Challenging sounds were on offer on Thursday night as part of NYU Abu Dhabi Institute’s Noise from the Middle East. Held at Etihad Towers, it was the first of a planned regular series, focusing on electronic music from the region.
The two-hour event included an introduction to the genre by the renowned Dutch musicologist Neil van der Linden and performances by three regional musicians.
Van der Linden’s half-hour address dispelled any notion that electronic music is a new development in the region. He linked the genre’s first appearance in the Arab world back to 1944 by playing a revelatory snippet from the Egyptian composer Halim El Dabh, who used a field recording of live spiritual folk songs and manipulated the sound with extra reverb and loops.
Van der Linden's modern examples included the Egyptian songbird Umm Kulthum and her classic track Enta Omri (which was led by electric guitar), and the crooner Mohammed Abdel Wahab.
Next was a focus on the present, with performances by Bahrain’s Hasan Hujairi, Egypt’s Karim Sultan and Lebanon’s Mazen Kerbaj.
It was a mixed bag. Hujairi darted between his guitar and laptop as he inserted riffs into a heavy fog of keyboards and vocal loops. Sultan plucked his oud over what seemed like a field recording of Cairo’s busy streets. The result was an intoxicating sound where the oud – viewed as being closest to the human voice – mixed seamlessly with the recording, adding melody and emotion to the street ruckus.
Kerbaj’s exhausting set, in which the trumpet was looped to create a continuous wail, lasted about 20 minutes. Despite some audience members walking out, it was an effective performance and showcased electronic music’s appealing and uncompromising traits.