I have a memory when I was a child. I remember that my eyes filled with tears during a classical music concert in Ramallah, performed by children of the same age as me. I also remember that after several failed attempts for 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 music production 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 criticize 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 neighboring 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).
Asma Ghanem: 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. Trying to 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 don’t 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. At 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, but not over the many different musicians who are going to perform your work. You can have fifteen musicians all playing the same notes, but they will not play them in the same way. You can have fifteen dancers listening to the same sounds, but they will not hear them in the same way. That is what I love about experimental orchestral writing – you can only expect the unexpected.
Stormtrap: It has always been a challenge for me to define my sound. Mainly, it is because I am into different styles; sometimes you can label my music as pure hip-hop, other times it can be defined as ambient or electronic. I’m not a fan of labels and categorizations, but if I would have to explain to someone what I do, I can say that I write lyrics, I speak, I make rap and I produce music on my laptop using both analog and digital sounds.
Asma Ghanem: Who were/are your strongest musical influences?
Jad Atoui: Today, I listen to many musicians, coming from different backgrounds, such as DJ Shadow, Secret Chiefs, Flying Lotus, David Lynch and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. My perception of natural sounds, as well as manmade ones, is the most important influence for me. I always work on giving an identity to my projects, like I did with the Oriental feeling on Black Sea.
Sary Moussa: My influences have been ever-changing. I used to listen to a lot of drill, drum’n’bass and two-step music and I still do. I have been also influenced by the work of Thelonious Monk, LaMonte Young, Philip Glass, and Moondog. On the other hand, I find the techno scenes of Birmingham and Manchester very inspiring, like what you find on the Downwards and Modern Love labels, for instance.
Ismail Seleit: Personally, I’ve been influenced by minimalism, but also by blues, post-rock and punk movements. I like simple, repetitive, loud, noisy, and unorganized stuff.
Mohamad Ali Talybab: My musical background has been strongly affected by old-school hip-hop, jazz, soul, funk and psychedelic rock. Gil Scott-Heron, Fela Kuti, Nina Simone…
Donia Jarrar: My mother is a pianist, so I grew up listening to her playing pieces by Chopin and Beethoven. They were some of my first musical influences. At the age of nine, I discovered my older brother and sister’s collections of Björk, Radiohead and Aphex Twin albums and I was excited at the thought of being able to use technology to capture nature and emotion. John Cage is one of my favourite composers; he understood that every sound is music, and that even silence is not truly silent. “Whether I make them or not, there are always sounds to be heard, and all of them are excellent”, he said about music. I feel in the same way about people’s emotions or reactions, and their expressions – I study them, and try to capture them through sound.
Asma Ghanem: What prompted you, initially, to begin creating music? When did you begin working as experimental sound musicians?
Jad Atoui: I started producing electronic music in 2008. I was totally into Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Autechre stuff, always wondering how such sounds were created in the 80s and 90s. So I started messing around with my laptop, and trained myself to the point where I was able to compose a track.
Sary Moussa: There wasn’t a single impetus; I find myself enjoying the sounds of a drum machine going through a malfunctioning amplifier, or a synthesizer pushed to its limits, drowned in reverb, as much as looped tribal North African folk music, 120 bpm techno, kraut-rock, or even sped-up Syrian synthesized pop. One source of inspiration that I am applying in the process of writing my album right now is building loops and trying to take them as far as possible within the limitations of the machines in the studio. I early discovered DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) and it’s been non-stop since that moment. My first serious gig was in 2008 with the Lebanese-Palestinian artist OkyDoky.
Donia Jarrar: I began experimenting, making sounds and creating my own pieces on the piano at the age of four. I would try to imitate sounds of nature and people around me. I made use of my music as a communication tool, to tell a story, to describe through the pitch formations what I had heard.
Asma Ghanem: What’s your take on the experimental music scene in the Arab world?
Jad Atoui: In my opinion, the Arab experimental music scene is ambitious. The main problem is the lack of education when it comes to our traditional music. Consequently, some of the experimental music projects happening don’t give a push forward to the scene. For this reason, I’m trying to go deeply into my education and increase my knowledge when it comes to our traditional music to give an identity to my experimentation with sounds. Despite all the problems, the scene is growing, and some great musicians are working hard to give it a big “push”.
Sary Moussa: We cannot confine everyone that is experimenting with music and who happens to be an Arab in the same category; there is nothing such as an “experimental scene” in that sense. The contrast between music from an oud player and music from a producer making electro-dance can be very different – do they belong to the same scene just because they are Arabs and are experimenting? That said, there has been more and more experimental music coming from the Arab world, and I find it refreshing regardless of genre. The majority of Oriental and experimental music in the Arab world has been running around in circles for a while now, and maybe this is because we still have to admit that our cultural identity is ever-changing and not necessarily related to one single geographical reference. Accepting it as it is and moving on can be crucial in freeing experimental artists from their limits. It’s like a revolution that is not a solution, but rather one more step towards something different.
Donia Jarrar: You can see many young Arab musicians doing the same thing with their music. I believe many of us are trying to capture our surroundings and stories to create our own voices and gain respect in the world not just as Arab artists, but also as artists of the world. We’ve taken our historical traditions of storytelling and translated them into rap poetry, and have also become very well known for our irtijal (literally “improvisation”) performing live. I still think that Arab experimental music has not found a place within the general public’s ears, although I think that is slowly changing with projects like Al-Maslakh in Lebanon and its Festival of Experimental Music.
Stormtrap: I think over the past years there’s been a lot of progress, and I feel very positive of what’s about to come next. I’ve been hearing a lot of great stuff on the internet, and I am also going in different directions now with my music, becoming more free and letting go of my “traditional” ways. I think, on a personal level, at least, you can expect crazier, more honest, and more powerful sounds to come.
This article is the complete version of an article originally published for Reorient web portal: