From the Editors
Khyam Allami, a London-based Iraqi musician, has just released his debut work, Resonance/Dissonance (available through Eka3 in the Middle East and Nawa Recordings everywhere else.) This interview was conducted by e-mail.
You can see him live in concert on:
Thu 7 July– Home for Cooperation (H4C), Nicosia, Cyprus
Sat 9 July – Théâtre de Beyrouth, Beirut, Lebanon
Mon 11 July – Al Balad Theatre, Amman, Jordan
Sat 16 July – Rich Mix, London, United Kingdom
SA. Your trajectory is quite interesting in terms of instruments and musical “zones”? Can you tell us about it?
KA. I was born in Damascus, Syria in 1981 to Iraqi parents from Baghdad. I started learning to play the violin when I was around eight because I had a role in a Syrian film called al-Tahaleb, directed by Rimon Butrus. The role required that I play the violin and I was happy to take up the challenge. It was a great experience.
Once we moved to London in 1990, I continued studying “western” violin until the age of thirteen or so when I started listening to Rock and Metal. I dropped the violin, picked up the guitar and a few years later, around 16, fell in love with playing the drums (drum kit). I played consistently in Alternative Rock and Metal bands (namely Ursa and Art of Burning Water) and gradually learnt to hit the Drums harder and harder.
This continued until March 2004 when I started studying oud and Arabic music theory with the Iraqi maestro Ehsan Emam. Soon after, I stopped playing the drums and dedicated my time to studying of Middle Eastern music. At the same time I became sick and tired of music being a hobby and having to work in a “normal” job, I wanted to live and breathe music 24 hours a day. So I applied for a BA in Ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London but I was rejected. I waited a year, worked hard studying western music theory, alongside my oud studies with ustadh Ehsan, and in 2005 I applied to SOAS again and was accepted.I graduated in 2008 with a BA Honours and was awarded a scholarship for a Masters (MMus Performance as Research). I graduated with a distinction in 2010 and started teaching oud to undergraduate students also at SOAS immediately after. After many years of not playing the Drums, I returned to them in 2009 when my dear friend Kavus Torabi finally managed to release an album we had recorded around 8 years earlier. The band is called Knifeworld and I still play drums with them now.
SA. What is your earliest musical memory?
KA. Learning to play a very squeaky version of the choral theme “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven's 9th Symphony on the violin.
SA. What sort of musical landscape did you grow up with or around?
KA. My parents are lovers of music, Arabic music in particular, so I grew up around their voices singing all kinds of songs at gatherings with friends. Mostly Abdel Halim Hafez, Fairouz and Um Kulthum, the usual. I wasn't really exposed to Iraqi music but it's sure they used to sing songs by Riyadh Ahmed, Yas Khudhur etc...
SA. What were the effects of the 2003 invasion and war on you, as an artist, and on your work?
KA. The Iraq war of 2003 had a profound affect on me personally, which in turn affected my artistic direction. It's a long and complicated answer. But in short, you could say I was placed first in front of a mirror, then in front of a dark and seemingly infinite path and asked whether I wanted to step into the shadow. I reluctantly agreed and allowed myself to confront everything that lurked along it, including the life led by my family and their generation which took me from one great capital of the world to another.
I am sure I would have embarked on this process with or without the war, but in my case it was a catalyst for many questions which needed to be answered. Since then everything has been about a process of balance or re-balancing who I am and trying to follow what some call our “true will”.
Resonance/Dissonance is about this process.
[Khyam Allami playing "Tawazon I" (Balance)]
SA. What are the effects of the ongoing Arab revolts on you as an artist and citizen?
KA. As an artist I feel I have no place to comment on, or be affected by the revolts. I have not lived as part of the environment that fuelled the desperation which made Mohammad Bouaziz set himself on fire. Nor have I lived years in fear of suicide bombers, assassinations or occupations as my family and friends have had to.
As a human being, I am both overwhelmed with joy by the courage of those revolting and deeply disgusted by the repression of the governments in question. I support the revolts wholeheartedly. I want to hear my generation's voice resound across the globe, freely expressing that which our parents' generation couldn't. I would like to see the people of Baghdad and Damascus walking and talking freely in the streets. Maybe then I can walk beside them and be happy with them, for them.
SA. Can you tell me about your academic study? Which aspects did you focus on and how did it enrich your art?
