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INTERVIEW: Jordanian band Random House introduce their neo-Sufi sound to Egypt

Ahram Online speaks to Qais Raja, singer, songwriter and guitar player in the Jordanian band Random House, prior to the band's scheduled concerts in Cairo next week

Nourhan Tewfik , Wednesday 21 Sep 2016
Random House
Founded in 2012, Random House is a four-member Jordan-based band experimenting with Sufi music and a fusion of other sounds, including folk, indie, reggae, rock, experimental and electronica. (Photo: Courtesy of Random House)
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Jordanian band Al Bait Al 3ashwae (Random House) are scheduled to hold three concerts in Cairo next week: on 24 September at El-Genaina Theatre; on 27 September at ROOM Art Space; and on 29 September at the Cairo Jazz Club.

Founded in 2012, the four-member band describe their musical project as “experiment[ation] with the mystical and transcendental qualities of Sufi music” and “a plethora of musical backgrounds of various styles, from folk to indie, reggae to rock, experimental to electronica.”

The band’s line-up comprises Qais Raja (singer, songwriter and guitarist), Feras Arrabi (lead guitarist), Ahmad Al-Haj (bassist) and Saif Abu Hamdan (drummer). 

Ahead of their scheduled shows in Cairo, Ahram Online interviewed Qais Raja who discussed the band’s project, its "neo-Sufi" sound and the philosophy that underpins it, as well as the band’s debut album, Ya 3aleem.

Ahram Online (AO): Random House is due to perform in Cairo next week. You’ll also be sharing the stage with Palestinian musician Tamer Abu Ghazaleh in your concert at El-Genaina Theatre. Tell us more about these concerts.

Qais Raja (QJ): It’s our first time performing in Egypt. We’ve heard about how great of an experience it is to perform to Egyptian audiences and we also have some fans there, so we’re thrilled to be finally playing in Cairo. We’re particularly excited about opening for Tamer Abu Ghazaleh on 24 September. He is one of the most original and inspiring musical minds in our region.

AO: In your interview with Ma3azef, you attribute the Sufi undertones of your musical project to an interest in laying bare questions that one may ask when embarking on a spiritual journey. Tell us more about your musical philosophy and what inspires it.

QJ: Musical notes are like the colours that one chooses to explore and paint certain lines on a canvas, and a song is this canvas. There are no rules when it comes to choosing colours, just harmony that binds what’s beautiful. Spiritually, it’s all around us in nature, where the five elements are so in harmony with one another to near perfection.

AO: To what extent does the band’s name characterise its concord of sounds and/or hint at the different personalities of the band’s members?

QJ: We have differences and similarities in our musical backgrounds. We all have this love for rock music in all its forms, it’s what we grew up listening to. But, for example, our bassist Ahmad, he’s more interested in a calmer version of indie rock. Feras our lead guitarist is into straight up classic rock and solo guitar artists such as Steve Vai and Guthrie Govan. Our drummer Saif likes metal and alternative rock. As for myself, I’m into traditional and classical music from different parts of the world, such India, Pakistan, Iran, the Arab world and elsewhere, and of course I had a stint performing in a grunge rock band during university.

Sindibad is one of seven songs that make up Random House' first album 'Ya 3aleem'

AO: You’re not in the “in-between” when it comes to fusing different music genres, but rather transcend rigid borders between musical styles to create a whole sound. Was that an objective you had in mind when you came together as a band in 2012?

QJ: The idea of the band’s sound came about in 2011 when I was in college in the United States. I was drawn to the unique melodic and rhythmical elements in old Arab music, but then this music hadn’t evolved much in the most part of a century, so there was this dynamic that was mostly missing, which is found in rock music. I had also always felt that the energy in Sufi Hadra music can be taken further and to new places with some of these rock influences that we all have as a generation. When I went back to Jordan in 2012, we got together and decided to try things out as a band. I had a couple of songs written to start with, then each band member joined in with more ideas and layers.

AO: In your interview with Ma3azef, you reflect on a problématique you encountered as a university student in the US (until 2012): between Western musical scales and Oriental maqamat (the Arabic musical scale and modal structure). Tell us more.

QJ: In Western classical music, the scales are simpler compared to the Arabic maqam with its quarter tones. That said, beautiful musical harmonies are found in Western music. In classical Arabic music, you don’t have polyphony. As a band, we’re exploring the in-between, another thing that explains the name of the band, an appreciation of the whole and disorderly at the same time.

AO: In October 2015, the band self-released its first album Ya 3aleem. The album is celebrated for its novel experimentation with different sounds, and more so for its avid focus on the human being through its neo-Sufi element. You describe this album as an act of experimentation. How so?

