Iraqi-British musician Khyam Allami on the oud, rock and roll, and his new record label
Born in Damascus, Khyam-Allami is an Iraqi multi-instrumentalist based in London. Despite his initial gravitations towards Western rock and punk music in his early years, Allami later developed a profound interest in the music and culture of not only his native Iraq, but also that of what he calls the ‘wider Middle East’. Since taking up the oud in 2004, he has gone to teach at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies), perform with renowned musicians around the world, record a highly-acclaimed solo album, and, more recently, fulfill his longtime ambition of establishing an independent record label. To find out more about what the musical prodigy has been up to lately, I chatted with Allami amidst the sounds of horns and sirens blaring from outside his window in Beirut.
You seem to have had quite an eventful past few years … WOMAD, the Royal Albert Hall, performing with Blur in Hyde Park … how do you feel when you reflect on all that’s happened in your career, recently?
I feel like not enough has happened, to be honest with you! (laughs)
Yeah … there have been a lot of shows, obviously, a lot of travelling, lots of performances, but … I guess because I’ve only had one album out, and with Alif (the band I play in with Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, Maurice Louca, Khaled Yassine, and Bashar Farran), it’s taken a couple of years to finish the album and get it ready, because we’re all scattered all over the place, and everything depends on travelling and trying to meet up, so … in a way, I feel like my creative output hasn’t been enough; I’m more active in my mind than my body can handle, so sometimes I think I just need to sit and reflect properly and think. There’s been quite a lot of output, but not enough of it has really managed to reach everybody. I feel this year is the year when people are going to be able to see the fruits of the last two or three years’ work, so that’s what’s really exciting for me right now.
I first discovered you through your debut oud album, Resonance / Dissonance, which struck me with its unconventionality. What, perhaps, was even more interesting for me, though, was to learn that you didn’t first start with the oud or classical Arabic music, but rather, the drums and rock music. When was your passion for the oud first kindled, and what led you to the world of Arabic music?
I started playing the oud in 2004; I had an interest in it, previously, around 2000, when I started listening to a lot of Indian music, and got really obsessed with how Indian music and music from the wider Middle East – the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan – ‘worked’, and why, musically, certain changes from note to note would have such a profound impact on me, personally. I tried to learn the oud, but it didn’t quite work out; the teacher I had [wasn’t good], I didn’t have a proper instrument … I let it go. Then, in 2004, my father introduced me to a friend of his – Ostad Ehsan Imam – who’s an Iraqi oud player and singer/songwriter who lives in London as well; I heard him play, and he just blew my mind, so it was the perfect opportunity to start learning properly.
At the time, I was also really influenced by, and reading a lot of stuff about mysticism in music, and the theory of music going back to Greek theory, Pythagoras, and a lot of the oud’s ‘philosophy’. So, there were various different elements – the philosophical, the spiritual, the musical, and also the compositional, the techniques, the theory …
At the same time, we had the war in Iraq in 2003, and I was really feeling completely out of balance; Iraq was suddenly in my face again in a very violent way, and I realised that I didn’t know anything about the country, about the culture … I was barely speaking Arabic at the time, and the imbalance came to light. So, with the oud, it was kind of an attempt to rebalance myself a little bit. I was also really desperate to work on music 24 hours a day, and I was obviously working in London at the time in media and radio stations, so I decided to put myself in university and study music; but I didn’t want to study classical music, and I didn’t want to study jazz or rock, so I decided to study ethnomusicology, because I thought it would help me with my research on the music of the Arab world and the larger Middle East, and give me a chance to really focus on studying the oud and getting better at that. So, I enrolled at SOAS, and did a BA while studying tabla at the same time to try and continue this love of percussion that I have, and that led on to a scholarship for a Master’s, … Then, I was teaching at SOAS for two years. That’s how everything kind of ‘developed’.
So did you sort of leave rock music completely behind and immerse yourself in the music of the Middle East and India?
I did, for a while. I stopped playing the drums when I started the oud, because it just needed so much attention, and then, obviously, I got into university, so I was studying again, and I was learning tabla at the same time, so at my first year at university I was doing tabla, gamelan, and the oud with my studies and all the research, so it was a bit difficult to keep up with the drums. Then, later on, a friend of mine, Kavus Torabi, who plays in a band called ‘Knifeworld’ ([for whom] I’d originally recorded the drums for their debut album back in 2001) called me [nine years later in 2010] and said, ‘Khyam, the album’s finally ready – I want to put the band together again … are you up for playing drums?’ I had a period where I was playing the oud solo, and drumming with Knifeworld around the UK, and shortly after that, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh decided to put a live band together and asked me to play drums with him, so I was playing drums with Tamer as well. Then, time got a bit tight with all the travelling, and all the different projects, so I had to stop playing in Knifeworld in order to be able to do everything else … This is kind of how the drumming came back into my life, and it looks like it’s going to be taking over a little bit more, soon …
But, to answer your question about rock music: I’ve always really loved music; when I listen to rock music, it doesn’t mean I listen to one type of rock music. I used to listen to Nick Drake, Sepultura, Meshuggah, David Bowie, Nick Cave, Tori Amos … I like all kinds of music. And then, obviously, when I started listening to music from Azerbaijan, music from India, I fell in love completely with Alim Qasimov, Hossein Alizadeh, Nikhil Banerjee, and loads of other musicians; so, I love music, full stop. It’s not unnatural for me to be influenced by lots of things.
I think that’s quite interesting as it mirrors my own experiences as well, in many aspects, growing up with rock music and the guitar, and later discovering classical Persian music and instruments such as the setar and the bağlama … rock music on its own left me feeling quite empty, I guess …
I have a feeling there are a lot of people who are in the same boat, even people who have nothing to do with the Arab world … people study Western classical music and go into a conservatory for 10 years and get fed up and [later] only decide to play jazz instead, or decide to study the music of Turkey, or India … The number of musicians I know who have given dedicated their lives to Indian music after studying classical cello, or whatever … there are a lot of people who find this attraction, and this kind of … what’s the word? A link, a kind of affection for music that expresses emotion in a very different way.
[Classical Arabic] music is so rich, and it hasn’t been explored … It has so many nooks and crannies, details, and magic, that there’s a lot of room for just digging deeper and deeper; but it needs a mindset that accepts change
Well, enough about rock and roll for now … tell me about your new label, Nawa, which you’ve recently founded. Where did the idea for that come from?
Starting a label had been a dream for many years. I started a label with some friends of mine in London – we were a small community of artists: myself, Kavus Torabi, a very close friend, Jason Carty, from a band called ‘Foe’, and a group of other like-minded musicians in London. We founded a label called ‘House of Stairs’ (based on the piece by M.C. Escher), and in 2003, we released four albums in one year by the various groups of people who were involved, and did a compilation album as well, called Useless in Bed. It was a very experimental label about the movement that was happening in London at the time, which unfortunately very quickly kind of dissipated, because everybody realised they weren’t making enough money and had to try and find ‘proper’ jobs, and things just kind of fell apart.
But, that was the first label experience, and once the main group of people whittled down, it ended up being Jason and I who were running everything, and Jason had to get a job, so I ended up running the label. Things didn’t go too well, and we just kind of stopped our activities in 2004, so it only lasted a year, but the dream of this musical ‘home’ and being able to release records of my own work and other musicians whom I really admired continued; so, when it came time for me to release my solo album, I started Nawa, but it was more a kind of administrative home, rather than a proper, functioning label. Over the last few years, I’d obviously met so many musicians, and had been involved in developing so many projects, and my knowledge of the music industry had grown deeper and wider, so I decided to set up a proper label with proper publishing and licensing, and most of the industry details that most people don’t think about, in order to be able to release my own work and have it documented properly, for history’s sake, and to provide a home for musicians whom I admire and respect; a home that’s really artist-friendly and that helps them and tries to realise the visions they have, and that treats them in the same way that I would want to be treated.
I’ve been working hard for a year, planning everything, trying to put it all together, and luckily, Maurice Louca agreed to work with Nawa, and we’ve worked really hard on his second album, Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan. I’m the only one whose running the label, so it’s a lot of work, and time is limited with all the other artistic activities; I’m just testing things out, and seeing how they go. If things go well, then I’m hoping that next year, Nawa will be super active, and hopefully there’ll be a nice plan for the next two to three years down the line.
The record industry is tough enough as it is (with piracy issues, competition with other forms of entertainment, etc.), and on top of that, you’ve gone and set up a niche label … do you expect the bulk of your revenues to come from record sales? Tell me a bit about the structure of the label.
