The sound of the underground

Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi. (Red Bull Content Pool)
Updated 26 April 2018
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The sound of the underground

  • Artists and promoters on the struggle to sustain an alternative music scene in the Arab world
  • More initiatives to promote and support alternative music are needed, pioneers say

BEIRUT: “It’s essential the youth have alternative heroes that can expose them to a certain lifestyle, a certain freedom and creativity that we don’t find in the mainstream,” said Zeid Hamdan. “It will inspire them to sometimes break boundaries and also be very creative with very little means.”

A pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, Hamdan knows a fair bit about the impact and importance of alternative music. He was one half of trip-hop duo Soapkills (alongside Yasmine Hamdan — no relation), who, in the late 1990s, came to epitomize the carefree hedonism of post-war Beirut. His music continues to be a reaction to the political events that surround him.

“Aasfeh,” released in 2012 by Zeid and the Wings (Hamdan and a shifting lineup of other musicians), was a response to the revolutions that had spread across the Arab world; 2015’s “Balekeh” was a musical critique of the indifference toward war in Syria (particularly the song “Jazira”); while last year’s “Mouhit” reflects on a refugee crisis that has seen more than one million Syrians enter Lebanon.

“You want to express things, because the region changes so much and so quickly,” Hamdan told Arab News. “Perspectives change. ‘Jazira’ said, ‘We are not an island, we are a sinking ship’. I was expressing disgust at how indifferent we can be when we are all one same sick body. Now, ‘Mouhit’ is saying, ‘Come with me, let’s cross the oceans, let’s jump over the walls, let’s walk day and night, let’s go for our dreams,’ and it’s in the light of this refugee crisis, with us living in

Lebanon with so many refugees. All these people need to grow, to free themselves, to build their dreams. So you see, we mature with the situation. We learn. We express. We produce.”

Hamdan is just one element within a regional alternative music scene that is growing in significance, even if very few artists within that scene have made it to the big time. In many ways, artists such as Mashrou’ Leila — the poster boys of Arab alternative music, Palestinian four-piece 47Soul, and Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi are unified by a potent cocktail of attitude, spectacle, and socio-political lyricism.

“Through music you can resist and through music you can be creative and through music you can challenge yourself and challenge things,” Yasmine Hamdan — who plays DXBeats at Dubai Opera House on April 28, told me a while back. She is not alone in this belief. Mathlouthi, whose music is both powerful and eccentric, would be unable to operate within the confines of mainstream Arab pop.

“Inspiration and creativity are a blessing and we should never take them for granted, so I will not try to fake some ready-to-go music formula to be mainstream, losing my soul and therefore run the risk of not knowing how to defend it at all,” Mathlouthi told Arab News. “I just try to be alive and awake to catch whatever is passing by that could help me craft and innovate.”

Yasmine Hamdan has described mainstream music as Arabic pop kitsch, or musical junk food that pollutes the airwaves and recycles clichéd constructs of love and heartbreak. Anthony Khoury, lead singer of Beirut-based band Adonis, whose third album, “Nour,” was released last September, tends to agree. Last year the band said music in the Arab world needs both revival and renewal.

 

 

“The Arabic language is unparalleled in its richness and playfulness,” said Khoury. “Yet local pop songs have been ruminating for decades on a very limited group of words, ideas, structures, which has severely flattened our language. For us, the ‘revival’ of Arabic music is first of all a rediscovery of the Arabic language and the possibilities it offers.”

By extension that revival will depend to a degree on the success of independent artists. And yet with limited rehearsal space, few venues, and a lack of support from television and radio stations, the environment is challenging. Labels, too, are problematic, with very few willing to take a risk on bands that they view as socially and politically outspoken. Even Mashrou’ Leila, arguably the most successful Arabic independent group out there, remain unsigned.

