A Podcast Takes Listeners on Tours of Arabic Music
Last month in the Manara Arts & Culture space in Amman, the team behind the popular music podcast Dom Tak held their first live performance to herald the show’s second season.
Produced by the Sowt, an Arab podcast company, Dom Tak joins the ranks of Sowt’s other popular shows, such as Blank Maps and Eib, which include discussions of statelessness in Arab countries and probing episodes on supposedly taboo topics.
The rapid explosion of Arabic podcasts and audiences in the past few years has led to a proliferation of podcasts that can be heard on a variety of platforms, including Apple Music, Spotify, Anghami and Podcast Arab. (See a related article, “Arab Podcasts Find a Growing Audience”.)
The first season of Dom Tak, released in April 2019, concentrated on famous yet underrepresented female singers of classical tarab and folk music from around the region. According to the podcast presenter, Rana Daoud, the majority of singers were new to her and generally “not familiar to our [younger] generation.” Including the likes of the Lebanese singer Nahawand and the Moroccan pop singer Aziza Jalal, the podcast season explored the personal, often tragic, circumstances and stories behind the overlooked divas of Arabic music.
Initially, the stories and research behind the podcast came from a collaboration with Ma3azef, the first online music magazine fully in Arabic. The podcast’s first episode, on Nahawand, used the research material from an article by Nour Ezz El-Din that detailed the singer’s almost forgotten, powerful will to sing despite her family’s initial objections to a life on stage and her decades of struggling in the music industry.
Dom Tak Live Performance in Amman of episode 2 on music talent shows
The project carved out a new space for musical storytelling in Arabic. At first, the collaborative research and production effort between the writers, producers, and editors was daunting.
Coming from a news background, Daoud was concerned. “In the beginning,” she said in an interview, “I was hesitant to get on a music specialty show because I like to think of myself as a listener: I’m not an expert in any way.”
But she was eventually convinced: “I liked the idea of how feminist the show is. A lot of the struggles that we highlighted in fact still exist in the music industry.”
The show’s format focuses on storytelling. We “don’t want to be patronizing to people, to teach them about music,” said senior producer Sabreen Taha. Rather, she said, the show seeks to highlight “different perspectives of music and artists” and tries to break stereotypes. Over one season, the producers say the show has gained wide traction in the Arabic-speaking world, with the majority of its listeners coming from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
A Variety of Formats
Dom Tak’s narrative style is far from the only format that Arab-centered musical programs are produced in. Some music podcasts are in interview format, such as the Riyadh-based Al-Nadi podcast. Others are in a more informal conversational style, such as the London-based program DanDana.
One of the earliest podcasts concentrating on Arab musical heritage, Rawdat al-Balabel, came from a collaboration between the Lebanon-based Foundation for Arab Music Archiving and Research, AMAR, and the Sharjah Art Foundation.
Produced from 2013 to 2017, Rawdat al-Balabel was split into four topics—“audition,” or the analysis of a given work; musical systems; the history of musical events and figures; and “the paths of melody.” The programs were centered on AMAR’s extensive collection of early Arab music recordings from 1900 to the 1930s.
The podcast Dom Tak doesn’t want to be “patronizing to people, to teach them about music,” says senior producer Sabreen Taha. Instead, it highlights different perspectives of music and tries to break stereotypes.
According to Mustafa Said, AMAR’s director and a musician, the program was intended to be instructional. “The podcast was the idea of how people should be presented to this music,” he said. “There was a separation in generation between this type of music and the modern or contemporary ear of the listener.”
Said and Kamal Kassar, AMAR’s founder and president, wanted to strike a different path than relegating the music collection to an archive. Their vision of the podcast, Said said, was “not like a museum but more to make people train for another wave of musical and internal development. It was ear training, if you like, to link people to their roots.”
While Rawdat al-Balabel has ended, Said has continued to produce short-form musical history episodes with Abu Dhabi-based Qposts. When asked to comment on other Arabic audio projects, Said said, “As long as they are doing something related to music, that is enough.”
Qpost episode on the recently deceased Eyptian Shaabi singer Shaaban Abdel Rahim
What’s Next for Dom Tak?
For the new season of Dom Tak, the team has set its sights higher. “We wanted to try and step back to look at music from a wider perspective,” said Taha.
Covering genres and trends in each episode, such as music videos, Arabic rock, and mahraganat, the show takes critical aim at media powerhouses like the region’s largest private satellite network, Dubai-based MBC, in the second episode, which focuses on the exploitative culture cultivated around pan-Arab singing talent shows.
Wading into other social critiques, the third episode concentrates on the Egyptian popular genre mahraganet, a type of electronic dance music, whose rise mirrors some of the social history of early hip-hop.
Presenter Rana Daoud commented on the importance of looking at the genre in its social contexts. In particular, she said, mahraganet shows “how music represents different classes in society. And how the—let’s say—the mainstream stakeholders try to suppress whatever music is noise to them. As if the people in the suburbs of Cairo do not have a music taste or do not have the right to make any music that represents them and that speaks to their struggle and background.”
Freed from the format of the individual profiles of the first season, the podcast is breaking into new, broader avenues.
“I like how [Dom Tak] breaks the idea that music has to be an elite choice or a fine choice,” says Daoud, “or you have to listen to classical music to be a music expert or to be a good music audience member. We are covering genres, like mahraganat, that are normally looked down upon or people who listen to it are stereotyped in a certain way. We are saying no, that everybody has the right to listen to music that entertains them.”