After ‘Love & Revenge’ it’s ‘Glory & Tears’ for Rayess Bek

Rayess Bek. (Supplied)
Updated 24 December 2018

After ‘Love & Revenge’ it’s ‘Glory & Tears’ for Rayess Bek

  • Lebanese musician draws inspiration from Saudi singer Ibtisam Lutfi for new project celebrating ‘lesser-known’ Arab artists
  • Best known by his stage name, Rayess Bek, and once renowned as a trailblazer in Arabic hip-hop, Koudaih is almost unrecognizable from the artist he once was

DUBAI: “She has one of the most incredible voices I’ve ever heard,” says the Lebanese musician Wael Koudaih of the Saudi Arabian singer Ibtisam Lutfi. “She really is an incredible singer and oud player. She would sing very classical Arab music, sometimes with a little khaleeji touch that had a very special rhythm, and she had a very beautiful way of playing the oud.”

Softly spoken and affable, Koudaih is sitting quietly in Fabrika, a co-working space in the Achrafieh district of Beirut. Best known by his stage name, Rayess Bek, and once renowned as a trailblazer in Arabic hip-hop, Koudaih is almost unrecognizable from the artist he once was. The quick-fire lyrics in Lebanese Arabic or Parisian French have faded into memory, replaced by a wider artistic repertoire and an appreciation of both classical Arabic and modern electronic music.

He first discovered Lutfi while researching for the sequel to “Love & Revenge,” his much-lauded audio-visual collaboration with video artist Randa Mirza. An ode to the Golden Age of Arabic music, “Love & Revenge” was a fusion of ‘electro pop music and cinema from the Arab world’, with Koudaih’s re-working of classical Arabic songs accompanying Mirza’s edited film sequences.

Now Koudaih and Mirza are working on “Glory & Tears,” a follow-up to “Love & Revenge” that focuses on lesser-known artists from the Arab world. It will retain its predecessor’s pop edge — utilizing drum machines, synthesizers and electric oud to create a contemporary sound that draws its inspiration from artists including Lutfi and the Mauritanian trio Houria.

Koudaih is also working on “Dabake,” an electronic dabke project funded by the UNHCR that will be performed soon in Beirut, and features Syrian electronic artist Hello Psychaleppo, Khaled Omran from the Syrian alt-rock trio Tanjaret Daghet, and Lebanese indie-rock outfit Who Killed Bruce Lee frontman Wassim Bou Malham.

“It was very unusual to see a woman dressed the way Lutfi was, with this haircut and those beautiful dark glasses, playing the oud and singing in Saudi Arabia,” says Koudaih, returning to “Glory & Tears.” “We are not used to this image and it’s quite unusual. She’s a quite unique person in a quite unique environment. I think this is why I enjoyed listening to her songs.”

One of Saudi Arabia’s greatest singers, Lutfi was born in Ta’if in 1951 and began her singing career in Jeddah in the 1960s. An exceptional oud player, she was blind and had a distinctive, striking appearance, yet disappeared from public life suddenly in the late 1980s following the death of her parents. She re-emerged briefly in 2013, only to disappear again shortly afterwards.

Now elements of her work are to be given new life through “Glory & Tears,” which Koudaih says will be sewn together using the theme of hybridity.

“It’s quite interesting, because we’re getting out of this glorious Golden Age, which I love, into something else that existed,” he says. “Where you have singers or musicians that were known locally but didn’t get the chance to become superstars. Singers from Sudan and Yemen, and groups such as Houria, who wore traditional clothes, had an electric guitar, and played Mauritanian songs in Arabic but in their own dialect.”

Downstairs from Fabrika a sound lab is in the process of being built. An isolation room has been installed and special flooring laid, although the space isn’t expected to be fully functional until next year. It’s where “Dabake” was recorded and where Koudaih has chosen to co-invest with the owner of Fabrika.

Born in Nabatieh in southern Lebanon, it’s all far removed from Koudaih’s early days as a rapper and beatmaker, performing with the likes of Eben Foulen and Tamer Nafar from the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM. Koudaih’s art has evolved, encompassing theater, dance, and productions such as “Goodbye Schlöndorff,” which combined intimate cassette recordings from the civil war with short sequences from director Volker Schlöndorff’s movie “Circle of Deceit.”