“Labels are tricky,” admitted Firas Abou Fakher, Mashrou’ Leila’s guitarist. “Everyone we spoke to at Middle Eastern labels expected a lot more conservatism in the compositions, lyrics and public engagement than we were willing to entertain or compromise on. We’d be more than happy to sign when we meet the right match. It just needs to feel like they’re willing to take a risk on us, before we agree to take a risk on them, and then we’d totally swipe right.”

Some encouragement should be taken from this situation, however. From challenges, obstacles, creative friction and improvization emerge defining sounds.

“Every place in the world is more or less defined by its local indie music scene,” said Ali Al Saeed, founder of MuseLand Records, which releases its fifth compilation of regional indie music on May 1. “It is often what genuinely reflects the vibe of a city or a community. That culture is also what — in a way — documents that process.

“I often feel that we’re still trying to figure out our sound, collectively,” he added. “If you look at places like Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, you get a sense of what the music movement is about. I’d like to see artists here, in places like Bahrain and Dubai, push their musical boundaries a bit and get out of their comfort zone. Some pretty interesting stuff is happening in Kuwait, which to me was a pleasant surprise.”

More initiatives to promote and support alternative music are needed, as are more venues that are built and designed for the sole purpose of housing gigs. But a further shift in mindset is also required, believes Al Saeed.

“There’s no shortage of efforts and initiatives and projects,” he says. “And they play a key role in growing and improving the scene. But the bigger change that no one seems to be addressing is the cultural aspect, and how to change the mentality of musicians and music fans. I’ve been repeating this quite often lately. The change I’d like to see is to move away from taking the musicians to the crowds, to having the crowds come to the musicians.”

FASTFACTS

DXBeats brings indie luminaries to Dubai Opera House

On April 28, Dubai Opera House will host some of the best alternative artists from the Arab world in one of the finest venues in the UAE. Paris-based Lebanese indie veteran Yasmine Hamdan is joined on the bill by her countryman Nader Mansour’s ‘Lebanese rock & roll’ outfit The Wanton Bishops, Iraqi-Canadian MC Narcy, hugely popular Egyptian duo Sharmoofers, Moroccan urban artist Manal, and UAE-based Syrian hip-hop/R&B artist Moh Flow, in an encouraging development for underground music in the region. Tickets are still available, starting from $75.


Zahrah Al-Ghamdi finds the beauty in sadness

Updated 21 May 2019
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Zahrah Al-Ghamdi finds the beauty in sadness

  • This month saw perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Al-Ghamdi’s career to date
  • Zahrah Al-Ghamdi discusses her love of land art and organic materials

VENICE: The Al-Baha-born, Jeddah-based land artist and arts professor Zahrah Al-Ghamdi has an unwavering passion for creating arresting, large-scale installations composed of natural materials — sand, clay, rocks, leather and the like. Explaining her love of shaping these organic substances, Al-Ghamdi once said: “It’s important for me to smell the sand and feel it with my own hands, because those senses of touch and smell allow my work a synergy, and if I don’t get that synergy, I can’t work.”

This month saw perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Al-Ghamdi’s career to date. The artist was chosen to inaugurate Saudi Arabia’s pavilion at the 2019 edition of the Venice Biennale —the art world’s largest public event and oldest contemporary art show — through an immersive solo exhibition entitled “After Illusion.”

Al-Ghamdi was jointly selected to represent the Kingdom by the recently developed Saudi Ministry of Culture and the Misk Art Institute, a homegrown arts foundation that aims to strengthen artistic activity within the Kingdom.

“To be honest, when I used to read about the Venice Biennale and its unique concept, I felt so far away from that world — it was like a dream,” Al Ghamdi tells Arab News. “In recent years, I’ve worked really hard and always hoped to achieve more through each work I would present. So when I received the call from the Misk Art Institute to participate at the biennale, it was like a dream I never thought I’d dream. I was elated but simultaneously felt a great deal of responsibility, as I am not representing (just) myself, but my country and all its artists.”  

