It was October of 2011: sixty-seven years after one of the first compositions involving sampled sound, a haunting mutation of Egyptian zaar music, was created in Cairo by Halim El Dabh.1 I was holed up in a soundproof studio in Ashkal Alwan, between the echoes of the sea bouncing off the mountains above Beirut, beyond the relentless cacophony of cars and construction. I was alone in the studio with a record player, piecing together a new beat, diving into a stack of newly acquired records, searching for a sample (a ritual excavation). As the record spun at its hypnotic 33rpm’s, I inadvertently started a conversation that would last ten months—a conversation that really has no end. It began with a question. With every new beat you usually ask of the sample, “Where are you?” This time for some reason I asked, “What are you?” And as I set the needle down on the record, the sample responded—a string glissando encoded within the crackling fuzz of vinyl. I started asking more questions, about sampling’s relevance, it’s value; I dug deeper into the clip.
There are relatively few writings that deal with the subject of sampling culture (all from an overwhelmingly western perspective), and as my research expanded, I realized what I was really interested in was how this format was relevant in the Middle East today, amidst the growing wave of musicians and sound artists here who embody this culture; a phenomenon no one was addressing.
If one can describe the art of sampling as providing "an extremely effective exploration of the past, at a time when the present no longer answers to everyone’s needs,"2 how are we to situate the commentary coming from a contemporary samplist working in this region? Because of the very nature of sound/art, as a generally difficult-to-commodify medium that has limited appreciation in the Middle East (or the rest of the world for that matter, for a variety of reasons that mostly have to do with the overwhelming preferential emphasis on the visual), artists dealing with sound often operate in shadows, creating their own avenues for dissemination and exposure. We can find a whole mess of issues resonating within the layers of sampling that I believe are necessary to address; issues around technology, context, authority, pluralism, tradition, representation, economics, and environment;3 addressing the very politics of sound itself.
[Lawrence Abu Hamdan, “EfX pedals in the trial of Saddam Hussein.” This excerpt draws attention to the nuanced power structures in a live witness testimonial during this symbolic trial. Abu Hamdan explains “pitch shifting and harmonizing are employed during the trial of Saddam Hussein to disguise and infantilize voices testifying in his defense.”]
Around the time I began really questioning this art form, I was awarded a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC). I decided to take the funding and produce a project that would address the questions I was grappling with. I wanted to broaden this conversation around sampling to include other artists whose works I felt were pushing the boundaries of this form. In the end, nine artists were asked to take part in this project: Basel Abbas, Cynthia Zaven, Halim El Dabh, Jad Abbas, Lawrence Abu Hamdan Mohamed Abdelkarim, Rayya Badran, Rough Americana, and SC MoCha; each coming from diverse backgrounds and approaches to sound.
The artists were commissioned to provide a piece that dealt with a pre-recorded sound in some way. The final works all arose from personal conversations with these artists around the very culture of sampling and its impact within their practice. The rules were very loose so as to produce a collected body of work that allows for their unique voices to come through, while simultaneously creating a diverse spectrum of sounds that, when juxtaposed against each other, would instigate a critical dialogue.
The sample in sound/art (a term inclusive of all forms of sound based art—from music to sculpture and everything in-between) provides the sampler with the power to destroy conventional linearity in time, conflating a past event upon the present.
[Rayya Badran, “Asking to be Possessed.” Badran presents an intimate, introspective exploration of the special aspects of a sample throughout time (here specifically referencing an unreleased Soap Kills sample from early 2000’s), creating rich layers of hauntingly fractured, time-bending textures.]
Those who wield this power do so purposefully, and in doing so create a new space-time moment, rewriting the history of their choosing while simultaneously impacting the future (and there’s a lot of history in this region that needs to be rewritten). It is not without coincidence that many of the same artists who choose to approach their sound/art in such a way are also operating at the cusp of technological innovation, embracing technology for the use of production and alternative forms of dissemination (which is heavily internet based).
[Basel Abbas, “Bag of Cassettes Vol.1” Here Abbas is drawing from a personal archive of forgotten cassettes found (in a bag) in his parents home, and reinterpreting a sound exercise from his early youth explorations in sound dubbing (originally using dual cassette tape decks). The variety of song references details the diverse musical influences introduced to the artist during his adolescence.]
