'Music is a blessing': Huda Asfour, Palestinian scientist who writes music for social change

Eslam Omar , Tuesday 6 Nov 2018

The Palestinian composer and oud-player will perform tracks from her new album Kouni, and her first album, Mars Back and Forth, at the Goethe Institute in Cairo on 12 November

Huda Asfour

Palestinian musician Huda Asfour's new album Kouni (Be) offers a different flavour, informed by the diverse musical -- and personal experiences -- of Asfour, who comes from a musical background and lived all over the Arab world before settling in the United States.

Asfour, who was born to a Palestinian family that appreciated oriental music, found music to be the best tool in search for identity and a definition for home, as she moved from city to city in the Middle East and eventually to the United States to study, finally becoming an adjunct professor at the Biomedical Engineering Department of George Washington University.

A composer, singer and oud and qanun player, she has collaborated with dozens of well-known musicians and artists in the alternative scene in Egypt back in the early 2000s, including members of Wust El-Balad band, Al-Warsha team, including founder Hassan El-Geretly, Grammy-award winning musician Fathy Salama, Palestinian musician Tamer Abou-Ghazala, and many others.

Egyptians fans excited to hear her new work will be able to listen to tracks from both Kouni and her first album, Mars Back and Forth, released in 2011, live at the Goethe Institute in Cairo on 12 November.

Ahram Online sat down with Asfour to talk about how her experiences of migration have affected her work, and how her musical direcation has evolved since the 2000s.

Huda Asfour

'Home' wherever it is 

Searching for identity is one of the main themes of Asfour's music and to feel it, it's important to understand the definition of home for a daughter of two politically-invovled Palestinian parents.

Born in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to parents who had lived there for political reasons, the life of Huda Asfour that had been heavily influenced by the political situation of the 70-year occupation of Palestine, which made defining “home” problematic.

She was influenced as a person and a musician by the various places she lived in: Syria, Tunisia, Gaza, Ramallah, Alexandria and Cairo, as well as even being influenced by Baghdad, where her mother lived for 27 years, after her grandfather moved there in 1947.

"My parents met in Lebanon, where I was created, while they were taking part in the Palestinian resistance and struggle movements as members of the Communist party, before they got married,” she said.

“They joined the Palestinian Liberation Organization for a while and left Lebanon essentially because the organisation did. They moved to Syria for a short time before heading to Tunisia to live there for 12 years until I was 14 years old. After that happened 'the return' so we moved to Gaza for two years before moving in 1998 Ramallah in the West Bank for four and a half years. In 2002, after the invasion of Ramallah, I moved to Alexandria for two years before moving to the United States in 2005," she explained.

Israeli war against Lebanon
An Israeli Army tank crew watches from a hilltop position as smoke rises from a Palestinian position in west Beirut after it was shelled by Israeli artillery, July 10, 1982 (Photo: AP)

For Asfour, the definition of home is "gelatinous", describing it as “the place where you have life, wherever it is.”

"This is the major influence of my early childhood's successive moves, especially as a Palestinian, as there are always different dimensions in terms of your identity being a Palestinian and feeling attached to other places.

My worst feeling was when I felt like a stranger inside Palestine when we moved to Gaza, as part of the authority return, while the streets labelled us as 'the returners' and that made us feel that we imposed ourselves," she explained with emotion.

"For me, when talking about the concept of 'home', the feeling of belonging to different cultures and the feeling of alienation that I felt in the place that was supposed to be the home played a huge role of my upbringing.

Other things that really affect you as a child are concept of memory. I mean, we are attached to our memories. I have lots of memories in Tunisia but in Palestine, I have a huge complication just to access my home. All the humiliating procedures and the complicated documentation deprive me of even the accessibility to return to the place I call home.

The easiest place of my home lands I can access is Egypt, after the United States. The whole world can be defined as home to me. I am belonging to each and every city I lived in and I influenced by its culture. My situation is really less complicated than a lot of Palestinians. It's an absurd situation. Where in the world could you be defined by the city you live in not the country you're from? Imagine you are from Cairo and you can't go to Alexandria. The Palestinian ID problem is a very complicated issue," she said.

"As a Palestinian, in our DNA we all feel that things could be messed up at any time. There is no stability in the way you think about home. You don't take anything for granted. That's why I don't easily make long-term plans, despite having strategic thinking. At that time, I think day by day.

My dream during the upcoming few years is to have the opportunity to travel a lot, especially in my region, and to research the diversity of heritage and history of its music," she stated.

