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FESTIVAL REPORT: Shubbak
Yousif Nur , August 3rd, 2015 13:57

Yousif Nur reports on performances by Hala Ali, Karim Sultan, 47Soul, Massar Egbari, and more

The Shubbak Festival is a biannual event celebrating contemporary Arab culture throughout London. Over the space of a month, it showcases art, music, theatre, film, poetry, dance and spoken word performances from the Middle East. An evening at Rich Mix sees its musical finale (and penultimate day of the festival), spread across three rooms with the main space specially for bands, an intimate room for poets, spoken word artists and classical Arab folk and an adjacent art space.

To begin with, Saudi spoken word artist Hala Ali appears on the main stage to deliver a singular appraisal of Mr Khaliji Man. Dressed in a black robe, Ali's verses are a damning diatribe of an archetypal Gulf male who turns a blind eye to the oppression of their wives, the mistreatment and virtual slave labour of Pakistanis or Bangladeshis who built their empirical skyscrapers, in favour of upholding Sharia law, wealth and fast cars. The Riyadh-born Ali reads her poem in first-person form, evoking angry feeling towards men from the Gulf. Given the contingent of the audience tonight, it got a rousing applause from most. The recital itself felt as though it lasted for a good fifteen minutes, but it's not as though anyone was looking impatient with Khaliji Man getting a good verbal lashing.

47Soul follow with no interval or time for the bar, bringing their inimitable style of merging Palestinian dabke and electronica sung in both Arabic and English, whose debut show incidentally, was at the previous Shubbak festival in 2013. With members coming from the Galilee, America and Jordan, they're a band very much inclined to get the crowd involved, at one stage getting everyone to kneel down as an unidentified flying object was about to land, to the amusement and delight of about half of the audience. On the whole, they're good fun to dance and sing along to. As you'd also expect with where they're from, it's politically charged and fervent with speech every now and then about the yearning for peace for Palestine.

We are then treated to a couple of short films about Shubbak-commissioned graffiti art installations put up around London. The first was a John Locke quote interpreted into Arabic calligraphy art on the exterior of Village Underground. The second flick was on 20 traditional Saudi plates drawn by artists, which were then mounted on walls around London for people to take, upon locating them.

Heading upstairs into the smaller space, it's hard to miss the Carroussa Sonore. It's a sound installation on a cart powered by a battery, car radio and two wooden speakers. Based on vending carts present throughout Morocco and much of North Africa, its purpose is to advertise the sale of CDs of the Quran or sermons from preachers and clerics. At the point of visiting, the Carrousa had played a story of an Israeli's refusal to serve in the IDF.

Acclaimed Egyptian jazz-rock fusion band Massar Egbari generate the biggest crowd of the evening back downstairs on the main stage. At times veering towards trad rock, other times toward traditional Arab songs singing mostly about social issues. While the Alexandria natives have a set list and stage time lasting the duration of seemingly over a couple of hours,from an outsider's perspective – and with trad rock by proxy, you get the feeling the band is a little two-dimensional and unconvincing, considering there are acts on the night who push the envelope on a musical, innovative level.

Which is exactly what comes next from Karim Sultan. Many of the crowd are confused as to whether he's DJing or doing a line check for the next act, but the penny drops when he opens up his laptop, using his sample pads and controls for his brand of experimental electronica, influenced by Middle Eastern Oud playing and percussion. It's slow to build, but has a very satisfying end.

To close the night is the UK debut of Syria's Hello, Psychaleppo, aka 26-year-old art student Samer Saim Aldhr. He begins seamlessly segueing between laptops from Karim Sultan's set to his own like a cross fader switches between record decks. Armed with a Macbook, Kaoss pad and samplers, Aldhr (nicknamed Zimo) also comes accompanied with specially made videos on the projector above – with at least a couple commissioned by Shubbak. Zimo's musical styles have nods in the direction of dubstep, triphop, synthpop and fitting in some Levantine for good measure, as well as sampling luminaries such as Umm Kalthoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab. If all of that sounds awesome on paper, it sounds ten times better live. It's bloody great. Unfortunately, there are technical hitches every so often, with the sound cutting out owing to one of his faulty leads connecting to the Macbook. Zimo's set clambers and stutters (almost literally from the electronica) over the line in spite of the stoppages and groans of disappointment.

Shubbak Festival 2015 successfully makes traditional and innovative worlds co-exist with each other. Credit is very much paid where its due to the curators and organisers, over the last month of events, but particularly tonight at Rich Mix, exemplifying the diversity of what the Middle East has to offer beyond the mainstream media's constant portrayals of bad news.

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