“You know, I got to a certain point where I felt that hip-hop was not something I could go further with,” he once said. “I felt it was over. I felt I’d done everything I wanted to do with this kind of music and that it was limiting me as an artist. I thought what I was saying — or what I had said — was enough in the context of lyrics and of rapping to a beat.”

With Mirza he has found greater room for artistic expression, with the duo also working on a separate archival project; one that is based on the first ever recordings made in the Arab world.

For Mirza, “Glory & Tears” has opened up a whole new realm of Arab cinema. Whereas previously she had worked with classics such as Hussein Kamal’s “Abi foq Al-Shagara,” or Youssef Wahbi’s “Gharam wa Intiqam” (Love and Revenge), she has now delved into the obscure, drawing on movies including Hamada Abdel Wahab’s “Rihla Ila Al Qamar” (Trip to the Moon).

“What Randa is doing is quite amazing, because she is taking forgotten, lowbudget genre movies like ‘Star Wars,’ but done by Arabs,” says Koudaih. “It’s crazy. You have Arabic kung-fu, you have an Arab James Bond, the Karate Kid, an Arab Dracula. They are amazing and super-funny. We are playing on this double — or troubled — identity, where we are in the post-colonial phase. It is modernity as seen through the eye of the colonized.”

The first performance of “Glory & Tears” is expected to take place early next year, with both Mirza and Koudaih to be joined in Beirut in late January by the Algerian electronic oud player Mehdi Haddab and French musician Julien Perraudeau, both of whom were also part of “Love & Revenge.”

“In these films you see this influence that came from the West but is then treated in a very funny and very Arab way,” says Koudaih. “You still have the cowboy, but then you see an Arab running, then the army arrives, and then he gets into a space machine and goes to space. Then he meets Dracula. All in the same movie. It’s so confusing. So many clichés. But it’s super-funny.

“And I think this is what we are today. At least this is what I am, if I have to speak for myself. I am this weird, unclear mix of French, Lebanese, a little bit of American because I watch so many movies, and maybe German because I lived in Berlin for three years. I have this tendency to grab stuff from cultures. Grab the stuff that I like. Even if I wasn’t a creator I would still do it, because this is human nature. It is this hybridity that ‘Glory & Tears’ is all about.”


Saudi Arabia’s Dar Al-Qalam Complex puts Arabic calligraphy under global spotlight

Saudi Arabia’s renowned Dar Al-Qalam Complex is home to hundereds of samples of calligraphy work. (Arab News)
Updated 19 February 2020

Saudi Arabia’s Dar Al-Qalam Complex puts Arabic calligraphy under global spotlight

  • Go behind the scenes at Saudi Arabia’s renowned Dar Al-Qalam Complex as we celebrate the Year of Arabic Calligraphy

MADINAH: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture declared 2020 the Year of Arabic Calligraphy and the Madinah-based Dar Al-Qalam Complex has revealed plans to become an international institute granting certificates of competence in Arabic calligraphy.

Ali Al-Mutairi, head of the cultural activity department at the General Directorate of Education in Madinah and supervisor of the Dar Al-Qalam Complex, spoke to Arab News about the institution’s key activities and aims.

The Dar Al-Qalam Complex at night. (Supplied)

Madinah’s Dar Al-Qalam Complex has become a magnet for culture vultures with its art gallery, educational images and documentation unit, historical theater and Ethar center for scouting and volunteer services. But the undoubted gem of the institution is its renowned calligraphy center.

Supervisor Ali Al-Mutairi said that the director general of education, Nasser Al-Abdulkareem, planned to turn the complex into an international calligraphy center.

Madinah-based Dar Al-Qalam Complex has revealed plans to become an international institute granting certificates of competence in Arabic calligraphy. (Supplied)

“With the support of Madinah Gov. Prince Faisal bin Salman, we at the education department have plans to develop the Arabic calligraphy center to make it an institute that grants scientific licentiates in Arabic calligraphy. To do this, we are planning to attract top Islamic calligraphers from all over the world,” Al-Mutairi added.

And attracting talent from across the globe should not be too much of a challenge, considering the complex’s history.

The complex features an art gallery, educational images and documentation unit, historical theater and more. (Supplied)

Exploring the Dar Al-Qalam Complex’s storied past

According to Al-Mutairi, the history of the Dar Al-Qalam Complex is closely linked to the Taibah Secondary School, one of the first schools of its kind in Saudi Arabia.

