How Arab Funk Is Going Global

8 minute read

In London’s Jazz Cafe, the sound of Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum’s song Alf Leila Wleila is reverberating around an atmosphere of anticipation. Fragments of light are reflecting off the Camden venue’s rotating disco ball—lighting up the faces of an intimate crowd who are waiting, drinks in hand, for Berlin record label Habibi Funk’s first live music show to start.

It’s late August and this diverse group of music lovers doesn’t seem entirely sure what they’re in for. But when Lebanese musician Charif Megarbane and his band takes the stage, the crowd loosens up. Tall and floppy-haired, Megarbane delights audience members with multi-instrumental songs from his new album Marzipan, which was released in July by Habibi Funk. “Hopefully you appreciate it all and thank you again for coming,” Megarbane says, to cheers, as he warms up the crowd.  

In recent years, global interest in Arabic music has surged. TikTok and Instagram have helped a new wave of Arab talent such as Saint Levant, Issam Alnajjar, and Wegz reach tens of millions of people. Parties such as Beirut Groove Collective, Laylit, and DJ Nooriyah’s Middle of Nowhere frequently sell out in London, New York, and other Western metropolises. All of this has even prompted the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the global body for recorded music, to launch in November the first ever regional MENA music chart.

Habibi Funk, which officially launched in 2015 by German producer Jannis Stürtz, is one of a small handful of Western labels to play a role in the growing global popularity of Arabic music. Stürtz has also built a prolific DJ presence, hosting sold out parties and performing at festivals under the Habibi Funk name, which helps more unlikely young listeners to engage with Arabic music, in some cases for the first time.

“I found Habibi Funk on Spotify this year. There’s one song I’m obsessed with at the moment, it’s called Badala Zamana,” Ellen Gilsenan-McMahon, a 29-year-old English attendee who came alone to see Megarbane perform, says between songs. Her entry point to the label was via Turkish music played at Worldwide Festival in the southeast of France this summer, which led her to arrive at Arabic music by extension. Any assumption that Habibi Funk only serves Arab diaspora communities was quickly debunked by Gilsenan-McMahon, and a quick glance at everyone else in the room.

“That’s the cool thing with Habibi Funk, they have such a varied audience,” Megarbane tells TIME the morning after his Jazz Cafe debut. “The fact that it wasn’t only Arabs, I was shocked.” 

Megarbane first met Stürtz a few years ago when the producer came to his new home in Lisbon, Portugal to present a documentary. He gave Stürtz a vinyl copy of his music, and the pair eventually decided to work together on Marzipan, Habibi Funk’s first full-length contemporary release. He says he was drawn to the label’s body of work; the label started out with a focus on re-issuing rare—and sometimes forgotten—Arabic records from the 1960s to 1980s. That includes Musique Originale De Films by widely known Algerian movie composer Ahmed Malik, and The King Of Sudanese Jazz by Sharhabil Ahmed, as well as a number of compilation albums.

“Even some of the Lebanese music they put out, some people didn’t know it because it wasn’t well distributed,” Megarbane says. “You have this German label introducing you to the flowers in your own back garden.”

Stürtz says his introduction to Arabic music was purely happenstance. He was working as a tour manager at Jakarta Records, the Berlin-based umbrella label that now houses Habibi Funk, when he accompanied one of their musicians to a music festival in Rabat, Morocco, in 2012. “I randomly walked the streets of Casablanca and came across this super tiny shop with broken electronics,” Stürtz says, adding that the repair shop was once a popular record store that went out of business but retained its music collection. It was here that he picked up a record by funk artist Fadoul, who credited James Brown on the reverse of the record.

Stürtz, co-founder and curator of Habibi Funk, sifts through records in 2021.Courtesy Jannis Stürtz

“I got home and was very excited when I heard the song. He’s basically a Moroccan guy who was heavily influenced by American rock and funk, and created his own take on it,” Stürtz says. This experience led Stürtz on a hunt to learn about more Arab artists. The journey birthed Habibi Funk as we know it, a business that has put out 26 releases so far. 

But Stürtz is keen to point out that he is aware of his responsibilities as an outsider, at a time of growing concern around cultural appropriation. “As a European label, dealing with music from outside my culture, and being a guest to that culture, which is an exchange that has historically been dominated by exploitation… we make sure that how we interact with the artists and contracts doesn’t fall into this trap.” 

For Stürtz, he says that means putting money where his mouth is. Every Habibi Funk reissue divides its profits 50-50 between the label and the artist (or their living relatives who consented to the release). Major labels often take up to 80% of revenue from a record deal, with the rest divided between the artist and other collaborators. Stürtz also notes that a lot of labels in the Middle East own vast amounts of licensing rights, so it would be easy to create re-issued records without the approval of the artist. But he says Habibi Funk has no interest in operating in this way. “It’s really easy to criticize and zoom in on one small thing,” Megarbane says, “but as long as it’s done in an ethical manner… it’s an exchange.”

Additionally, Stürtz has also learned to navigate the line between allyship and saviorism. He calls European border policies a "fascist mess" and is critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. He has also used the label to fundraise for charities that provide humanitarian relief in the region. The label raised almost $20,000 worth of sales in 48 hours to aid victims of the 2020 Beirut port explosion that killed 218 people. All proceeds from a release last month will go toward floods in Libya that claimed thousands of lives.

But what makes Habibi Funk unique is that it features Arab artists who proudly show that music has always been a two-way cultural exchange. Saif Abu Bakr—another artist who collaborated with Habibi Funk on a re-issue of the the album Jazz, Jazz, Jazz, which was recorded in 1980 with the Sudanese rock and roll band The Scorpions—once played alongside American Soul legend James Brown during his 1978 performance in Kuwait. “James Brown said, 'Wow, I just can’t believe it, people in this part of the world know my songs',” Abu Bakr recalls. Abu Bakr, who was an admirer of The Scorpions before he first played with the band when he was 18 years old, says he was shaped by Eastern and Western music alike—and that Ethiopian, Somali, and Eritrean music have inspired him just as much as listening to Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett.

Stürtz reached out to Abu Bakr 35 years after Jazz, Jazz, Jazz came out. “We were surprised,” Abu Bakr says. “Some of his comments said this music actually came before its time. He said if it was done now, it would have been much more known.” 

The same goes for Lebanese musician Rogér Fakhr, a singer-songwriter who featured on a Habibi Funk fundraising compilation for the Beirut port explosion, as well as his album Fine Anway, a rare English language reissue. “We were getting this mix of culture in our heads growing up in our late teens and early 20s and Lebanon itself was a combination of Western and Arabic Babylons. You walked down the street and you had the smells of meshwi, and falafel, and Arabic music was blaring from the radios,” he says, referring to the late 1960s and early 1970s. But, Fakhr adds, the youth in cosmopolitan Beirut was also more focused on the likes of Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix.

Whether it’s the undeniable influence of American singer songwriters on Fakhr’s life, the Italian film scores that inspire Megarbane, or the borrowing of the Hindi language in the refrain on Badala Zamana, by Algerian musician Zohara, these songs can almost never be entirely Arabic in isolation. “We’re interested in musicians who took something that came from the outside, and tried to translate it into their local context,” Stürtz says. More than anything, Habibi Funk is a time capsule that gathers the best that music once had to offer, and releases it back into today's world.

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