Incorporating elements of traditional Arabic music, rock, jazz- perhaps electronica, too- and drawing its inspiration mainly from the poetry of Sargon Bulus, Mahmoud Darwish and Faiha Abdulhadi, Aynama-Rtama, the debut album of the fascinating pan-Arabic independent super-group Alif, is an explosive and highly eclecticist musical “melting pot”, that deserves to be widely heard. We discuss with the group, ahead of the worldwide release of their album on the 4th of September.
For start, please introduce yourselves to me!
Hello! We’re Alif. Tamer Abu Ghazaleh (Vocals & Buzuq), Khyam Allami (Oud), Maurice Louca (Keys & Electronics), Bashar Farran (Bass) and Khaled Yassine (Drums & Percussion).
When and why did you decide to form Alif, this fascinating independent pan-Arabic super-group?
We began in 2012, after our oud player Khyam was looking to start a band that experimented with a contemporary style of Arabic music and mixed acoustic instruments, like the oud and buzuq, with electronics and strong rhythms. We had all met or heard of each other’s work and were excited to try out the experiment. Through a few residency opportunities, Alif slowly came together. In 2013, the band became fully formed and we continued writing and performing shows, until we felt ready to record our debut album, Aynama-Rtama, in late 2014.
Why did you choose Alif as the name of it?
The Alif, which is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, is somewhat a symbol for the first instance of creating something. We liked the idea of feeling like we belong to this symbol, which is a constant reminder to question why one makes certain creative decisions as opposed to others, and to keep challenging ourselves to go beyond the initial layers, that are based on our own experiences and knowledge. To try and put ourselves in a space, or mind-set, that is outside our norms as individuals, try to work as a group, to serve this sixth element, and push ourselves and our music making forward.
5 of the 8 compositions of your forthcoming debut album are based on poems by Sargon Boulus, Mahmoud Darwish and Faiha Abdulhadi. What is your relation to poetry, in general, and these 3 poets, in particular?
When we first started, we decided to use works by these poets, because they inspired us, and we felt that they relayed certain themes, that were not usually tackled in contemporary music. They all contain a certain symbolism, that is rare to find in Arabic poetry, and even rarer in song texts.
Each of us has their own relationship with these poems and poets, and what they represent, so it’s difficult to discuss their influence here in depth- save to say that we can all relate to them and feel that they represent us and elements of our surroundings enough for us to use them.
Slowly as we became satisfied by that experiment, we started to feel the need for texts that were a little more personal and abstract- that is when our singer Tamer Abu Ghazaleh started to write lyrics for the band, which helped us take a slightly different direction, that now seems to also hint at our musical future.
Other than these poems, what are you mainly inspired by?
We individually have a very wide range of influences, which become even wider between all of us together, from cinema, to philosophy, to art, to all different genres of music. The exciting- and most difficult- part is trying to find a way to make all those influences fit together when we are creating something that serves to represent this unit. There is also the day-to-day of life, which is always inspiring, in its trials and triumphs.
In Aynama-Rtama you create a rich and textured soundscape, incorporating elements of folk music, rock, jazz- perhaps even electronica. Does this reflect each member’s influences and preferences? What sort of music did you grow up listening to?
In a way yes, it reflects the common ground that we managed to find when writing this album, which changed quite a lot throughout the whole process. We all grew up listening to varied types of music, from Arabic classical music, to Arab pop, to psychedelic, rock, metal, jazz, funk etc… Because of this, the mix that comes through in working together is often varied from the start, and it doesn’t feel unnatural, nor is it forced. What you hear is what came through from all of us working together and searching for a common ground that we can all feel honestly represents us and what we enjoy about music.
You come from and live in a region characterized by political and social tensions- from the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the “Arab Spring”, to the rise of Islamic extremism. Both as individuals and as a group do you take a political stand towards issues like these, or do you mostly prefer to “speak” through your work?
We all have our individual political views and ideas, just like everyone, but we don’t feel the need to impose these on the listeners. Some of the poems or lyrics we use have very specific political or social connotations, but we prefer to let the words and the music speak for themselves, and for listeners to relate to them in their individual ways, just as we do. That is not to say that we are ambivalent- if we were, we wouldn’t have made these artistic choices. But, at the end of the day, we all agree that it’s more important to highlight and question something, and try to understand that process and what it brings up, rather than define a specific viewpoint, which risks becoming fixed and stagnant.
Once your album is released, do you plan a tour to promote it?
Yes, of course. We have decided to give the album some time for listeners to digest it, before we start touring. Therefore, we are currently working on setting up a tour of Europe and the Arab world in February/March 2016. Hopefully by then people would have had enough time to listen to the album and become familiar with it, before seeing us live.
Alif’s debut album Aynama-Rtama will be released on 4 September 2015 worldwide via Nawa Recordings on CD, LP and download. Pre-orders are available via: http://smarturl.it/NAWA003preorders
Alif’s official website, where you can hear 2 songs from their forthcoming album, is http://alifmusic.bandcamp.com/
I would like to sincerely thank Erik Ed Benndorf from Dense Promotion (http://www.dense.de/) for his help in the conduction of this interview, as well as for giving me the opportunity to listen to the album in its entirety.
Alif’s photo credits: Tanya Traboulsi.
The album’s artwork comes from a painting by Syrian-Lebanese multi-disciplinary artist Semaan Khawam.