INTERVIEW: +AZIZ & HIS CROSS-CULTURAL MUSIC EXPERIMENT
From an early age, back in Kuwait, +Aziz wanted to make music. This journey would lead him across the Atlantic, and land him in the "Big Easy", the heart and soul of American music.
SWITCHED: Hello +Aziz. It’s been quite a while since we last caught up. How’s life in the age of the coronavirus?
+AZIZ: At the moment of writing this, we are 3 months into this new age. I’m thankful that it’s been a period of growth for me, but it’s a time to prioritize the disadvantaged in our societies. Not simply because they’re victims of a system but because there is immense untapped potential that will help us thrive collectively.
Now it’s time to understand why others disagree with you, to make up your mind about what you believe, to speak up and support those you believe in. We need to work together through layers of ignorance and anxiety that undermine our sense of unity and belonging.
SW: You’ve recently had a live gig streamed via Facebook. What was that like?+AZ: Talk about closing Ramadan with a banger; it felt right to do it on Eid weekend. We confirmed and promoted the show two weeks ahead with a group called TheNest504 and live-streamed on Twitch and Facebook. The virtual cat in the bottom left is Glitchy :)
It had been a long time since all six of us played together, so there was just a sincere sense of excitement and that made a huge difference. Oddly enough, we made more money through donations on this gig than we typically made at our pre-COVID shows! Go figure.
We did an extensive soundcheck. I got to break my fast one hour before showtime, so the timing worked out nicely. We also had the support of two technicians, a sound engineer and a VJ. It was an hour set… I don’t know if you can hear the natural reverb of the warehouse in the recordings, but that was really warm and comforting. Especially since it was raining intensely outside.
SW:The obvious question is… what does all mean for music, locally/globally?
+AZ: It certainly feels like a new bar has been set, but the fundamentals are very much intact. Your number 1 job is and always will be to develop your community. You have to have to be in tune with your energy and get into your flow state regardless of who’s watching you and what’s happening around you.
I first live-streamed on Periscope in 2015, which was eventually bought out by Twitter. I’ve always recognized live-streaming as a great way to break out of my geographic constraints and particularly useful for someone who straddles cultures.
It really feels like there’s an open landscape for music makers today. For example, I attended a voice and singing tutorial by Hamed Sinno (lead singer of Mashrou Leila) a little while ago through Circle World Arts. My friend Kayem moderated discussions with all kinds of amazing people on IGTV. So there’s a sense of greater freedom that artists can capitalize on.
Historically, I’ve been focused on being a performer-songwriter, but developing some basic sound engineering skills is no longer optional. When you look at Karrouhat, the guys from Galaxy Juice or Hasan Hujairi, all these fantastic artists all have production chops. It’s particularly important for someone looking to work with video game developers and filmmakers, which are becoming increasingly important revenue streams, even after live music rebounds.
If you’re a musician or producer reading this, participate in and support the infrastructure being built for indie music in the Middle East today. If you’re reading Switched, chances are you know Ali Al-Saeed. Also follow Anthony Semaan on Linkedin and check out MusicGrid, alicensing platform developed by Sami Al-Quqa.
SW: You went through quite a transformation through both your career and your music… what would you say was the key deciding factor in realizing what you wanted to do?
+AZ: As you probably know, Kuwait’s creative environment suffered for decades. I lived through the Gulf War and saw artists from Kuwait’s golden age struggle to rehash the past while they completely ignored the digital age. It became almost cliche to see top-tier actors vent in their TV interviews about the government, censorship, the decaying state of performance venues, etc. when it is perhaps their own lack of flexibility that exacerbated this marginalization. Not once did I catch them mentioning
Sulayman Al-Bassam, who not only influenced me directly, but also articulated his vision for a more inclusive type of theater that is serious and works on both local and global levels.
Anyways, as time dragged on, local superstar musicians flocked to deals with Rotana, MBC, etc. It seemed that on a macro-level, the status of being an artist took a nosedive in Kuwait. And if it’s bad for these established people, can you imagine the disconnect I felt being someone with this vision for some kind of “Khaleeji Rock”?
"My decision to pursue music and realization that I had to leave Kuwait happened almost simultaneously."
The defining moment for me was my transition from an all-male public middle school to a mixed private highschool. I was remarkably incompatible with those around me. The first shock was finding all these ultra-proud Kuwaitis who were exceptionally terrible at Arabic. I wondered: did they struggle with the language because they’ve grown up around English all their life? Is it an upper class thing? Was the language uncool? Why is the language being held back from advancing into the 21st century? It was a new phenomenon back then, so I just didn’t get it (and it’s only gotten worse).
Worse still, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the way the Kuwaiti identity was becoming this homogenous idea, where everyone is so obsessed with your ancestral roots and identity policing. All this agitation motivated me to develop an artistic practice to help me articulate my bilingual identity, to make sense of my lack of belonging. I fantasized about forming a band in Kuwait or the UAE, but all the local friends I thought might join me chose not to, so I just had to do it alone. I wish something like social media existed back then.
SW: You’re currently based in New Orleans, having moved there from New York… how did that change your approach to creativity/music?
+AZ: Life felt so complicated when I first moved to New York in 2009; by the time I turned 30, I was moving to New Orleans (NOLA) and my plan was dead simple. 1. Get Married, 2. Transition away from full-time work to focus on music.
"NYC evolved my work ethic while NOLA helped me identify all the gaps in my musicianship. I grew from being a studio-oriented songwriter to becoming a bandleader and performer."