These artists have a natural concern with the social/cultural context in which their sound is positioned, navigating in a global sound environment where more mp3’s exist online than all other media combined. Their compositions are generally individually authored and meant to be individually consumed, so here the role of authority is crucial, but it involves a notion of collective individuality–shared on a one-to-one level, but with many. This mirrors the digital social media spheres (facebook/twitter/tumblr/etc.) that have become a prevalent part of our social interactions.
The autonomous nature of these compositions speaks to a wider trend of culture production in the region, functioning as best they can in the absence of proper infrastructure. Institutional support (governmental, academic, museum and gallery spaces) for sound/art is dismally limited. Most of these artists are self-taught and rely on peer support, or travel outside the region for education and exhibition. Cultural hybridity is inherent within the process, deftly mixing and mashing musical genres and sample sources, reflecting a global influence but rooted in the present of their locale. Here representation moves beyond tradition, operating without precedence, within a scope of potentiality.
[Cynthia Zaven, “Lullaby for Traffic.” Zaven records an improvised performance layering many different takes of herself. This home recording intentionally allows wafts of ambient street sounds from her neighborhood accompany her as she plays. The improvisation over time moves from the external to the internal, playing the piano keys to begin with, then moving inside the piano, directly accessing the strings and mechanics of the instrument.]
Taking all this into account, the final outcome of the project, entitled (a(version)s), has been made available exploring many different avenues of sound dissemination; from physical gallery installations involving a listening station, online mp3’s made available for download, radio broadcasts (both traditional airwaves and internet radio), and including various writings/articles; all meant to be part of the critical dialogue encompassed within the sound works.
I had the opportunity to interview two of the artists from the project, Rough Americana and Mohamed Abdelkarim, discussing their contributions to the project and their overall approaches to sound. Rough Americana is a duo of musician/artists Mutamassik and Morgan Craft who, for the last seven years, have been based out of Italy (but with roots in New York, Cairo, Minneapolis and Ohio), living off the grid in the rural Italian countryside. Mohamed Abdelkarim is a multimedia artist based out of Cairo, whose practice comes out of a more conceptual approach to sound.
Joe Namy [JN]: How has technology affected your approach to making music/sound?
Mohamed Abdelkarim [MA]: To make sound today is to stand upon a technical incision, so as technology develops, of course it affects sound practice. For me it’s more from the perspective of the device utilized in the musical performance.
So I can say: at some point the technology becomes a fetish for the artist, especially for me as someone who didn`t study music.
Rough Americana [RA]: Let`s not forget that technology is a TOOL. The people who are being very snobby about what gear you`re supposed to have to get `the right` kind of sound are often abashedly or unabashedly idolizing musicians who weren`t gear snobs at all. These of the proud intellect are the biggest Lee "Scratch"Perry, Fela, King Tubby, Howlin` Wolf, Konono no.1, etc fans. Music that was made by people who despite or DUE to not having a whole lot of fancy resources, pulled the very best, ingenious and most creative energy out of themselves. (Lately, corporations are picking up on this and calling it `Frugal Innovation`). I`m NOT saying that poverty = genius. I`m saying that people are getting really lazy and superficial by relying on all these candy apps, etc. ("We`re living in an era of the ultimate Cliff Note, of Cultural Bulimia"--from `Skim-Skam`4). Many of our generation want the revolutionary feeling that generated the ground-breaking music and art of the past, but don`t want the bloody and shitty soil from which it sprang.
The democratization of sonic tech has allowed for auto-didacticism in sound engineering, yes, but just because you have some clever apps and digi-EQ’s doesn`t mean the synapses of the mind-ear have connected like the expert`s. Lo-fi is absolutely not a carte blanche for crap. Lo-fi doesn`t make good music as much as hi-fi doesn`t. We use technology. Technology doesn`t use us.
JN: How does cultural pluralism - difference, exchange, hybridization i.e. influences with music/sound from other cultures - play out in your music?
MA: For me it’s about the symbols represented, which is the "basic" spine for how I build the track structure, a collision with the other type of culture not just as music or tone but also as a vocal sense. So the symbol which falls under the tools used proceed to adapt the other culture, like for example I used an Urdu lecture, or the new culture - mixing like in Sha3by music. Its part of the process, dealing with the other culture consciously and sometimes unconsciously.
RA: We are a living bridge between Africa and Europe (and Asia and the Cosmos). Even though, both of us being mixed, mulatti, gave us that perennial feeling of being `outsiders`: Morgan was not black enough for his southern family and he was always going to be nothing but black for his white family and he certainly wasn`t black enough in Ghana. Same for me whether it`s Cairo, Italy or Ohio. And if you can make it through that as a young person, I believe it will equip you to come up with more creative and helpful solutions in the future for the world at large. The beauty on the flipside of that is, if we were to make music that had absolutely nothing to do consciously with our backgrounds it would still be music `representing` these cultures simply because it is in our blood. Like the "free jazz" musicians of the `60-`70s who just called it Black Music with no regard for any preconceived notions of what "Black" music was supposed to sound like5.
[Rough Americana, “Feriano.” This track mixes field recordings from the Italian countryside with layers of live improvisation utilizing a diverse mix of instrumentation and samples from the duo’s past recordings.]
JN: How do you perceive authority in relation to your sound/art, how do you see yourself in relation to the industry (art/music) and in what ways does this affect your authorship in terms of licensing (sharing/value) and the meaning your sound/art has (who do you make it for/do you have an audience in mind)?
MA: As you know I’m coming from a visual arts background, so in the beginning I used to deal with the sound and music as a tool amongst several tools I use: photo, video, painting etc. But during the practices I stacked in music as a medium itself, so I started recently to learn the basics of music. I haven’t really thought about industry, really just interested in the underground. The Internet plays an important role. I’ll record my live concert or produce a new track and mainly release it on the internet, which is where my main audience exists. I’m not interested in authorship in terms of licensing, I’m trying to participate in and support the idea of open source, I’m interested in sharing with a larger circle of many listeners.
RA: I am positively DANCING in the rubble of the entertainment industry! The palpable smell of fear wafting out of boardrooms nowadays makes my pupils dilate and my mouth drool! I hear it`s heaving, clanking, groaning fall and I am sampling it and turning it into a track on the way down! We are wolves just outside the door! We have been operating outside of it for so long, we no longer need it.
JN: What impact does economy (money) have on your sound/art, in the production and in the dissemination of it?
MA: In fact if I use “money” I‘ll go back to talking about devices and art installments, so it usually goes towards needing a new device. I’m charmed by devices and installments. If we also talk about money from another aspect - the revenues from music - maybe I still don’t have a clear vision about this, because my sound practice has not been a primary part of practice until now, so I survive with my other practices. Maybe I’ll be concerned more about this kind of issue when I start to produce more tracks and sound projects.
RA: We have practically no financial support for our music/art/writing whatsoever, which has been a burden, but at the same time means no one owns us nor does anyone own our work nor do anyone`s wishes affect our work. We feel we have nothing to lose in the way of money or popularity, which actually makes us much more courageous and uncompromising. The first few years of it were a real hard smack and I felt desperation creep in, but after the seventh year or so we started feeling the power of this very special training.
Furthermore, it`s possible to release albums which `cannot be bought or sold` without waiting for a deal. Making the old, bloated way of doing things obsolete (saying this, not against analogue, vinyl, etc, but against the capitalist interface of dealing/distributing music and art).
JN: Where do you see your music in relation to traditional forms of music, what musical/sound histories do you choose to gain inspiration from and build upon?
MA: “Time and sound = Music.” I always start from this idea; I start with a few basic techniques for providing the concept. I was not very curious about the history of music, but now because of my interest in technical evolution of the shape in parallel with the concept, the history of music means a lot to me, especially Egyptian traditional music.
RA: The music I make now is directly related to me as a thirteen year-old girl, just expelled from school, banging my head to Suicidal Tendencies on my walkman, my mom dancing and singing along to Oum Kalsoum and my older brother blasting Run DMC on his boombox with the hand-painted playboy bunnies while looking through my dad`s vinyl collection of Miles Davis, Muhal Richard Abrams, Kawaida, Lusaka Radio Band...all against the backdrop of the industrial wasteland that is Steubenville, Ohio. This explains one layer. I call it my `mawal for angry teens`: Growing up I couldn`t stand Oum Kalsoum and Farid El Atrash and Abdel Halim Hafez (I loved Sa`aidi and Baladi though). My ears used to prick up and my heart fire up when I heard the re`q drop in a beat usually three minutes into a classic Abdel Wahab composition, but otherwise I just heard whine, whine, whine, whining about love. I was listening to Slayer, Dead Kennedys, Crass after all--I was `contaminata`-as the Italians call cultural mixing in their usual provincial and racist way. I only came to appreciate the classical Arabic music much later, realizing how despite my adolescent rejection of it, it seeped deeply and inevitably, fundamentally shaping me.
