Dear Dirar, could you tell me some thing about your background as a musician?
As a kid, keyboard and guitar were available around me from age 5 or 6, yet proper musical education was not available, since I grew up in a village. But I started by repeating and playing by ear all kinds of (Arabic) songs and melodies I was exposed to, mostly popular songs, and I used to improvise around those melodies from as early as then. Around the teenage years I got more interested in electric guitar, mostly for the expressive possibilities, and that was around the same time I got exposed to black music (the so called jazz): Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, sonny Rollins, john Coltrane and miles Davis, and that led me to picking up the saxophone, a bit later though since I had to work for some years in different jobs in order to be able to buy one. At the same time I was also exploring the electric guitar and playing around with cassettes and cassette players in search for more sonic and musical possibilities, it was quite natural since I hadn’t heard any so called experimental or avant-garde music before, I’m talking about the years between 15-18. Classical music CDs were also available at cheap prices, so I got to know the music of many classical composers at early age as well.
Arabic music was playing all the time and all around, however my live experiences were limited to weddings, where popular and traditional and so called classical Arabic songs were played, that’s in addition to Arabic protest and political songs on cassettes. It wasn’t until I was 19 when I first played the oud though.
Until then I was doing all of this for myself rather, without the slight- est intention that I’d want to become a professional musician, but then I started to think deeper about what we might call the musical language and its connection with reality, when questions like ‘why now (late 90’s) we’d still sing a protest song from the 60’s? And questions regarding musical expression, mostly oud music, where I noticed that most of the expressions rarely came mostly from the general musical system of maqam music rather than from considerations of the instrument itself, so I saw those questions as very challenging, and not finding answers for those questions I felt that I had to find my own answers.
Is playing music a part of your daily routine, or is it something that happens on stage (or in the recording studio)?
Yes it is, at home I mostly play the oud.
Is there a certain oud player you look up to? Is there a musician who has led you to this instrument?
Munir and Jameel Bashir, while they were not radically non-conventional, but they did demonstrate how the so-called tradition is transformable and flexible. And so with Sayed Darwish as a composer / songwriter, and other singers / songwriters / composers like Abd El-Hay Helmi, Sayed El-Safti and others from the Egyptian renaissance period.
And — slightly in connection to the preceding question — I would like to know:
– the music you were crazy about as a teenager?
– the music you are crazy about right now?
Quite a wide range of different musics, as a teenager I was interested in Arabic political music, mostly for the words and political intents, and in progressive and other harder rock, mostly for the instrumentation, and in black music for expressiveness and rich musical language. Since I wasn’t interested mainly in a particular genre or style for the sake of it, I think this natural interest led me today to what we might call free music or serious music, today I’d rather say I’m crazy about sonic and musical expression that is serious to its approach to sound and music.
Oud and saxophone seem to be the main instruments you are associated with (but maybe I am wrong). Which of the two do you feel the strongest connection to? What do you feel are the commonalities between them?
Oud, saxophone and piano, I cannot make comparisons beyond the obvious: they are three different mediums, which I approach differently, the same with other instrumentations I use, I don’t think I have a stronger connection to one more than the other. The commonalities lie in each being a particular instrument, commonality is in particularity itself, in the sense in that what’s common between them is that all allow for a unique and deep musical expression, that’s the same with other instruments as well, the difference is that I can’t play other instruments, like ney or trumpet for example.
What are the advantages of amplifying such instruments? Does this create extra timbral layers you like to work with, or is it rather a matter of having a broader range of dynamics?
Yes indeed, when I use amplification or electronic processing I’m after a broader range of timbral layers and dynamics.
What do you make of the term experimental music? Do you think it is fitting for the music you are involved in, or would you prefer another term or description?
The way I see it, the term experimental music has its root in European musical cultures, for me there is nothing experimental in it, even though I was exposed to different musical cultures from early age, my approach to each of those and to the combination of all of them was rooted in the questions like ‘what is music?’ ‘how to compose?’ ‘how to improvise?’ and ‘what are the possibilities and the limits?’ those are questions relevant to music in its totality, not only to experimental or improvised music, no one can be a serious musician without taking all of this into consideration, otherwise they’re limited to either being performers or composers or any other role.
How close, in your perception, are a lot of 20th or 21st century compositions to actual improvisa tion by the performers? Is a piece like Christian Wolff’s Stones a score, or first of all an invitation to improvise?
It is very hard to answer this question, since different composers have totally different approaches, but I see it this way: contemporary and earlier contemporary composition has been working in a different way, compositions has become more like mappings of already existing sonic territories, yet those maps suggest different walkings and dwellings, so in this sense compositions are no longer inventions of new melodic, rhythmic, or melodic ideas for example, but rather suggestions for different ways to explore one sonic territory or the other. That’s why many of those compositions do sound like improvisations, and vice versa, in the case of ‘stones’ for example there’s nothing new in the sound of stones, but the way sonic territory is composed or ‘mapped’ offers a different musical experience.
I once heard a pop producer claim that it is typical for kids growing up in (upper) middle class environments to start a pop group, to be at tracted to especially this branch of art. They have easy access to gear, often the houses they live in have plenty of space to organize rehears als, and right away it’s perceived as a sort of possible career. What is the art form that kids growing up in Palestine are attracted to?
Due to globalization it’s a mixture of electronic music, and heavy doses of western and Arabic pop.
I may add that many of the ‘upper classes kids’ adapt their influences to what they call alternative Arabic music, which in most cases means American pop sung in Arabic, but this music may address social or political issues, so in fact the alternative refers to the content of the lyrics.
Do you think all music has a political undercurrent, be it well hidden or out in the open?
Any form of collective and even personal relations is political, so yes. The easiest way to look at it is the commercial power of mainstream music, which is absolutely a political thing, or an avant-garde music that still complicit in racial and colonial approaches, and from the other side all the different musics that seek to undermine all of that.