Alaa Wardi’s wiggling eyebrows and bushy hair are as recognizable as the madcap backdrops to his YouTube videos: the Technicolor Post-it wall from his cover of Lorde’s “Royals,” the floor-to-ceiling cardboard boxes from his interpretation of Rihanna’s “Stay,” and the patterned mattresses from the makeshift sound room where he has paid tribute to Arab singers like Nancy Ajram, Cheb Khaled, and Amr Diab, among others.
“My studio is kind of crowded—that’s what happens when you work from home,” Wardi explains, grinning from behind his computer screen in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Over the last three years, the 27-year-old Saudi-Iranian has used this computer and microphone to become a Middle Eastern YouTube darling, garnering more than 36 million views of the 30-some songs he’s produced in Arabic, English, French, Korean, and Hindi. His covers include Slumdog Millionaire’s “Jai Ho,” Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” and the latest, a silly version of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” embellished with puppets, body percussion, and running commentary in the style of the minions from Despicable Me—only in Arabic.
Wardi may well be the only Saudi a cappella musician on YouTube, and he’s certainly the only one to go viral. Born in Riyadh to an Iranian family with a furniture business, Wardi studied music at the University of Jordan, thinking he would work in audio engineering when he returned to the kingdom after graduation in 2008. But then he found YouTube.