“Taibah school was founded in 1942, and students were later transferred to the Dar Al-Qalam building, which has been serving as the school’s new location since its inauguration by the late King Saud bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud in 1962,” he told Arab News.

Al-Mutairi pointed out the role played by Prince Faisal and his deputy governor, Prince Saud bin Khalid Al-Faisal, in the development of the complex.

The Dar Al-Qalam Complex is closely linked to the Taibah Secondary School, one of the first schools of its kind in Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)

“Prince Faisal inaugurated the complex in its current style in 2013 at a ceremony attended by the former minister of education at the time, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al-Saud.

“Since then, the Ministry of Education, represented by the General Directorate of Education in Madinah, has attached great importance, care and support to the complex, turning it into a beacon for science and education in the Madinah region,” he said.

Raising awareness about Madani calligraphy

Authorities in the region have also declared a special focus on local culture and art, with the Madinah Development Authority launching an initiative in August 2015 to preserve the homegrown Madani form of calligraphy.

Well-known calligrapher and supervisor of the Arabic calligraphy committee at the Madinah branch of the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts (SASCA), Bandar Al-Amri, said: “Historically, the Madani script is an extension of the Makki form of writing, which the Quraish tribe first used in Makkah.

The Madinah Development Authority launched an initiative in 2015 to preserve the homegrown Madani form of calligraphy. (Supplied)

“Nowadays, there are copies of the Holy Qur’an that were written in the Madani style. These copies are kept in many libraries and museums, such as the national library of France, in Paris, and the Berlin library.

“The Madinah region is rich in early Islamic inscriptions engraved on the rocks of its mountains and water stream banks. The inscriptions were found along the caravan ways that used to go through the city. What distinguishes these from other inscriptions is that most of them are for the people of Madinah or those who have settled here,” Al-Amri added.

The Madinah region is rich in early Islamic inscriptions engraved on the rocks of its mountains and water stream banks. (Supplied)

“These inscriptions are not limited to men, there are also inscriptions for women. Some of them include Qur’anic verses, prayers, notes, poems and news inscriptions, and those engraved in Madani fonts are found on the rocks of the valleys of the Madinah area.”

Read more about Arabic calligraphy’s Madani script here.

Training a new generation

One of the complex’s primary aims is to train a new generation of calligraphers in a bid to keep the art form alive and engage with talented calligraphers.

Head of the male student activity department at Madinah’s General Directorate of Education, Abdullah Al-Zahrani, told Arab News that the aim was “to introduce the beauty of Arabic calligraphy to our teachers and students of both genders.”

One of the complex’s primary aims is to train a new generation of calligraphers. (Supplied)

His counterpart in the female student activity department, Layla Al-Amri, said: “The specialized calligraphers, their workshops and fully equipped training halls, all help our female students improve their hand lettering.”

Bassam Al-Sa’idy, an eighth-grade student, said calligraphy works at his school had caught his eye from when he first learned to read.

“The handwriting of the Qur’an by Uthman Taha (Syrian calligrapher) also attracted my attention. I was determined to learn Arabic calligraphy.

Various copybooks of renowned calligraphers for different scripts are used as part of the center’s curriculum. (Supplied)

“My school organized a handwriting training course and I joined that course, after which we received an invitation to visit the Dar Al-Qalam Complex. They welcomed us, and me and my colleagues began to learn Ruq’ah script and the Nuskh scripts,” added Al-Sa’idy.

“So far, I have nearly mastered the scripts of Ruq’ah and Nuskh, and I will soon begin studying the Ottoman script so that I can make my dream of becoming a Qur’an calligrapher come true.”

Calligrapher Adel Barri said that various copybooks of renowned calligraphers for different scripts were used as part of the center’s curriculum.

"Our main goal is to make them acquire the skills of this art," says calligrapher Adel Barri. (Supplied)

“We use the copybooks of the prominent Iraqi calligrapher Mohammed Ezzat in teaching the Diwani script. We also use the copybooks of the Turkish calligrapher Mehmed Shevki Efendi to teach Nuskh and Thuluth scripts. These two names are references in their field,” Barri added.

“We are here ready to provide them (the center’s students) with everything they need for free. Our main goal is to make them acquire the skills of this art.”