My artistic practice has been essentially the same, but I just had more time on my hands and found musicians who are invested in the music. I started working with different drummers, calling up venues to book shows, putting up stickers, sending physical mail and email pitches, engaging with radio stations, etc. and I just never had time to do any of that in NYC for various reasons.
SW: You’ve managed to create quite a unique cross-cultural music project over the years with Kuwaisiana…. What was that journey like, and how did you arrive to it?
+AZ: We all met roughly 4 years ago, with changing bassists across the band’s timeline. In my 20’s, I grew fond of Irish novelist James Joyce through a couple of trips I made to Dublin to visit my older sister. Joyce came to represent the spirit of his nation, although he was in self-exile his entire life, reconstructing Ireland based on his memories of the place while living abroad. He also underwent an incredible amount of scrutiny and rejection, so I just saw the arch of my story in this man. In any case, you only find out who you really are by leaving your comfort zone.
My creative path is in many ways defined by my sensitivity to the parallels that exist between Khaleeji and American culture, but Kuwaisiana in particular is anchored in my relationship with Matthieu, the band’s drummer, a French man who’s my age. Once I started working with him, everything began to gel. Interestingly, both of our stories are journeys of self-exile and sacrificing the comforts of being home for the pursuit of music.
Matthieu and I will usually start by finding a balance in the song structure. His approach is finding the minimum drumming required to establish a groove, leaving the maximum timbales, bongos, darbuka, etc. Both of them are rather private people, but they vocalize their thoughts on the music I bring to the table and this helped define the band’s vibe. Our horn players Dehan Elcin (from Istanbul) and Nick Ferreirae (from San Diego, CA) play with a number of NOLA bands, but they write their own horn parts in Kuwaisiana, which support my vocals substantially and rip into solos when we give them the runway.
Whereas our bassist Sam Levine and I skew towards rock, Matthieu brings a taste of ska, reggae, 2nd line and Caribbean rhythms grooves, which has become central to the band’s identity. We all meet in the middle and that’s where the band’s sound sits.
SW: Do you subscribe to the idea that cities have a direct influence in our creative identity?
+AZ: Everything is a negotiation between your ideas and your context. In David Byrne’s book How Music Works, he drives home this idea that while music can be a manifestation of who you are on the inside, the way it comes out and how it actually sounds and communicates is a reflection of the context you are in and the life you live. Our “creative identity” is shaped by many tedious decisions, perhaps more so than what’s in our hearts and minds.
Of course, your personal experiences and natural talent play a big role, but context is incredibly literal in its impact for both recorded and live music. As a musician, you are not only working to express your perspective, but you are also engaged in a conversation with how to best allocate resources and talent available to you.
SW: Your debut album came out two years ago – blending big band sounds with your Khaleeji touch – what was writing and recording that record like?
+AZ: The bulk of the writing was completed a few months after moving to New Orleans in 2014.
The process for Kuwaisiana material starts with me sharing the song with Matthieu. Typically, if he’s into it and it fits the sound we’re pursuing, then we explore it. If he’s not into it, I pursue it in another form. A good example of this is HijabiFest, which sounds so similar to Vintage, so I ended up recording it during the quarantine and submitted it to NPR’s Tiny Desk competition.
When it came to recording Chapter 1, our ex-bandmate Michael Stalios was particularly central. Not only did he play synth/keys with us (check out his solo on The Journalist) but he was also the engineer and producer behind Chapter 1. Michael also introduced me to the entertainment lawyer who would help me negotiate our digital distribution deal with Universal Music MENA in Dubai. He poured hundreds of hours into this record.
We started the recording process with tracking the drums in a cozy studio. The rest of the tracking was done in our practice space and at Michael’s house. We did end up losing Michael eventually, but it was only because he had the higher calling of becoming a father, so we were all sad to see him go but really happy for him and his wife.
SW: How has it been received? You’ve been keeping quite busy performing live and sharing your music.
All the work paid off and we ended up Festival Internationale in April 2019, a world music festival in Lafayette, Louisiana. Our digital analytics peaked during that time but keeping the momentum has not been easy. The important thing is that there’s an infrastructure established with the release of Chapter 1 so I hope to continue building with the next release.
SW: What’s next for Kuwaisiana? New record in the works?
+AZ: Yup - we’re preparing Chapter 2 for its release. It will be a 5-track release with a music video for Bara7a, followed by remix tracks (I’ve been pitching producers and DJs). Our little Patreon community has already heard the new material and I invite anyone reading this to check out our page there! The band seems to be committed to making this journey a trilogy (at a minimum) and we talked about Chapter 3 being released as singles.
SW: How do you see the band’s sound evolving? What are you looking to achieve?
+AZ: I’m working on songs that draw on Khaleeji rhythms and I just find myself listening to more North African music, Anatolian rock, and Yemeni/Iraqi music. I talk a lot about Khaleeji rock but the music’s evolution will depend on how much I can absorb and communicate this through my guitar playing and lyrics to Matthieu.
I’m creating an index of Khaleeji music, poetry and working on organizing my musical knowledge (which are all great quarantine projects). Ultimately, my goal centers around what I can do with my Khaleeji Arabic and to what extent is it accepted by the listener. I’m mostly interested in exploring difficult and “negative” topics that address the fall from grace we’re enduring, trying to approach our predicament with poetic fluency.
This is to a large extent what I care about; so writing beautiful, memorable, bilingual songs.