Whether familiar with the genre or not, listeners will no doubt pick up some positive vibes from the thoughtfully pieced-together song and album as a whole.

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Souad Abdullah: Yumma, al Hilou

Discovered by Sublime Frequencies and then released o"n the label's compilation Choubi Choubi! Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq, Yumma, al Hilou" is a track that we don't know much about, other than the fact that it might translate to "Mother, Here's My Beauty." Having little background information on the song makes listeners soak up its complex, fast-paced rhythms, sliding fiddles and the chanting girls. Sublime Frequencies reveals that most of the music in this album was carefully selected from Iraqi cassettes and LPs found in Europe, Syria and even Iraqi neighborhoods in Detroit.

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Noura Mint Seymali: Tzenni

Hailing from Mauritania, Noura Mint Seymali's "Tzenni" (the Hassaniya Arabic word meaning "to turn" or "to spin") is immediately intriguing and alluring. The song quickly morphs into fusion of traditional Moorish griot music, Western pop, blues, even psych-rock—aided by the guitar stylings of her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly. Seymali (who began her career at the tender age of 13, as a back-up singer for her legendary step-mother Dimi Mint Abba) belts out vocals that are powerful and rich throughout—with her emotion, passion and spirit all but tangible for listeners.

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Zeid Hamdan: Balekeh (Acoustic)

Lebanese composer and music producer Zeid Hamdan is behind some of the country's biggest regional and alternative bands. "Balekeh" is a song from 2011 performed by his band, Zeid and the Wings, from their album Aasfeh. Here, he takes the already soothing pop tune down just a perfect soulful notch with the acoustic version—"with a few ghosts on back vocals." Beautifully saccharine, the music video for the original implies it's a song about the challenges of a modern breakup in an era of digital connectivity.

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L'Orchestre National de Mauritanie: Senam-Mosso

"Senam-Mosso" is the first track off a rare album celebrating the music of L'Orchestre National de Mauritanie, a band touted as both Mauritania's first modern music group and an ideological symbol for the post-colonial country. Boldly combining electric guitars and brass instruments with classical arrangements, L'Orchestre National reigned supreme from 1968 to 1975, until a military coup ordered the burning of all music related to the Daddah regime. Thanks to a daring sound engineer who hid the music for decades, we can now enjoy this groundbreaking band today with an album cobbled together by Sahel Sounds and Mississippi Records.

ListenUp is a Cool Hunting series published every Sunday that takes a deeper look at the music we tweeted throughout the week. Often we'll include a musician or notable fan's personal favorite in a song or album dubbed #PrivateJam.

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