KA. I studied Ethnomusicology, which some people define as anthropology of Music. In essence this means the study of music in its context, so it could be musicological, religious, political, geographic, historical etc. I chose to focus on the Middle East and North India, with a few excursions into Central Asia. These studies helped me understand and appreciate Music on many different levels, not just from the perspective of a listener or a musician. For me, the magic and mystery of music lies in how and why we use it to express ourselves and what we gain from participating in it. I love music deeply and the more my ears and mind “open up” the deeper, wider and higher that love becomes.
I can honestly say that now, I get the same pleasure listening to a Mizmar (shawm) and Drum procession celebrating a wedding in the Middle East or a Turkish Tanbur taqsim (improvisation), as I do when listening to Einstürzende Neubauten, Toumani Diabaté or Stravinsky. It's all music to me. The only thing that distinguishes them is my taste and opinion, and whether I choose to listen to that music at home or not.
SA. What kind of oud do you use? Who made it?
KA. I have two ouds. The one I used for Resonance/Dissonance is a 7-string, Iraqi style, floating bridge, Ebony oud made by Mustafa Ja'far in Cairo. I bought it from him in 2009 when I was studying in Cairo for a few months. The second one is a Custom Single oud made by Faruk Turunz in Istanbul, which I ordered from him personally while I was studying there in 2010.
SA. What lies behind the title of your debut CD Resonance/Dissonance (Arabic: “Ranin Aqall”)? It reminds me of Darwish's famous book “Wardun Aqall”?
KA. Resonance/Dissonance is about the processes I mentioned earlier in response to your question about the Iraq war in 2003. It's an abstract and symbolic representation of trying to deal with the grey area in-between the black and white of life. I would say it's a realistic work about the beauty of both joy and darkness. It's about contrast rather than opposites. It's also far more hopeful than people tend to assume. In the Arabic language, the word dissonance doesn't exist. There is only nashaz, which means “out of tune.” This surprised me, but it obviously also says something about Arab aesthetics. While discussing the issue with my father, Abdullah Sakhi, who is a novelist and journalist, and trying to find a suitable translation, my father suggested “Ranin Aqall” in passing, inspired by the Mahmoud Darwish title. I was reluctant to use something that seemed so heavily influenced by a single figure but “Ranin Aqall” was the only Arabic option that made sense to me, which I felt reflected what the work as a whole was trying to say, so I decided to go with it. The two words also have a wonderful resonance.
[Khyam Allami playing Alif/Awj (An Alif/An Apex)]
SA. Resonance/Dissonance is a beautifully packaged CD and DVD? What made you decide to do this instead of a standard CD album?
KA. Resonance/Dissonance is a complete work, a whole, not a compilation of separate pieces put together. While I was planning the album, the idea of a “video album” came to my mind. Seeing the popularity of video take over through the Internet, YouTube etc... I thought it would be a nice idea to make an album that people could listen to or watch. So I decided to film a performance of the entire album and release the two together, two complementary parts of the same work. As far as I'm aware this hasn't been done before, certainly not in World music or Middle Eastern music.
This also allows for the physical version to be more appealing for people. Although selling copies wasn't the drive behind it, the rise of downloads and decreasing CD sales, we as artists and musicians need to be more inventive in how we present our works to the public.
Initially I was unsure about the idea, because of the pressure, complexity and cost of it, but then a handful of events occurred which made me feel that it was possible, like meeting the film makers Clive and Lynda of Eclectic films at the right time, and seeing photographs of the location where we ended up filming just by chance. Pure synchronicity. I couldn't let it pass.
To distinguish the two renditions of the album even more, I asked my friend the percussionist Vasilis Sarikis to join me, in order to give the DVD a different flavour. I also wanted the setting to contrast the music and so we filmed in the V22 gallery, an n enormous ex-factory/warehouse in Bermondsey, London which has a fantastic acoustic. The artwork also just came to me, I saw it in my mind's eye and it made perfect sense, so I tried to render it the best I could. I went to meet the great Iraqi calligrapher Mustafa Ja'far and explained the idea to him, a week later he sent me the calligraphy and all I had to do was put everything together. Then my dear friend and great Iraqi photographer Hydar Dewachi took so many great photos while we were filming that I couldn't help but use them in the booklet. In a way, everything about this album made itself, starting from the music. All I had to do was facilitate it, to be sensitive to the signs and signals. It has been hard work but really fulfilling and satisfying, I'm very happy with it all and glad I trusted my intuition.
SA. The titles of your pieces and the piece inspired by Sargon Boulus' poem tell me that the literary current in your work is quite important. Am I correct? Can you elaborate?