Starting a label and releasing albums is an easy thing, but starting a label that actually supports artists and provides them with a backbone that can allow them to at least aim at becoming self-sustainable and have a little bit of forward-thinking takes a bit more time, and a bit more effort. The business model for Nawa is based on a licensing principle, so this way, the artists retain the ownership of all their works, while giving a license to Nawa to manufacture, distribute, and sell. The artist-label relationship is based on what they call the ‘old-school rough-trade’ style, which is basically a very standard indie label 50/50 split on all profits. I’m also trying to put together a small team to enable the artists and the albums to get the exposure they deserve – within our means, obviously – by dealing with the press through the proper channels, by working with distributors online and offline.
The other thing I’m working on is trying to make these releases easily accessible and affordable for fans in the Arab world. Working with Europe is very simple … but to deal with the Arab world, it’s not so simple, because the postal systems don’t work, people don’t really use credit cards … it makes things a little bit more difficult. I’m working very hard on trying to set up an online store that has partnerships with local delivery and shipping providers that will hopefully allow us to have a direct label-fan relationship.
It sounds really ideal – I mean, if all labels operated like that …
Yeah, I don’t know if it’s really the best business plan! (laughs) – I don’t think the label, with this kind of ideology, is ever going to become a big money-maker, but that’s not the point; the main aim for Nawa is to recoup the costs it invests, and allow the artists to develop and sustain themselves in some shape or form.
Starting a label and releasing albums is an easy thing, but starting a label that actually supports artists and provides them with a backbone that can allow them to at least aim at becoming self-sustainable … takes a bit more time, and a bit more effort
What do you envision for the future of classical Arabic music, as well as traditional instruments such as the oud? A lot of Iranian musicians I’ve talked to, for instance, are concerned about the future of Persian classical music, and about who will ‘carry the torch’ of today’s giants such as Mohammadreza Shajarian, etc. There’s also the fear that this sort of music will be more and more ‘threatened’ by other forms, such as pop (both indigenous and Western-style). What do you think?
To be honest, I think this is a lot of paranoia, because the classical Arabic music world, along with the Turkish, Iranian, Azeri, Indian – they’re all in good health. In the Arab world, the primary issue that I’ve seen, has to do with education and materials; that same problem doesn’t exist in Iran, and it doesn’t exist in Turkey – I know that from travelling to and visiting these places, and speaking with people there –
– So you’ve been to Iran?
Yeah, I went to Tehran and Esfahan in 2008 – beautiful. I loved it, really. Iran has a very special place in my heart. So, I think there’s a lot of paranoia, but there isn’t enough being done to improve the education and the transmission of these traditions – these are issues. The other thing, is that I think it’s about time to stop being afraid of change, and it’s about time to start thinking about this music in a non-rigid kind of way. Just because things have been done in a particular way – it’s even wrong to say they’ve been done in a particular way for the last 200 years, because they haven’t. That music changed and developed so much from the 1890s to the early 1940s, and in that 50-year period, people were probably saying the exact same things that everybody’s saying now. You had the introduction of the gramophone, the radio, television – they turned everything upside down. And later, the introduction of electric recordings, electric instruments, the influence of other music from around the world through gramophones and old-school vinyls and shellac discs … they made a huge difference, and I don’t think we should be afraid of that [sort of] change.
Artists like Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, Kamiliya Jubran, Hazem Shaheen, Mustafa Said – they’re all doing really amazing things with Arabic music that are forward-thinking, and that approach [traditional] music with respect for its fundamentals, but with a different vision, and I think that should be encouraged. This music is so rich, and it hasn’t been explored … It has so many nooks and crannies, details, and magic, that there’s a lot of room for just digging deeper and deeper; but it needs a mindset that accepts change and the development of things, which also includes the destruction of things, sometimes.
I completely agree. Now, lastly … and this is probably the first time I’ve asked any musician this … what would your three ‘desert island’ albums be? Supposing you knew you’d soon be exiled to some remote, inaccessible location, for instance … what would you take with you?
You didn’t prepare me for this one! OK … three desert island discs:
- Hossein Alizadeh – Raz-e No – that’s kind of a classic in my life, that’s been there for a while
- The Melvins – Bullhead
- There’s an oud album by Jamil Bashir, which I think is just called Arabesque, or something like that. It’s an old vinyl record that came out in the 70s, recorded by a guy called Jean-Claude Chabrier …