Alif’s oud player Khyam Allami on the band’s new single, Holako, and changing perceptions of Arabian music

Alif Ensemble oud player Khaym Allami talks about the band’s new single and changing perceptions of Arabic music.

The Alif Ensemble, from left, Khyam Allami, Bashar Farran, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, Khaled Yassine and Maurice Louca plan to tour the Arab world and Europe before the end of the year. Courtesy Tony Elieh / Alif
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After enthralling international crowds with their heady blend of eastern and western sounds, not to mention a heavy dose of modern Arabic poetry, the Alif have released Holako, the first single from their eagerly awaited debut album ­Aynama-Rtama, out on September 4 through Nawa Recordings.

Despite clocking in at a relatively lean four minutes, the track is bursting with ideas as the oud, buzuq, bass, modern keyboards and percussion mix together in one arresting sonic brew. Oud player Khyam Allami says it is the sound of today. “There is this growing movement of artists who are not doing just the same love songs and nationalistic songs that are around at the moment,” he says. “With time, people will have a hard time defining Arab music, not as just that but so much more.”

Holako is the lead single of your upcoming album Aynama-Rtama, which is due out in September. What made the band choose it?

This is our debut album so we are conscious that for many people this will be the first time they would have been introduced to our sound. We feel that Holako can capture people's imagination.It also defines our intent with the album and what we are trying to do with it. It is also a great way to introduce people to the sound of the record and the energy that is within it. You also get all the elements of the band in this record as different instruments come in after each other.

The album showcases Alif’s varied influences, from electronic music to rock and traditional Arab folk. How do you blend together these disparate elements?

Most of it is developed as we go along and the songs come together in different ways. Some of them start with a clear idea. Holako, for example, began with a main oud riff and then the percussion came and it slowly grew from there. We normally have an idea and see where it goes. Then we sit down together and the cerebral process starts where we ask questions about why do we want to take this particular song in this direction.

You are chatting to me from London. Where do the other members live?

This is what makes things a bit difficult for us, as everyone is in a different part of the world. I bounce between London, Beirut and Cairo doing different projects. Our vocalist, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, and keyboardist, Maurice Louca, live in Cairo. Our bass player, Bashar Farran, lives in Beirut and our percussionist and drummer, Khaled Yassine, lives in Doha.

Because of the distances involved, were the songs for the album written when you were all together or were ideas exchanged online?

It is all done together. We have this process where we write together in workshops. Every time there is a concert or tour, we use the opportunity of us being together and do these workshops and write the songs. We did workshops in Cairo, Alexandria, Liverpool, Copenhagen and Beirut before recording the album.

Do you feel the Alif is part of a growing movement of new, contemporary Arab bands, such as Mashrou’ Leila and Cairokee, whose sounds are far removed from the pop music dominating the airwaves?

I do think there is a movement and it has been around for a long time. It is only recently that it has become a little bit more visible and I think soon – I hope within a year – we can stop saying that our music is only love and pop songs. As the number of groups grows and the creative output develops to become more honest and reflective of the environment that we live in, it will be harder to categorise Arab music as one thing, or done in a specific way.

Do you have plans to perform in the UAE when the album is released?

We are trying to take a different tactic. Usually in the Arab world, whenever someone releases an album they do a big album-launch concert – the problem is the album is too fresh and no one has really listened to it fully. What we want to do is give people the chance to actually listen to the album more than once before we go out and perform it live. We are definitely planning a tour of the Arab world and Europe before the end of the year.

Holako is available on iTunes. For details, visit www.facebook.com/alifmusic1