What to do with all the influences? By trying to follow a pre-existing formula...that`s how we get tacky `fusion` or simply non-progressive art. Related to this is the danger in being too worshipful of a culture, its music, people, etc (whether you are from outside of or within it). This uber-reverence can make one limp around the forms or "secrets" and deny the crucial, glandular, visceral, uncomfortable elements. Without this kind of intimate relationship that allows one to smash and yell at it if need be, it`s hard to progress past the obvious. "The only sanctuary..."6
This false worship is another form of the ever counter-productive habit of exoticizing. I do not believe that `imitation is the highest compliment`. I`m going to invert that statement and call it the lowest. That applies to any form of music or culture. If you`re worshipping jazz in a way that inhibits your creativity and individual voice, you are actually anti-jazz. You are killing its essence. I`ve seen this in hip hop in NY (nazi purity) and in jungle at Konkrete Jungle in N.Y. in the mid 90`s when I was cutting up hip hop into jungle and some crew members were offended by my insubordination. These are examples of stylistic repression that have led many of us into experimental music. This stylistic repression cannot only be seen in NY, but also extensively in Egypt (with a few exceptions, such as forward-thinking Mahmoud Refat and Fathy Salama}.
JN: In which representative context is your music geared towards: live performance or studio based home consumption? Is there a difference for you between these two approaches to music creation and consumption?
MA: It was Schopenhauer who first said, “All arts aspire to the condition of music … it is possible for the artist to appeal to his audience directly.” Here I realize this refers to music as a performance, so I am interested in the context of performance more than studio recording, but this does not mean that I resorted in some cases to recording at home, but never the studio, for economic reasons.
RA: It`s all good. Part of the training includes being able to flex anywhere, anyhow. That`s where the `improvisation as lifestyle and not form` is vital, especially for Morgan Craft. Ultimately, we`re talking about channeling. That is the highest role of the artist, just to be a conduit for The Force.
JN: How does environment impact the sounds you create?
MA: Existing environmental sounds influence me greatly. Working from the first soundtrack mix I heard, which comes from living in Cairo itself: a noisy city, imagine you can hear people shouting, barking dogs, beeping cars and Sha3by music coming from the Microbus public transportation. Maybe I’m focusing on a specific type of environment, but that’s what really influenced my beginning idea about what is (sound).
[Mohamed Abdelkarim, “Porqoui.” Abdelkarim samples Youssef Chahine’s “Alexandria… Why?” creating a hypnotic, futurist-inspired collage; a blatant, disillusioned commentary on post-revolution nationalism.]
RA: Depending on the place and time, it can hit you between the eyes, jerk your nerves like a cherry bomb with a big foreground detonation, then fizzles away in puffs of smoke (urban). Other places` vibes seep up slowly through your feet, taking years to become recognizable like the life cycle of an olive tree that takes years to take root and produce fruit, but then it just explodes for generations (rural). 7
You have to question the role of your music. What do you want it to be used for? At my most volatile, I`ve never wanted it to make someone feel like punching someone else in the face. I want it to help people. The same way that punk, thrash, hardcore, hardstep, noise, hip hop, jungle, ragga, free jazz and other `violent`-sounding music helped me. The mosh pit is a great metaphor. I never felt more protected than being a young girl with glasses raging in the middle of a mosh pit (I`ve heard Egyptian women saying that recently about how they felt in the middle of the Tahrir mosh pit in the EARLY days of the revolution--then you barely saw any women, always a bad sign like a dead canary in a mine). Anger, confusion, fear and frustration need to be expressed, purged, sublimated`, siphoned into the proper lymphatic/creative duct. And this is where I began thinking of my music`s role as a disinfectant.
For more information/downloads from the (a(version)s) project compilation visit www.a-versions.com or www.artonair.org/show/aversions-middle-east.
1. Halim El Dabh`s Wire Record Piece (1944)
2. Jacques Attali, Noise (p.100)
3. These seven parameters are borrowed from the seminal essay "Beyond Acousmatic" by Simon Walters
4. See "P.E.I (Personal Efficiency Index): a not to the Good Livers" by Giulia Loli
5. See The Black Equation Form 2.
6. See Egypt: A Brief thought on North African colonalism or "de-Nile" of/to Vulcanize or Afro-Asiatic Mokkassar
7 See That Which Death Cannot Destroy