“Alaa Wardi is my name, making music is my trade, bringing happiness is my desire.”
Alaa Wardi marches to the beat of his own drum, both figuratively and literally: Among other talents, he’s a body percussionist. Dubbed in March as “Saudi Arabia’s King of YouTube” by The Atlantic, he prefers a simpler introduction. “My name is Alaa Wardi, and I am a musician and a YouTuber.”
The 27-year-old has been captivating a global online audience for nearly three years from his bedroom studio in his family home in Riyadh. Singing covers and original songs in Arabic, English, French, Urdu, Hindi and gibberish (his word), he is nothing if not one of the most creative among the musicians who claim YouTube as their primary stage.
Taking the idea of a one-man band into the digital era, he taps, snaps, claps, rubs and smacks his hands, chest, cheeks and fingers to create percussive textures, and mixes them with vocal pops, ticks, clicks, warbles, coos and bubbles (his word, again) as well as lyrics. Some choral or multi-vocal parts he records multiple times, overdubbing his own sounds with what then appear to be digital clones who together produce all of the bass, tenor, alto and soprano parts, accompanied by more vocal imitations of guitars, bass, strings, brass and snap, beat, kick and snare percussion. At the same time, his self-mounted camera catches him, usually with headphones on, shaking his shoulder-length, tousled curls, playfully flashing his magnetic smile—all in snappy edits that give his songs as many visual delights as aural ones.
Among his influences, he credits the polyphonic vocal-percussion style of Bobby McFerrin, whose 1988 “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was the first a cappella arrangement to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. But Wardi brings both a 21st-century technical edge and a Middle Eastern vibe that comes off cool in the international venue of YouTube. His playful humor mixes melody, technology and culture to create memorable, feel-good mashups.
At last count, Wardi had 36 videos that give front-row seats to a global YouTube audience of some 36 million. There is something for everyone, from Bollywood in Hindi to Rihanna in English, Amr Diab in Arabic and Wardi’s originals. Each one is a distinctive, complex musical and visual collage.
Growing up in an Iranian family in the Saudi capital, Wardi—who speaks five languages—is one of three children. His grandfather and cousins play music as a hobby, and his brother is an animator. Wardi, however, set out to make the arts his career. He studied music at Jordan University in Amman, and after graduation in 2008, he returned home.
“Living in Riyadh is actually good for me because I get to have more time in my studio to work and less things to distract me. And since my work is online, it is not limited to any country or city,” he wrote by email.
Many of his compositions are entirely solo efforts, from concept to finished upload. It can take a month to record and edit a single four-minute video. True to his online medium, Wardi relies on social media and user feedback to brainstorm, distribute and promote. He records, mixes and edits all of the separate parts, and then pieces them together into a linear kaleidoscope of sight and sound. In some of the videos, he actually plays piano or guitar, but most of the time, it is just him, a cappella. By himself. His “clones” often look contemplative and patiently “wait” to perform, or they wink or grin. While this multi-panel style of video editing is common among a cappella YouTubers, Wardi does it masterfully, and he injects catchy Middle Eastern beats into every song—including his recent cover of Lorde’s pop hit “Royals.”
“The twelve of us are playing together, I’m the one in the center with the baby guitar,” he wrote to describe “Risala Ela…” (“Letter to…”), one of his Arabic solo videos in which he reproduced his image to appear to be in a room surrounded by doppelgängers.
His fans love it.
“I’ve listened to this more times in a row than there are Alaas on screen,” commented Mark Mangan on the “Risala Ela…” video.
Like his music, his video backdrops are often simple. One consists of Indomie ramen noodle boxes, cartons of Kit-Kat chocolate bars and various cardboard boxes from Panda Stores, a Saudi supermarket chain. These boxes, too, are a kind of visual clue to his influences: He is a patchwork of eastern and western styles.
This shows also in language. Although Wardi is multilingual, he makes it a point to sing also in languages he doesn’t understand, just to show that good music can translate to any tongue—or even none:
In his soulful “Shalamonti Fel7al,” he sings a faux-Arabic that he explains at the beginning is only “gibberish.” “Some of my favorite songs that I’ve listened to a thousand times, I really don’t know what they’re about, I just make up words to sing along! So to me personally, I don’t always care what the song is about as long as it’s good,” he explained.
“Either I pick an old song that had its glory once or a new song that is a hit right now. In both cases, I choose songs that are musically interesting to me and have the possibility to turn into an a cappella,” he said.
Other times, he collaborates: For a cover of the A. R. Rahman hit “Jai Ho,” composed for the Hollywood blockbuster film Slumdog Millionaire, he teamed up with Eugene, Oregon, a cappella YouTuber Peter Hollens. He has appeared in videos by fellow Middle Eastern YouTubers such as Fahad Albutairi, Hisham Fageeh and Ali Kalthami, who are all members of Telfaz11, an online Arabic network that streams some of the most popular YouTube-created shows in Saudi Arabia. With them earlier this year, he produced a Saudi-guys cover of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” that is up to 1.6 million views, and last year they put together his only video to step into political satire, “No Woman, No Drive,” based on the Bob Marley tune “No Woman, No Cry,” that has garnered more than 11 million views.
As much as he enjoys the camera, he also sings lead vocals for his indie band Hayajan (Outburst), made up of himself and four friends from Amman whom he met during his university days. Last year, they released “Ya Bey,” an original Arabic-language album, and, singing in Arabic, they have covered both Arabic and English songs, notably a silky, Arabic cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”
“I have the most unhealthy schedule on the planet,” he admitted. “I never know what’s happening in the next day and when. I sleep, eat and work at any time. And my sleeping time always changes.” He added that the pressure to impress is getting greater, and he constantly feels the need to execute better ideas. His fans help: Upon uploading a video, he includes a note asking for feedback and suggestions of new covers.
Scrolling down Wardi’s YouTube comments, one finds viewers from Japan, Poland, all over the Middle East, Africa and the Americas earnestly populating the threads with positive emoticons and verbal high-fives. “Good job, from a Mormon in Logan, Utah,” wrote Riley Warner. “100 times better than original. Hats off, man,” commented Ankur Saraswat on Wardi’s Hindi cover of Bollywood classic “Pehla Nasha.” On one of his Arabic-language songs, Fonsise Holani wrote, “I love this, really beautiful. Brings tears.”
“Every kind of support I get from my listeners encourages me,” Wardi wrote. “So yes, that feeling gets stronger. There are always ways to reach to your dreams.”
But commenter Al Ectic seemed to sum it up, picking up 47 likes on his eight-word quip: “This guy is an endless ocean of talent.”
||Jasmine Bager is a Saudi Hispanic multimedia journalist who grew up in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. She loves exchanging emails at [email protected], where she often writes about art, international issues and singing in gibberish.