The Arab revolts have shaken the status quo, shattering ideologies and threatening dominating discourses. They have spurred new debates and creative movements throughout the region, questioning capitalism and globalisation, Arabic and western identities and the nature of cultural exchanges.
The Alif Ensemble, composed of an Iraqi-Syrian oud player with a British education, a Palestinian buzuk musician, an Egyptian electronic music composer, a Lebanese drummer and a Syrian bass player, are one of the most fascinating projects to have emerged in the region in the past few years.
Last month at Beirut's Metro Al Madina, the five musicians sat solemnly on the darkened stage. Khyam Allami began a slow, melancholic tune on the oud, soon met by Tamer Abu Ghazaleh singing the poem Hasat by the Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus in a deep voice filled with yearning. The poem is about a tear that has frozen into a pebble and remains untouched after a wrathful flood. Slowly, gentle drum beats, then repetitive pre-recorded violin loops were layered onto the rhythms – until the song exploded with heavy guitar riffs, loud, hectic drum beats and the riotous cries of Abu Ghazaleh. Finally, this musical storm calmed to a meditative melody and the tune ended with a whisper.
It was a wild jumble of poetry, maqam (the melodic modes used in traditional Arab music), progressive rock and electronic music, a mash-up of the musicians’ diverse influences and their taste for free improvisation. It was a rare, powerful moment of melody and dissent, dialogue and solitude, an echo of the flickering realities of the region – and the search for meaning in times of upheaval.
"The effect of Alif's music is dizzying, even melancholic," explains Ahmed Zatari, the editor of the music magazine Maazef. "This, I think, is the effect of the musicians' attempt to alienate the ordinary. Alienation comes from the composition of the instrumentation, not from the melody itself. And this gives the feeling of playing on a somehow dangerously thin line, relying on the performance and the lyrics."
The ensemble were born in 2012 when Allami asked Abu Ghazaleh and other musicians to come together for a residency in London after being commissioned by a number of cultural bodies, including the British Council. After playing at several music festivals, a performance at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham received a radiant review in The Wire, in which the group was described as "a vehicle for original composition, attuned to the traditions of Arabic music, but applying a rock dynamic to their delivery …
“The dominant Alif character is one of a collective sound, each member working at the service of the compositions, rarely stepping forward to solo and usually sounding equally balanced.”
For Allami, the project is the expression of a personal mission. “The Alif ensemble had been a dream for a while,” he says. “I wanted to create a sound that represents now. The vision is to create a sound and a group that has its roots in the musical foundation of Arabic music (instruments, ornaments, melodies), while at the same time breaking free of certain norms that have to do with forms or structure and from this idea of fusion that exists in the Arabic world, which is very literal.”
Even his choice of name deserved consideration he says, given the determination of the group to acknowledge the past but to create something completely new, Allami says. “We wanted to do something much more subtle and much more creative. The reason I chose the name Alif is because symbolically in geometry or calligraphy it’s a line – it represents the first line of creativity.
“We are striving to not allow any social or cultural or political or musical decisions to take over. This is why questioning is always there in order to break free from things that tie us down. We want to find something that represents us.”
This probing is an essential part of Allami’s journey, whose communist parents fled Baathist Iraq to settle in Damascus, then moved to London as political refugees. As a teenager, Allami played the drums in several post-rock, hardcore and metal bands, but after the 2003 invasion of Iraq he experienced an existential crisis and began to study the oud, delving into Arabic music.
“It’s one of those complicated situations,” he says, “because you don’t have a direct link with a particular culture but that’s where you’re from. We’ve become really tired of those boxes that people try to put us in. It’s about balance. It’s important to understand yourself as a human being and you’re only going to do that by going back to your family’s history.”
Allami knew the great songs of Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez because his parents had sung them at home; but now, driven by a thirst for more knowledge, he took private classes with the Iraqi oud master Ehsan Emam and enrolled in the ethnomusicology programme at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. After graduating, he travelled throughout the Middle East and realised that no existing sound reflected the way he felt about the region’s changing realities.
“We were all searching for a similar thing,” he remembers, “and artists were either choosing a western or Arabic identity. We’ve become trapped in a narrow-minded terminology and things become represented in these binary ways.”
When he met Abu Ghazaleh, a Palestinian steeped in the music styles of the Levant and very active in the experimental scene, they began discussing the development of music in the Arab world and realised they had similar ideas. They then contacted Maurice Louca, an Egyptian musician who had been composing electronic music and rock, Khaled Yassine, a Lebanese drummer who had recorded with Anouar Brahem and Erik Truffaz, and the Syrian bass player and vocalist Khaled Omran.
Allami initially wrote the music and the musicians then opened up the creative process to improvisation. These collaborators are among the region’s most esteemed interpreters and composers, and each of them continues to pursue their individual careers; their influences range from Arab hip-hop to popular Arab music, post-rock and jazz.
These inspirations come together organically with Alif Ensemble, threaded by poems by Mahmoud Darwish, Sargon Boulus and Faiha Abdul Hadi, exploring themes such as death, love, existential angst and torture.
“There’s a problem in subject matter in the Arab world when it comes to songs – you either have love or nationalism,” says Allami. “You rarely find lyrics that are in between and we wanted to break out of that. These poems represented our reality and that was really important, even if the themes are really dark.”
While Allami and his colleagues are still experimenting and exploring boundaries, and while their music has yet to come together as a coherent whole, their sonic landscapes are in tune with the doubts and changes that are shaking the region.
“There’s a creative energy that has come out of the region because of the political events that have pushed us a little more and gave us the energy to stand back and look at what the group represents, socially speaking and politically speaking,” explains Allami.
“Our generation is so sick and tired of all the borders and all the racism and we’re much more interconnected now between countries – there are so many projects that have allowed us to come together. The energy of the so-called revolutions was one of being tired of all the restrictions around us in the Arab world, whether you’re talking about bread or petrol or dialects.
“What the group is doing resonates with them. In 2012, when we came together, there was an incredible energy that was extremely creative and impressive across the Arab world. It was perfect synchronicity.”
Shirine Saad is a New York-based editor and writer.
The parts of the sum: the Ensemble's members, one by one
An ethnic Iraqi who was born in Damascus, the UK-based musician is best known for producing a contemporary sound with the oud lute. A musicologist, he also writes about and lectures on Arab music.
A graduate of the prestigious Higher Institute for Music (The Conservatory) in Damascus, he has performed with the Syrian Symphony Orchestra, the Syrian Jazz Big Band and Hiwar Band.
Tamer Abu Ghazaleh
The Palestinian singer, multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer is the founder of eka3, a Middle East platform for facilitating the promotion, production and distribution of independent music.
The pioneering Egyptian sound artist, who is a founding member of the band Bikya, has composed a number of pieces for films. His work, described as "post-everything", is known for its bruising intensity and unexpected beauty.
The self-taught Lebanese percussionist cofounded the fusion band Fun Jan Shai, performs contemporary dance-theatre and flamenco around the world, and is the artistic director/producer of the Beirut-based label Edict Records.
To sample the music of the Ensemble's members, visit soundcloud.com