Through her debut participation at the biennale, which is open to the public until November 24, Al-Ghamdi joins a canon of female artists putting on solo exhibitions and taking the lead in representing their countries to the world, including Larissa Sansour for Denmark, Laure Prouvost for France, Cathy Wilkes for Great Britain, Nujoom Al-Ghanem for the UAE and Naiza Khan for Pakistan.

In a dimly lit, almost celestial setting, “After Illusion” takes the viewer through a thoughtfully designed constellation of 52,000 manually manipulated leather spheres — or ‘creatures’ as Al-Ghamdi likes to call them — cascading down white drop curtains, while others are scattered on the ground. Adding intimacy to the overall experience, an audio recording of Al-Ghamdi working in her atelier plays within the pavilion’s interior.

'After Illusion,' the work Al-Ghamdi created for the Venice Biennale. (Supplied)

As with most of Al-Ghamdi’s works, the exhibition not only reflects an element of Saudi Arabia’s history and evolving identity, but also the artist’s own history, acting as an expressive form of self-portrait.

“One of the things that I liked about Al-Ghamdi’s work is that she makes her work by hand,” says pavilion curator and fellow Saudi artist Eiman Elgibreen. “This is something we are missing lately in the art scene — everyone is doing manufactured, plastic-y things. I was always interested (in the fact) that she works with something very traditional but transforms it into something really contemporary and new. The leather material used here reminds her of her grandfather herding, but now no one herds. And so she took the leather and transformed it, which I thought would go very well with our concept. Just imagine these creatures having a new life and then trying to settle in Venice, reassuring people that it’s not wrong to transform and change, because eventually you’ll reach a new reality that way.”

Al-Ghamdi, too, has undergone transformation in her life and career, evolving her artistic vision by exploring themes of memory and loss, exhibiting works in Dubai’s AlSerkal Avenue and London’s British Museum, among others, and participating in international residency programs and symposiums. It was Al-Ghamdi’s father — a teacher who enjoyed drawing — who first noticed her artistic abilities and encouraged her to pursue the arts.

After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Islamic Arts from Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University, Al-Ghamdi traveled to England, where she gained Master’s and PhD degrees in Design and Visual Art. It was during her studies abroad that Al-Ghamdi’s artistic knowledge greatly expanded, and land art was her greatest influence.

Land art — which, in its modern sense, gained momentum during the 1970s — was practiced by pioneering Western artists including Robert Smithson, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, and Walter De Maria. Resisting the commercialism of the art world and the confines of the gallery space, they turned instead to vast landscape settings for artistic expression — passionately sculpting into the ground or building massive installations using natural materials.

One of Al-Ghamdi's earlier works, 'What Lies Behind The Sun,' was constructed from thorns. (Supplied)

“In Saudi Arabia, the field of research was weak for me. But when I traveled abroad, I was introduced to a whole other world through the Internet and exhibitions,” Al-Ghamdi explains. “I was deeply influenced by land artists Smithson, Goldsworthy, and Long, and I was taken by their ability to use raw materials to express their feelings and attract the attention of viewers. They helped me see ‘nothing’ as something important, and that I could use raw materials to send a message. For instance, in a previous work I made, I placed tough thorns that were found in southern Saudi Arabia in a large circular shape. The thorns may indeed emit stories of pain, (but also), on the contrary, the notion of power and stability.”

Observing her experimental and thought-provoking oeuvre — from a carefully lined floor installation made of rubble to a layered gauze installation soaked in black paint — one may experience an unsettling sense of isolation, sadness, and vulnerability. A kind of destruction, almost.

“That is exactly how I want you to see my work. When I look at architecture, I do not necessarily see the beauty or happiness it exudes. My colleagues often ask me why I focus on the misery of architecture, but that’s what personally interests me — I need to see its truth. When I look at the old, abandoned buildings in the south of Saudi Arabia, they’re isolated and look unhappy to me, as they are surrounded by contradictory modern counterparts that do not attract me,” Al-Ghamdi says. “In my work, I am also trying to send a message to the viewer that the earth, which grants life and stability, suffers from the relentless actions of human beings through dryness, pollution, and war."