2015: A year of inspired experimentation in Arabic music with rock, electronic and jazz fusions

Nourhan Tewfik , Wednesday 30 Dec 2015

From Arab-rock fusions to amalgams of Arab lyrics and electronic beats, and all the way to jazz-inundated muwashahat, 2015 witnessed a year of bold and creative experimentation in music


“If you look back on the 20th century, you’ll see that each artist made his own imprint in music, whether in muwashahat or qasaid, or by introducing new techniques altogether. Together, these musicians have enriched our repertoire, and set standards for us to live up to. Those great icons left us a very fine dough that we must remould it into something new.”

With these words renowned Lebanese musician Ghada Shbeir reflected on the ever-diverse Arab music library which, by way of the novel contributions of iconic musicians like Mohamed Abdel Wahab and singer and composer Sayyed Darwish, among others, has continued to be the site of much experimentation.

The same experimentation continues to characterise today's Arab music scene.

In this context, 2015 was a year of musical innovation par excellence. From the Cairo Opera House Summer Festival, which ran between 23 July and 31 August, and catered to a variety of tastes, to the 24th Arab Music Festival, which celebrated Arabic music across Egypt, including a lineup of musicians from Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and more, it was a year of musical wonders.

Also, the ever-vibrant Bibliotheca Alexandrina International Summer Festival presented an especially successful 13th edition this year, expanding to run for five weeks (30 July to 4 September) with a big lineup comprising 38 events. The highlights of this year’s edition were concerts by Kamilya Jubran (Palestine), Ghalia Benali (Tunisia), Ghada Shbeir (Lebanon), and Mohamed Mohsen and Massar Egbari (Egypt).

Moving to smaller independent initiatives, we find Darb 1718's annual Mawaweel Festival and the Hayy Festival, which used to be organised by the Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy) but this year relocated to the Greek Campus, hosting musicians from the local and regional scene, including such icons as Oumeima El-Khalil (Lebanon), among others.

But 2015 will be remembered mostly as the year in which attempts at modernising the Arabic music repertoire came to the forefront. While such attempts have been in the making for years now, they saw particular success in 2015.

An array of Arab singers presented their novel experimentations with music in concerts that took place across Cairo and Alexandria, and in some of the country’s important annual festivals, cultural spaces and Egyptian theatres. Their projects ranged from Western-Eastern fusion to bolder blends of rock and Oriental, electronic and Oriental, electronic and folklore, and muwashahat and jazz.

Ahram Online takes a look at some such projects that juxtaposed together leave us buoyant about the future of the Arab music library.

Experimenting with Arab-Western fusion

In June, the Swedish Tarabband, a six-member band formed in 2008, landed in Cairo and gave four performances, including at the Swedish Embassy in celebration of the country’s national day, at El-Sawy Culturewheel, Cairo Jazz Club and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The band presented their cross-cultural attempt at creating Tarab (defined on the band's official website as "ecstasy through music") steeped in Western melodies. Tarabband comprises Nadin Al Khalidi, the band’s main vocalist and Saz player, and five other musicians from Malmö, Sweden.

“We begin with an Arabic rhythm or maqam and then experiment,” Gabriel Hermansson told Ahram Online in June when commenting on Tarabband’s music philosophy.

The band originally started off playing traditional Arabic songs by the Rahbani Brothers and Mohamed Abdel Wahab, before beginning to write and compose their own music.

That their music combines Western tunes with different kinds of Oriental drums such as darbukadaff and riq, is in many ways a reflection of their own hybrid nature.

Nadin Al Khalidi, Tarabband's main vocalist and Saz player (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

While fusion is the band’s hallmark, it is most evident in their chef d’oeuvre, Baghdad Choby, which takes a traditional Iraqi rhythm known as choby and integrates a Western melody into it. The song visualises a meeting that unfolds on a dance floor in Sweden and takes one all the way to Iraq.

Another fusion of sounds, albeit one steeped in rock, reached the Cairene audience in July as Egyptian band Massar Egbari presented their new album Touaa w Teoum (Fall and Get Back Up) during Darb 1718's annual Mawaweel Festival, before taking it to Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and El-Sawy Culturewheel among other venues.

