Samer Rashed takes ‘Arabic gypsy jazz’ to the UK

The Palestinian viola player tours England this month to promote new album. (Supplied)
Updated 08 November 2019

Samer Rashed takes ‘Arabic gypsy jazz’ to the UK

CAIRO: “Think of a viola soloist presenting a fusion of gypsy jazz and Arabic music, then think of the viola — itself an underrated musical instrument in the Arab world — as the leading instrument of this blend,” Palestinian violist and composer Samer Rashed says of his singular musical project, ahead of his UK tour this month.

Between November 16 and 29, the Jerusalem-based musician and his trio will perform in London, Coventry, and Birmingham as part of a double-bill featuring British-Bahraini trumpet player Yazz Ahmed, before concluding their tour in Sheffield on the UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

The tour will bring Rashed’s second album, “Tales of the Gypsy Jazz,” to an international audience following its launch concert at Ramallah Municipality Theatre in May, which began his tour across Palestine. Now available on several streaming platforms, the album has created considerable buzz since its May release, with “April in Jerusalem” and “Wedding, for Zeina” in particular gaining acclaim.

In August, the magazine This Week in Palestine named Rashed “Artist of the month,” praising his new album for its “diverse range of upbeat and slow music that takes listeners on a variety of journeys and presents yet again an unprecedented employment of the viola as the key instrument in this genre.”




The Jerusalem-based musician and his trio will perform in London between Nov. 16-29. (Supplied)

Rashed’s success, the review continued, “sets a great example for young Palestinian musicians, showing them what can be accomplished with minimal resources and maximum ambition.”

Featuring seven original compositions all written by Rashed, the album was sponsored by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Palestinian Performing Arts Network.

While Rashed’s signature sound certainly employs the “joyful and upbeat rhythms” typical of gypsy jazz, he says he is not interested in  “imitation of the genre’s features or the simple creation of musical replicas.”

“It’s not like listening to the music of Romani guitarist Jean Django Reinhardt or French jazz guitarist Biréli Lagrène,” Rashed says of his musical style. “I try to bring in my own interpretation of the genre.”




“Tales of the Gypsy Jazz” is Rashed’s second album. (Supplied)

In “Tales of the Gypsy Jazz,” that “interpretation” means the viola takes center stage, explains Rashed, and is apparent in the “musical experimentation” that underpins the compositions, particularly the inclusion of the accordion and buzuq.

Two years in the making, “Tales of the Gypsy Jazz,” builds on the success of Rashed’s first album, “Gypsy Rhapsodies,”” albeit in a “more experimental manner.”

Released in 2016, Rashed’s debut album also consisted of seven tracks; five original compositions in addition to “innovative rearrangements” of two traditional Arabic songs: “’Ala Moj al-Bahr” by Syrian singer Mayada Bsilis, and “Bint e-Shalabiyah” by Lebanese legend Fayrouz.

A 2012 graduate of the National Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem where he would later teach, Rashed chose to specialize in the viola (“a very challenging instrument,” he says) early on.




Rashed’s signature sound certainly employs the “joyful and upbeat rhythms” typical of gypsy jazz. (Supplied)

“It’s unusual to see instruments like the viola or violin become leading instruments or main solos in a music project, with other instruments like the piano, buzuq or accordion as only accompanying instruments,” Rashed says.

Determined to create his own viola-inspired sound, Rashed traveled to Istanbul in 2013 where he studied Turkish gypsy and jazz music with renowned Turkish violinist Nedim Nalbantoglu, before returning to Jerusalem and specializing in music composition.

He has since performed in music festivals across the Arab world and in Europe. He has played alongside established musicians including Lebanon’s Marcel Khalife at Beiteddine Art Festival and British violinist Nigel Kennedy at the The Proms in London.

Being invited to play at major festivals, is, Rashed says, a major boost for instrumental music, which remains underappreciated in the Arab world.

“People still believe that an instrumental performance is not worthy of their time,” he says. “But things are changing, and we are discovering that people are thirsty for change and are starting to like this music more.”