Exposure to different types of music

Playing and listening to music in the different cities Asfour lived in enriched her experience and exposed her to different concepts of music theoretically and practically and it all started inside the family.

"I was raised in a musical household. My grandfather played oud and my uncle plays guitar while my aunt composes and all of them sing well. They even formed a band in the 70s in Baghdad.

Music is always present in the house. My mother is interested in music and its history. My mother's family played an essential role in making me interested in music during my early childhood, before I started studying piano at the age of seven for a short spell, before I was influenced by a great Tunisian music teacher at school who really cared about Tunisian music history and its scales and studying music theory in terms of reading and writing was obligatory.

During a family reunion in Amman, I was impressed by the oud when I saw my grandfather sing with other members of the family spreading joy, so I asked my teacher when I returned to Tunisia to teach me oud and he did, and eventually he took me to the Conservatoire, so I started to get more involved in music and when I went to Palestine, I learned with Khaled Jubran."

Khaled Jubran
Khaled Jubran, a prominent Palestinian composer and writer who teaches playing Oud and Buzuki alongside harmony, solfege and Counterpoints

"I started performing early in Tunisia since I started learning oud, participating in different contests before playing with various bands in Gaza, and then we formed a band called Tarabish. In Ramallah, I met Tamer Abou Ghazala, and we started a band after encouragement from Jubran.”

Starting out: The Jehar project

The real start of Asfour's professional performing was with Abou Ghazala when they both moved to Egypt. Asfour co-founded a project called “Jehar” in the early 2000s.

"It started with a concert at Town House under the name of ‘Anamel wAwtar’ in 2002 or 2003, before Jehar project was formed featuring many musicians from Cairo and Alexandria, including Adham El-Said, Bob and Mizo, alongside cello player Thaer Serafy and Nour Ashour in his early days with the saxophone.

We also worked with Bassem Wadei who we met at the Al-Warsha team of Hassan El-Geretly. We performed in Sayed Darwish theatre in Alexandria and Cairo's El-Sawy Culture Wheel in the early days of it."

 Hassan El-Geretly
El-Warsha founding director Hassan El-Geretly is a pioneer in the free theater movement in Egypt, inspiring tens of the most known actors and singers since late 80s

"I was lucky to meet with good people who boosted my being in the scene, like Basme El-Husseiny, Hassan El-Geretly and Fathy Salama. The alternative music presence was very limited as that time. It was the early days of Wust El-Balad, the last days of El-Hob Wal-Salam in Alexandria and the beginning of Resala. Even El-Door El-Awal was formed later.”

Fathy Salama
The Godfather, Fathy Salama, the only Egyptian Grammy-award winner who inspires dozens of the currently most famous musicians in the alternative scene

"Jehar project was about reintroducing tunes that represent our identity, but in a new arrangement that represents us as youngsters connected to global music in the early 2000s. Most of the repertoire was remixes and we started writing later on, before we discovered that there are different projects within Jehar. Abou Ghazala started storing his own tracks and I wrote Jaya wRaiha and even introduced it with Jehar for the first time.”

Tamer Abu Ghazaleh
Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, the founder of independence music production project Mostakell, has released his albums Thulth and Lekhfa early this year

At that time, Asfour had no idea that she would pause her music to concentrate on engineering, but she has remained committed to effecting social change, regardless of the route.

"I don't know if I am a social activist. It's a bigger title than what I do. For me, there are problems in the world that can be easily solved and I believe in social change. If you give the people choices and tools, they will be able for social change. My target is social change and if music or engineering tools enable me to make such a change, I will definitely use them,” she said.

First album


In 2011, while Asfour was finalising her PhD, she recorded her first album, Mars Back and Forth, where she explores the concepts of home, war and identity through a combination of the oud, clarinet and other instrumentation.

"I applied for a fund from Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy in 2009 and again in 2010 and that eased up recording the album after seven years of absence away of the Arab region, because I was working on my PhD and I was only performing in DC. It was important for me to document this period and the release of the album came out while finishing the PhD,” she said.

Mars Back and Fourth
The cover of Huda Asfour first album 'Mars Back and Fourth'

"I worked slowly for seven years on making Mars Back and Forth before I was satisfied with the sonic structure of it. After I heard Kinan Azmeh playing clarinet, I really felt that that sound tells a story.