QJ: Ya 3aleem was indeed an experiment and a learning process for us. We were recording in studio for the first time with no proper grasp of what it fully entails to deliver the sound in our head in recorded form from A-Z. It was also produced within a very short timeframe. So less than a year later, when we went into the studio again to record the two new singles (Nesf Al-Tareeq and Al-Baaz Al Ashhab), although we were still short on time, it was a much better production.

Random House
The band's debut album Ya 3aleem was recorded in five days and comprises five songs and two instrumental compositions. (Photo: Courtesy of Random House)

AO: Ya 3aleem’s artwork included an eight-pointed star to hint at the self’s spiritual evolution. How did you translate such a concept across the album’s seven songs?

QR: The eight and six pointed stars are both used a lot in Middle Eastern geometrical arts, when it comes to their symbolism both of these numbers are even numbers and they symbolise karma and completions in some ways, and the motif frame within the artwork is an ancient Egyptian alchemical symbol that has a lot of meanings, such as the oneness of creation, self-completion, the universe’s endless cycle of destructions and recreations, or the cycle of Samsara in Buddhism and Hinduism. In Ya 3aleem, the album had two instrumental tracks, Shams and Qamar. Following Shams, there were positive songs musically, like Majma Al-Bahrain, Sindibad and under Qamar, darker tracks are found such as 3asr Al-Dalu and Ya 3aleem. We really wanted to make the album in two sides, Shams and Qamar, but that was not possible at the time.

AO: Two songs particularly stand out in Ya 3aleem: Nile and Sindibad. What stories inspired your writing of these two songs?

QR: The song Nile was inspired after a visit to Luxor and Aswan in 2012, It was one of the most beautiful trips I had been on: stunning views, fertile lands surrounding the River Nile in the middle of the desert; the sun was always shining, it was a scenario that’s almost perfect for humans and agricultural evolution. The people were really welcoming and peaceful, but the sad part was that the people there believed that they can only live off tourism to survive, while they had everything they needed around them. I felt like the Nile was stolen from them, or maybe from their hearts.

In the song Sindibad, I used the fictional sailor as a figure who comes from the past to our present time, and starts judging what he’s seeing on the lands which he considered his home. As Sindibad’s story tells, since he was a child he had the dream of becoming a sailor, to travel the world and discover its wonders; he knew what he wanted to be, so it means he understood his inner self really well, and that very much rhymes with Sufi thinking (Who am I? and Why am I here?)

AO: The centrality of Arabic language, in both its fusha (standard Arabic) and colloquial Jordanian Arabic forms, to your music project is very profound. What inspires this choice?

QR: I have always felt that fusha is really poetic to my ears, and the words that can be used to describe certain emotions or a state of mind can be really symbolic and powerful. It has always fascinated me and the older I get the more I appreciate this language. As for the Jordanian Arabic accent, its my normal everyday way of speaking Arabic, so it comes through naturally sometimes when I sing.

Nesf Al Tareeq (Half Way) is one of two singles released by Random House last June, the other single being Al Baaz Al Ashhab (Grizzled Hawk).

AO: You followed the album with two singles, released in June of this year and in which you further master this conversation between different sounds. Tell us more about Nesf Al-Tareeq (Half Way) and Al-Baaz Al-Ashhab (Grizzled Hawk).

QR: Since 2013 till early this year the band has had a lot of changes in its members. Fortunately this year the main members who started the project back in 2012 are present, except our percussionist Osama Al-Kurdi. So after the reunion we thought we should start fresh with some new material, and we did Nesf Al-Tareeq and Al-Baaz Al-Ashhab. 

AO: Production remains the biggest challenge for budding Arab artists and bands across the region. Has the success of your first album helped alleviate some of these production challenges and facilitated the production of the two singles you released this year?

QR: Recording Ya 3aleem definitely opened our eyes to the album production journey, and we took things further with Nesf Al-Tareeq and Al-Baaz Al-Ashhab. But to have a really well-produced project, emerging artists need to learn first what it means and entails to go into a recording studio and see that the vision for the sound is fulfilled technically, financially and in management. I believe that’s the biggest challenge most of Arab artists are facing when it comes to producing their music. Producing an album at a good standard is time consuming, expensive and requires a specialised team around you, which not an easy thing to achieve.

AO: Tell us about your upcoming projects and scheduled performances.

QR: For now we’re focusing on two things: planning for the next album, and we would like to perform more around the region. The three concerts in Cairo are a great start. We would like to perform in Palestine, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco. So 2017 should be a busy year for us, but we’re slowly building a good team around us to help us in covering band needs such as bookings and PR.

Programme:

Saturday, 24 September, 8pm
El-Genaina Theatre, Al-Azhar Park, Salah Salem Road, El-Darassa, Cairo

Tuesday, 27 September, 8pm
ROOM Art Space, 10 Etehaad El-Mohamin Street, Garden City, Cairo

Thursday, 29 September, 10.30pm
Cairo Jazz Club, 197 on 26th July Street, Agouza, Cairo

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