Local for local: Saudi businesses find inspiration close to home

Rawan’s Stationery offers mainly Arabic stationary items, agendas, cards for every occasion and Rawan Stationery-designed wrapping paper. (Supplied)
Updated 24 November 2020

Local for local: Saudi businesses find inspiration close to home

  • New brands discover lively demand for clothes and stationery that draw on regional designs

JEDDAH: Rather than aspire for globalized standards and designs, Saudi businesses have started looking inward to represent their surroundings and their cultures.
Surprisingly, the public has reacted favorably. On several occasions, business owners and founders were stunned to find their designs flourishing because people were invested in something that positively represented their identity.
Faisal Al-Hassan, a co-founder of Own Design, said that the most memorable encounter for the fashion brand was during last year’s brand pop-up in the MDL Beast Festival in Riyadh. “People were coming in to grab one of our pieces and they’d immediately leave. That really made us proud and happy seeing people from across the country are familiar with our brand,” he told Arab News.
Own Design started in 2009 when three young men from Alkhobar came together to make money out of their hobby. “We started Own Design as a small project with minimum funds. We were three kids with big dreams. None of us had any background in designing, I have a degree in public administration, but it doesn’t stop me from doing what I love.”
Seven years on, the founders finally moved from makeshift offices in their homes to a concept store in the city.
“Every quarter, we launch a line with a specific theme. Our latest, the Sadu, has been exceptionally popular,” he added.

People welcomed us because there was something different about our stationery. They found products and designs in their mother tongue, which wasn’t available before.

Rawan Khogeer, Owner of Rawan Stationery

It was approximately three years ago that Sadu fabric became trendy, and Own Design wanted to take that design and introduce it into pullovers and then hoodies.
According to the brand’s Instagram, Sadu is “an ancient tribal weaving craft that artistically portrays Arabian nomadic people’s rich cultural heritage and instinctive expression of natural beauty.”
Sadu fabric is known by its vibrant red, green, white and black colors and seemingly geometric weaving.
Own Design’s clothes are designed to represent culture, with lines such as ODxKings featuring popular photographs of Saudi kings on auspicious occasions or popular quotes by them throughout history to merge “national themes with modern apparel.”
The clothing brand has also featured designs coinciding with the Kingdom’s G20 presidency, titled O20 and G20.
“Our designing process is very collaborative; we sit and discuss ideas and each member adds to what’s been said or alters the design in a way the others didn’t think of,” said Al-Hassan.
The brand is known for various limited edition apparel. Their Sadu line manufactures 400 pieces in each color due to the long production process; once it sells out, customers usually have to wait a year when the next Sadu line is launched.
“We’re approaching volume three of the Sadu design, while also collaborating with a special brand on a limited edition product,” he said.
“We have bountiful ideas that we want to showcase to the world, not just Saudi (Arabia) — we want to reach out to other Arabs,” said the co-founder. “(We want) to see foreigners wearing products that have a story.”
Another local business, Rawan Stationery, was started in early 2018 by Rawan Khogeer, a graphic design graduate. “People welcomed us because there was something different about our stationery. They found products and designs in their mother tongue, which wasn’t available before,” she told Arab News.
The market catered mostly to English content in stationeries. The limited Arabic content that was available was also not as pretty in comparison, said the founder.
From a young age, Khogeer’s pastime activity was to visit stationers. She delighted at the start of every term, merely because she got to shop.
She was always fascinated by gift-wrapping paper and the patterns on them. Whenever she visited a gift-wrapping shop, she pledged to open her own shop in the future.
While completing a training program at a company, Khogeer received the news that her mother had suffered an accident. Unable to find a suitable get-well card, she designed one herself.
“I decided to make her a card specifically for her, something that suited her taste, but I chose silver and gold colors, and printers would only print big batches; I was faced with the choice to either change the colors or go ahead with a large print run,” she said.
Khogeer chose the latter, and when her mother saw the card she was elated and told her daughter to start selling them.
Khogeer then went around small gift stores and stationers with her design, while running an Instagram account to publicize her brand. She was also looking into collaboration with stationers in Kuwait and, when they encouraged her, she expanded into the Gulf region.
“Demand was growing and the designs were increasing, and I felt like I’d found myself through this craft. At the same time, other work opportunities, although great, didn’t feel as fulfilling, so I approached Entrepreneurial Institute for support, and I never regretted that decision,” Khogeer said.
It was an adventure visiting governmental entities, carpenters and painters to get Rawan Stationery looking how it does today and fulfilling Khogeer’s dream of establishing a stationery/gift-wrapping store.
“I always wondered why stationers abroad were so meticulous and had such lovely local content, in their own language. I wanted to give that to people here and I wanted to elevate the Arabic language,” she said.
What makes Rawan Stationery different is its originality. It offers mainly Arabic stationery items, agendas, cards for every occasion and Rawan Stationery-designed wrapping paper, and has found a ready market.
As for upcoming projects, Rawan’s Stationery has plans to expand to a second branch soon.