Six musicians on their work and the state of experimental music in the Arab world
My eyes filled with tears during a classical music concert in Ramallah performed by children the same age as me. After several failed attempts at trying to convince my parents to allow me to study music, I felt empty and helpless. Musical education was very expensive for my parents, being Palestinian refugees who had constantly been on the move from Lebanon to Syria and Palestine. It was painful for me to watch the serene eyes of those children performing so calmly and proudly, without a care in the world.
My family’s inability to provide such luxuries was a turning point for me, which prompted me to begin thinking about the production of music and its commercial aspects. It was also at that time that I started developing an interest in experimental music, and questioned not only music, but also sound in general. Full of questions and yearning to create, I soon asked myself, who is eligible to produce music? Afterwards, I began recording different sounds in my surroundings, which I found ripe for experimentation. A space such as Palestine is full of influences that make one think about the very meaning of sound itself.
Sound in Palestine is affected by instantaneous elements. During the Intifada, the sonic experience was terrifying. A tank moving on a street would produce the feeling of an earthquake. The sounds made by these instruments of war relied heavily on momentary experiences, which gave a feeling of unpredictability as to what would happen next. I find the state of being in Palestine very similar to experimental sound production, as the latter is not independent, but rather unstable, broken, volatile, disturbing, and quite cacophonous, not unlike the sounds of war.
A year ago, I began working on an experimental music project called Shams Asma, meaning both ‘Asma’s Sun’, and ‘Highest Sun’ in Arabic. The project was the direct result of my inability to pursue musical education as a child. I began recording different sounds – the sounds of machines, daily movements, silence, musical instruments, electronic sounds, etc, with an aim to criticise the transformation of lifestyles and the phenomenon of construction in Palestinian cities, focusing on the questions that arise around the audio-visual transformation of ugly, yet beautiful, independent yet occupied cities, as well as other contradictions.
As part of my research for the ongoing Shams Asma project, and to find out more about the experimental music scene in the Arab world, I spoke with six prominent experimental musicians and sound artists from around the Levant and neighbouring Egypt: Sary Moussa (a.k.a Radio KVM; Lebanon), Jad Atoui (Lebanon), Donia Jarrar (Palestine), Stormtap (Palestine), and Ismail Seleit and Mohamad Ali Talybab of Elmanzouma (Egypt).
How would you define the type of sound that you ‘practice’?
Sary Moussa – I’ve never led unidirectional research in terms of sound and genre … to try and put it in words, I’m interested in mutation; music … at the intersection of sonic references and that is trying to create a space of its own … But as my answer [might] change in a matter of hours, what I just said might not be valid anymore!
Mohamad Ali Talybab – … We do not want to confine ourselves to a specific musical definition … I can’t say we are [playing] hip-hop, for example. Music evolves [from our] environment, and we are part of it. [In] the end, what we make is an expression of noise, or a recording of a boring sound field for 20 minutes or so.
Donia Jarrar – … Each medium reaches audiences in different ways. For example, if you are writing [music] for an orchestra, you only have control over the notes on the page, [not] over the many different musicians who will be performing your work … you can have 15 musicians all playing the same notes, but they will not play them in the same way. You can have 15 dancers listening to the same sounds, but they will not hear them the same way. That is what I love about experimental orchestral writing – you can only expect the unexpected.
Stormtrap – It has always been a challenge for me to define my sound … Mainly, it is because I am into different styles; sometimes you [can] label my music as pure hip-hop, [while at] other times it [can] be labeled [as] ambient or electronic … I’m not a fan of labels and categorisation … [but] if I would have to explain to someone what I do … I write lyrics, speak, rap, and produce music on my laptop using both analog and digital sounds.
I find the state of being in Palestine very similar to experimental sound production, as the latter is not independent … [it is] unstable, broken, volatile, disturbing, and quite cacophonous, not unlike the sounds of war
Who were/are your strongest musical influences?
Jad Atoui – Today, I listen to many musicians, [who each come from] different backgrounds, [such as] DJ Shadow, Secret Chiefs, Flying Lotus, David Lynch, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. My perception of natural sounds, as well as manmade [ones] are what influence me the most, [though]. I always work on giving an identity to my projects, [like I did] with the Oriental feeling on Black Sea.
Sary Moussa – [My influences] have been ever-changing. I used to listen to a lot of drill, drum and bass, and two-step music, and I still do. [I have also been influenced by] the work of Thelonious Monk, La Monte Young, Philip Glass, and Moondog. [On the other hand], I find very inspiring the techno of the Birmingham and Manchester scenes, like what [you hear] on the Downwards and Modern Love labels, for instance.