Many of the tracks I reproduced to find myself writing essentially for clarinet and oud. After I received the fund, I originally made the formation of me and Kinan alongside Ayman Mabrouk on percussion, Kris Funn on the contrabass and my Palestinian buzuq player friend Nadim Khoury, who also plays metal in Europe.

The buzuq sound came from the Jubran school, which introduced me to the beauty of this amazing instrument. The project was like a summary of this period sonically and thematically. The formation was changed for many reasons. The most important reason is that Mabrouk broke his both hands after he fell out of a bicycle two days before the recoding, so he couldn't record, and John Hadfield saved the project and substituted Mabrouk.

It was a great learning process. When you finish a project you feel liberation and are able to focus on other projects.

The main theme in Mars Back and Forth were the concepts of home, war and the political borders that really complicate my life and the lives of many. I imagined a trip to Mars where there were no borders. Mars is also a representation of the war god in Greek mythology.

I wrote two songs in this album. I wrote one during the intifada in 2001 and the second in Alexandria in 2004 when I knew I was going to the States. A third song was a small poem written in Tunisia by my grandfather to my grandmother when my sister was born. The rest of the album is only instrumental with no lyrics.

During this album, I was searching for my identity as a musician because in the Arab world, we consider a vocalist just a vocalist. This album was an introduction to me as a composer and oud and qanun player. I don't even consider myself a vocalist yet," she explained.

The album, which was produced by Asfour and co-produced by Frank Marchand and Charlie Pilzer, received a positive response from critics and fans.

A new style

In June 2018, Asfour surprised her network with a different genre; playing "easy" pop tunes to attract listeners from various backgrounds on her album Kouni.

"The highlight of the second album is essentially the brass section. I loved the saxophone sound with the oud and clarinet. When we made remixes and performed the well-known wedding song Talaa Min Beit Abouha, I saw people dancing, and this was new for me and I loved it,” she recounts.

“I saw that it's a great thing to make people dance and feel happy. It made me discover new roles for music. Some music is like reading an intellectual book, other music evokes kinds of emotions, some music you listen for nostalgia as it reminds you of some memories, while other types you listen to for fun and dancing. I became aware of the diversity of these kinds of music and I liked to create music that evokes broad emotions, not a specific emotion.”

Huda Asfour
The cover of Huda Asfour latest album 'Kouni' released 2018

“The complexity of the first album really made it hard for me to collaborate with different musicians, especially because of the time signature changes. I decided to create music that I could easily take on the road and play with different musicians. At the end of the day, Kouni is a pop music project that has new interpretation of well-known things and doesn't need a listener to be specialised in music to understand it.

Some hardcore musicians saw this simple approach of communicating with the public as beneath their taste, and this really made me insist on making this album simple targeting non-musicians. I was still searching for my identity and wanted to reflect the sound of the city I live in, which is obsessed with jazz, working with the elements I am exposed to in DC.

I was digging in the ideas of labels and identities to find myself unintentionally focused on love songs. I was very touched and impressed by how Palestinian nationalist poet Fadwa Tuqan expresses her romantic emotions freely away from politics in Ay Sodfa, and that really inspired me thematically in making the rest of the tracks.

I haven’t performed the album enough in the Arab region. But during the few times the album was performed, people either fall in love with it or fully hate it, and I felt that was an accomplishment, to have this variety of feedback."

Kouni brought together a variety of musicians, including Asha Santee and Tyler Leak (drums), Ayman Mabrouk (percussion), Derek Bond (electric bass), Jon Steele (upright bass), while the strings section includes Alex Cox and Amanda Melara (cello), Rochelle Carpenter and Melanie Fallow (violin), with the string arrangements made by Ethan Balis.

The brass section features Thad Wilson (trumpet), Reginald Cyntje (trombone) and Elijah Easton (tenor saxophone), with the brass arrangements made by Thad Wilson.

Music as a blessing

Although her latest album is designed to appeal to a broad range of listeners, Asfour believes that all art must have some kind of substance.

"Art must have an objective; even if it is meant for entertainment, it could have a political dimension. There is no such thing is art for the sake of art. Art needs to have a message.

You work on your arts because you want the message of your art to be the main driver. The message could be in the process you use to make it, the effect you have on people with it, or the way it evokes specific feelings. Art is an interactive thing and for that I don't think we can disconnect it from the actual effect it can have on individuals and society," she explained.

"Music is a blessing because it's a tool that enables you to reach people and deliver messages in simple ways, tapping into human emotions," Asfour concluded.

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