How the Jordanian Female Artist Collective turned negativity into a musical movement: 'They said it could never be done'

Fourteen members of the 24-piece collective will perform as part of the Amman Jazz Festival

The Jordanian Female Artist Collective began more as a provocation than an idea.

After bemoaning the scattered pockets of female musicians in the kingdom, founder and guitarist Mai Sahli set about creating a group to ruffle the feathers of the local music scene.

"We experienced a lot of sexism. They said it could never be done, or if we managed to do it we would fail," she tells The National. "Since we are women, a lot of male musicians said we would just argue all the time and nothing would get done."

In a space of a year, Sahli proved the doubters wrong by assembling a 24-person collective, 14 members of which will make their debut as a band at one of Jordan’s most prestigious music events.

Running digitally this year due to the pandemic, the collective are one of 15 bands playing at the Amman Jazz Festival. Their pre-recorded set of jazz and choral takes on traditional Levant folk tunes will be broadcast on the event’s YouTube page on Saturday, November 7, from 11pm UAE time.

And that’s only the beginning.

The collective, which comprises everything from singers, percussionists and guitarists to oud players and pianists, are presently working on an album set to be released next year.

The fact all this came together with such speed is down to the concept tapping into a creative thirst from its members.

After years of working either alone or in isolated groups, the collective provided a rare opportunity for women to band together.

“The whole idea started really organically,” Sahli says. “I have been working in the local scene for years, so I just called all the people in my network and said 'just come along and bring your instruments and see what happens'.”

More than a band

Those who came through the doors of the Amman cafes and cultural centres where they met astonished Sahli. From members in their late teens to working mums and retired former musicians in their fifties, Sahli quickly realised she was on to something deeper than just forming a band.

“It had to be something more long term because the passion and enthusiasm was there,” she recalls. “With people of different age groups and experiences, I realised that we could make this whole thing into some kind of creative incubator.”

That shift in tone made the collective both a band and mini-conservatory. In addition to the jam sessions, members were provided with songwriting and production classes from local professionals, one of which was Yara Al Nimr.

The Palestinian-Jordanian is credited as one of the first female conductors in the kingdom and has composed works for Jordan’s National Symphony Orchestra. While recruited by Sahli to whip the collective’s festival repertoire and vocal arrangements into shape, Al Nimr also responded to the call to quell her own sense of professional loneliness.

“I felt a support I never experienced before,” she says. “As a conductor and soloist, you are up there by yourself and you are wondering about your movements and your voice. So being with this amazing group of girls, I felt very comfortable and I didn’t have to worry about these things.”

That said, Al Nimr had her work cut out. With members having little to no formal music education, she had to slow the tempo when imparting advice.

"It was challenging because in many cases, I couldn’t use the usual musical terms,” she says. “But this actually forced me to look at what I do from a more emotional perspective and communicate through that. To explain and make people understand music through emotion helped me immensely as a conductor.”

A creative lifeline amid the pandemic

That connection proved equally valuable in maintaining the collective's solidarity throughout the pandemic. With Jordan about to enter another nationwide lockdown – at present, a four-day period beginning from Wednesday, November 11 – to counter spiralling infection rates, the group will once again share their experiences, song ideas and constructive feedback on a group chat.

Sahli credits the free-flowing conversations with comforting members during uncertain times.

“We spent almost three months not seeing each other during the first major lockdown, but we would jam at home and send it to each other,” she says. “It’s really beautiful to have a network of people sharing and challenging each other and just having fun.”

But when it comes to the serious business of recording their festival set, the band were all business. From inventive covers and a capella pieces to mash-ups of jazz and soul tunes, Sahli says viewers will be surprised by the passion and technique on display.

Their own role models

Besides the potential international audience tuning to watch the stream, Sahli hopes the gig is observed by local naysayers who thought the collective was a pipe dream.

“They will see that there are a lot of great female artists here in Jordan," she says. "The only reason why we weren’t present was because many of us had our own lives and responsibilities. But once we were able to be in one room and feel each other’s creative energy, we knew we have something special.”

Al Nimr also shrugs off the negativity of her male musician counterparts.

“It’s all in the subconscious,” she says. “They grew up with so many role models in front of them. Women didn’t. We are our own role models and that’s why there is extra scrutiny on us. They don’t know what to make of us and that makes it even more exciting.”

Amman Jazz Festival runs from Thursday, November 5 to Tuesday, November 10. All concerts will be streamed on the festival's YouTube page. For details visit ammanjazz.com