Ismail Seleit – Personally, I’ve been influenced by the minimalist, blues, post-rock, and punk movements. I like simple, repetitive, loud, noisy, and unorganised stuff.
Mohamad Ali Talybab – My [musical] background [has been] very much affected by old-school hip-hop, jazz, soul, funk, and psychedelic rock … Gil Scott-Heron, Fela Kuti, Nina Simone …
Donia Jarrar – My mother is a pianist, and I grew up listening to her playing pieces by Chopin and Beethoven … they were some of my first musical influences … At the age of nine, I discovered my older brother and sister’s collections of Bjork, Radiohead, and Aphex Twin, and I was excited at the thought of being able to use technology to capture nature and emotion.
John Cage is one of my favourite composers; he understood that all sound is music, and that even silence is not truly silent. ‘Whether I make them or not, there are always sounds to be heard, and all of them are excellent’, he said of [his] music. I feel the same way about people’s emotions or reactions, and their expressions – I study them, and try to capture them through sound.
What prompted you, initially, to begin creating music? When did you begin working as experimental sound musicians?
Jad Atoui – I started producing electronic music in 2008. I was into Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Autechre, and was always wondering how such sounds were created in the 80s and 90s … so I started messing around with my laptop, and trained myself to the point where I was able to compose a track.
Sary Moussa – [There was no] single [impetus]; I find myself enjoying the sounds of a drum machine going through a malfunctioning amplifier, or a synthesiser pushed to its limits, drowned in reverb, as much as looped tribal North African folk music, 120 bpm techno, krautrock, or even sped-up Syrian synthesised pop. One source of inspiration that I am applying in the process of writing my album right now is building loops and trying to take [them] as far as possible within the limitations of the machines in the studio … I discovered DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) early [on], and [since then] it’s been non-stop. My first serious gig was in 2008 with the Lebanese-Palestinian artist OkyDoky.
Donia Jarrar – I began experimenting, making sounds, and creating my own pieces on the piano at the age of four. I would try to mimic the sounds of nature and the people around me. I used [music] as a communication tool, to tell a story, to describe through the pitch formations what I had heard.
The majority of Oriental and experimental music in the Arab world has been running [around] in circles for a while now, and maybe this is because we still have to admit that our cultural identity is ever-changing and not necessarily related to one single geographical reference
What’s your take on the experimental music scene in the Arab world?
Jad Atoui – In my opinion, the Arab experimental music scene is ambitious … the main problem is the lack of education when it comes to our traditional music. Consequently, some of the experimental music projects happening don’t give a push forward to the scene. For this reason, I’m trying to [further] my education and increase my knowledge when it comes to our traditional music to give an identity to my experimentation with sounds. Despite all [the problems, though], the scene is growing, and some great musicians are working hard [to give] the scene a big ‘push’.
Sary Moussa – We cannot confine everyone that is experimenting with music and who happens to be an Arab in the same category; there is nothing such as an ‘experimental scene’ in that sense. The contrast in the end [product] between that of an oud player and [that of] an electronic musician making electronic dance music can be very different – do they belong to the same scene just because they are Arabs and are experimenting? That said, there [has been] more and more experimental music coming from the Arab world, and I find it refreshing regardless of genre. The majority of Oriental and experimental music in the Arab world has been running [around] in circles for a while now, and maybe this is because we still have to admit that our cultural identity is ever-changing and not necessarily related to one single geographical reference. Accepting it as it is and moving on can be crucial in freeing experimental artists of their limitations … it’s like a revolution that is not a solution, but [rather] one more step towards something different.
Donia Jarrar – You can see many young Arab musicians doing the same thing with their music. I believe many of us are trying to capture our surroundings and stories to [find] our own voices and gain respect in the world not just as Arab artists, but also as artists of the world. We’ve taken our historical traditions of storytelling and translated them into rap poetry, and have also become very well known for our irtijal (lit. ‘improvisation’) performing live. I still think that Arab experimental music has not found a place within the general public’s ears, although I think that is slowly changing with projects like Al-Maslakh in Lebanon and its Festival of Experimental Music.
Stormtrap – I think over the past years there’s been a lot of progress, and I feel very positive of what’s [about] to come next. I’ve been hearing a lot of great stuff on the internet, and I am also going in different directions now with my music, becoming more free and letting go of my ‘traditional’ ways. I think, on a personal level, at least, you can expect crazier, more honest, and more powerful sounds to come.