Strange Vibes from the Levant

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Asma Ghanem writes at Reorient:

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.

Read more here.