The album, which coincided with the band’s tenth anniversary, took the signature sound of Massar Egbari, fusing rock and Oriental music, a step further, exhibiting a bolder fusion of rock-Arabic sounds.

Touaa w Teoum also “conveys the current state of society and the country as a whole,” guitarist Mahmoud Siam would tell Ahram Online before the band’s concert as part of the Mawaweel Festival in July. It also tugs at, among other things, this “compulsory detour” (the two-word expression being a literal translation of the band’s name) dictated by society: the common idea that you must pursue certain professions to be accepted and which the band members have tirelessly resisted over the years, following their passion for music.

This Arab-rock harmony came to the surface again with JadaL’s performance in August as part of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Summer Festival. The six member Jordanian band was founded in 2003.

In the concert, the band presented their alternative and Oriental rock project, a fusion that was "organic and was coupled with my personal growth," guitarist, songwriter and producer Mahmoud Radaideh explained to Al-Ahram Hebdo during the band’s visit to Egypt. "I do not think much about the definition of a musical fusion, even if it becomes my style in compositions. We just make music, following inspiration from classic and modern musicians."

Creative experimentations with music would continue throughout the year and were hosted in an array of cultural and music festivals, especially the 24th Citadel Festival for Music and Singing that took place at the historic Saladin Citadel in Cairo in August. It hosted, among other musicians, Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali, known for her inspiring music fusion of elements from Arabic classical styles, Tunisian folk, jazz, and Indian music.

Opening the festival was a performance by the German Cairo Steps, which was established in 2002 by Egyptian musician and master oud player Basem Darwisch, and renowned German composer Matthjas Frey, performing what is coined as Oriental Sufi jazz music.

In this year’s concert, Cairo Steps presented one of their latest compositions, Arabiskan, performed with their new collaborator, the master Sufi singer Sheikh Zein — a melodic piece of music that starts with an Arabic theme before it departs into the world of jazz improvisations.

Cairo Steps
Opening of the Citadel Festival for Music and Singing (Photo: courtesy of the Cairo Opera House)

An amalgam of Arabic lyrics and electronic beats

A beauteous dream: lyrics by poets like Gubran Khalil Gubran, Aicha Arnaout, Hassan Najmi, and Salman Meslaha come together with oud tunes, electronic tunes, and the trumpet.

This is precisely what Palestinian singer Kamilya Jubran brought to her August concert as part of this year’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina Summer Festival, unearthing a remarkable harmonisation of Arabic lyrics and electronic beats.

In the concert, with Jubran on oud and vocals and Swiss musician Werner Hasler on trumpet and electronic instruments, a selection of songs from three collaborations — Wameed (Gleam), Wanabni (And We Shall Construct, 2010), and Wasl (2013) — was played. In addition to fresh music experimentation, Jubran applied a technique of repetition of lyrics, her mounting voice and the soaring tune of the trumpet communicating a sense of poignancy that underpins her musical project.

Another musical project, featuring Egyptian singer Maryam Saleh and Lebanese electro-music composer and producer Zeid Hamdan, took fusion a step further, this time experimenting with folklore and electronic music.

In Halawella, the latest project in a thus-far five year collaboration between Saleh and Hamdan, and produced by Mostakell, a music label for indie Arabic music operating under Eka3 platform, six of Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm’s songs are reinterpreted in addition to four new songs, written by Mido Zoheir, Omar Mostafa, Amr Qenawi, and Maryam Saleh.

While some of the songs were previously arranged electronically, they were retouched in Halawella after the duo felt that some of the arrangements had aged.

Arabic lyrics steeped in dark humour and that tug at politics and life intertwined with state-of-the-art electronic music. Hamdan’s music exhibits a remarkable sensitivity towards the songs’ satirical undertones. It augments the state of rebelliousness the lyrics imply, something that Saleh further enhances by playing with her voice and chopping the lyrics into little snippets.

That Hamdan, who is celebrated for his two-decade long experimentation with music, is able to create an enigmatically novel music experience, mastering an amalgam of electronic, trip-hop and new age music, is foreseeable and unsurprising yet inspiring.

“We first recorded her [Maryam] singing on a metronome and one reference note. I started building progressively on top. Dealing with quartertones was the biggest challenge, but it appeared that the compositions originally had a pop feel that I was able to catch and translate,” Hamdan told Ahram Online in an interview conducted after their album’s release in September.

By the same token, that Saleh is able to present (or rather represent) Sheikh Imam’s music with such mastery is also rather expected, especially given her own theatre career that started at age nine and has influenced her singing style. But more importantly, Saleh has spent the last decade exploring Imam’s repertoire, and as such Halawella becomes a development of her own relationship with Sheikh Imam's repertoire, as Saleh confirmed to Ahram Online in November.

Maryam Saleh and Zeid Hamdan
Maryam Saleh and Zeid Hamdan (Photo: Ali Saadi)

Modernising muwashahat

From Maryam Saleh and Zeid Hamdan’s reinterpretation of heritage using electronic music, we go to Lebanese musicians Rima Khcheich and Ghada Shbeir, both of whom work with a special component of Arab music heritage (turath) that is muwashahat (a genre of classical Arabic music which came to light in Al-Andalus — now Southern Spain — and is an important facet of Tarab).

Khcheich, whose performance came as part of this year’s seventh edition of the Cairo Jazz Festival held in October, has been revisiting old and abandoned muwashahat, treated to modern Western (jazzy) arrangements, for many years now. In the concert, Khcheich was accompanied by her Dutch band whose line-up comprises Maarten Ornstein (clarinet), Maarten Van Der Grinten (guitar), Tony Overwater (double bass) and Ruven Ruppik (riq).

Khcheich’s relationship with classical muwashahat goes all the way back to her childhood and a profound upbringing in Arabic traditional music, which developed throughout her two-decades of performing this Arab music genre. As early as 2001, Khcheich and the Tony Overwater from the Dutch Yuri Honing Trio, a jazz ensemble, began presenting a powerful amalgam of muwashahat and Western jazz, as well as other contemporary Arabic songs of Khcheich’s.

“My music projects therefore aim to bring in Western instruments and present these old songs with new music divisions and different sounds,” Khcheich explained to Ahram Online in an interview conducted the day following her concert at this year’s edition of the Cairo Jazz Festival.

Khcheich’s renegotiations of muwashahat continued in her albums Yalalalli and Falak (both of which embraced an array of classical Arabic songs and muwashahat performed alongside Western instruments), and most recently Hawa (2013), which comprises 10 muwashahat and one dawr (an established composition that gives space for improvisation).

The same passion for muwashahat is shared by famed Lebanese singer Ghada Shbeir who in September gave a concert that concluded the 13th annual Bibliotheca Alexandrina Summer Festival. Besides being a vocalist, Shbeir is a musicologist, researcher, teacher and composer. She probes Syriac and Maronite hymns and chants, the qassidah (classical poem), the Andalusian muwashah, the mawwal (a related form relying on improvisation) and the dawr (a light song with some space for improvisation).

Ghada Shbeir
Lebanese singer and musician Ghada Shbeir (Photo: Butheina Shalan)

Shbeir’s infatuation with muwashahat was born in her interest in different rhythms and the maqamat and was put to much experimentation.

“The muwashah would be in its already established form, but I’d work around it, add a khana (one of the four sections that make up a given composition) or perhaps I’d also integrate a musical element from the Abbasid or Umayyad heritage. I might incorporate other beautiful lyrics that I find to be in harmony with the original text, renegotiating the rhythms by letting it come out as a mawwal ...” Shbeir told Al-Ahram Weekly one day before her September concert in Alexandria.   

But, according to Shbeir, this experimentation with a genre as old as muwashahat, and with music as a whole, is what characterises "a real musician."

“Instead of performing as directed, a real musician will make their own imprint. They’ll take the composition and develop it. Their essence will show in their voice, performance, personality, and recitation. But a musician can tell what they want or don’t want only when they’ve studied enough. It is knowledge that gives you confidence in your project. I don’t see why we should all go on the same path, and compete to produce the same music.”

Perhaps this is what 2015 should be remembered for: a year that witnessed a creative and audacious remoulding of music, and an exploration of its many possibilities.

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