KA. In a way, yes. I must confess that I'm neither a great reader of fiction or poetry, but I appreciate them and they inspire me a lot. The same goes for cinema, and plastic arts. I don't watch many films or visit many exhibitions but those I have seen and enjoyed inspired me greatly.
Sargon Boulus was a recent discovery for me. His English language collection The Knife Sharpener struck something in me that I still cannot explain. Unfortunately my Arabic is not strong enough to really appreciate the greats like Darwish or Adonis or Boulus in their original language, I have to rely on translations or bi-lingual Arabic/English editions (which is why your work, Sinan, is so important!). Regardless, the literary influence in my work is that of narrative. I like music that says something or takes you somewhere. That doesn't mean it needs to be literal, or formal... in fact the more symbolic and subtle the narrative is, the more I enjoy it. This is something extremely important in instrumental music, particularly in improvisation, and even more so when it is rendered on a solo instrument. It is a key element in almost all improvised music from the East. I learnt a lot about this from my oud teacher ustadh Ehsan Emam and equally so from my Indian Tabla teacher guruji Sanju Sahai (I studied Tabla at SOAS for over almost two years, but had to stop because of RSI, repetitive strain injury, and lack of time to dedicate). Instrumental improvised music on a solo instrument is extremely difficult to render. A clear and cohesive narrative is the only thing that can give the listener something to follow when they are confronted with something so abstract; one sound source (instrument) and no words. It can be as simple as a distinctly defined beginning, middle, end or far more complex and subtle, as I tried to do with Resonance/Dissonance. It is a great challenge which requires a lot of lyricism and poetics. I have no idea if I succeeded in this with Resonance/Dissonance but it makes sense to me!
SA. Can you tell me about your musical genealogy in terms of the oud? Who are your closest ancestors and why?
KA. My formation on the oud was almost entirely at the hand of ustadh Ehsan Emam so I would consider him a kind of father figure. But my inspiration comes equally from the greats; Jamil Bashir, Riyadh al-Sunbati, Ṣerif Muhieddin Targan, Çinuçen Tanrikorur, Mohammad al-Qasabji and Munir Bashir. The masters of today; Naseer Shamma, Said Chraibi, Mehmet Bitmez, Necati Çelik, Yurdal Tokcan, Khaled Jubran, Hossein Behroozinia. And most importantly the new generation of oud players such as Ahmad al-Khatib, Hazem Shaheen, Mustafa Said and Nizar Rohana.
I am also profoundly influenced by non-oud players such as Hossein Ali Zadeh (Iranian Tar and Setar), Ali Akbar Khan (North Indian Sarod) and Abdo Dagher (Egyptian violin).
SA. The oud seems to be increasingly appealing to younger musicians, as if it's making a comeback, of sorts. Would you agree? If so, why, in your opinion?
KA. I am fascinated by this too, but I wouldn't say it is making a comeback. The oud has been the central instrument of Arabic music for over twelve centuries at least. It is a profound, and mystical instrument which has a deep and lasting effect on listeners. Its neutral and natural sound easily allows listeners to be transported or to transport themselves elsewhere.
It was and still is the instrument of choice for singers, composers, theorists and philosophers. It also has an unbroken lineage, meaning it never stopped being played in the Arab world, unlike Turkey or Iran for example. Therefore, it is merely keeping its rightful place. This is obviously many thanks to all the artists I mentioned previously who have kept this wonderful instrument alive by continually developing it and pushing its boundaries.
SA. What is your next project? Where do you see yourself going musically?
KA. I have a million things developing at the moment but the next immediate project is a short tour in July to launch Resonance/Dissonance in Nicosia, Beirut, Amman, Cairo and London organised in collaboration with Eka3. At these concerts I will perform Resonance/Dissonance live in its entirety, accompanied by Ayman Mabrouk or Vasilis Sarikis on percussion.
Later in July I will return to Cairo for an artistic residency co-supported by al-Mawred al-Thaqafy and Eka3.
There I will put together the first formation of The Alif Ensemble, an experimental contemporary Middle Eastern music group I have been dreaming of for years. I will compose the music, we will tour in the Middle East and hopefully record an album. All in the space of 5/6 weeks! After that there are a few major projects lined up but unfortunately I cannot say anything about them until they are confirmed. Although one will hopefully be a European tour in November to promote Resonance/Dissonance. Knifeworld will also release a download-only EP titled "Dear Lord, No Deal," on Monday 27 June. We are currently recording material for a mini-album to be released later this year.
To keep track of Khyam's music and activities, visit his website.
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