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INTERVIEW: Khyam Allami
Christian Eede , June 14th, 2017 14:26

As Khyam Allami prepares for a showcase of his own Nawa label at this weekend's Supersonic, tQ talks to him about the label, sharing music from the Arabic region and his background in studying ethnomusicology

This weekend's Supersonic in Birmingham brings with it a colossal line-up featuring the likes of Richard Dawson, Zonal, Jenny Hval, Anna von Hausswolff and Princess Nokia, amongst many others, and you can find a guide to some of the weekend's expected highlights courtesy of us at tQ here.

Also featuring on the line-up, and bringing with him a collective of musicians affiliated with his label Nawa, is Khyam Allami. Through Nawa, multi-instrumentalist Khyam Allami brings together an array of musicians of a number of disciplines from the Arab world, taking in avant-garde jazz, psychedelia, electronics and more, his vision for the label, he admits, being rooted mostly in his passion for the music he releases rather than selling records.

Allami will play at Supersonic alongside Nawa artists Nadah El Shazly, Two Or The Dragon and Kamilya Jubran / Wasl, with the former two set to release new music with the label later this year. They will also play at Cafe Oto on Monday (June 19) following the appearance at Supersonic which is scheduled for Sunday (June 18). Ahead of that, an appearance beckons at Brighton's Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, for which you can find more information and get tickets here.

Ahead of that series of shows, we spoke to Allami about his vision for Nawa and why he initially started the label, as well as his background in studying ethnomusicology at SOAS.

You will be hosting a showcase for your Nawa label at Supersonic. What qualities would you say you look for in the music and musicians that you release through the label?

Khyam Allami: I think it's important to state that I am a huge music fan and a very bad business man, so what I always look for in all music is honesty, artistry, and vision. When it comes to putting something out on Nawa and investing in it with time, energy and money, it needs to be something new, challenging and creative. But also something that pushes the boundaries of Arabic music making, whilst respecting and reflecting where it comes from.

Because of local and international politics and religion, the culture of the Arab world often suffers from either intense nostalgia and over protection or rejection. But the reality is that all over the world and across genres, music has always helped define, re-define and shape culture. It creates and develops identities and communities and mindsets. Whether it is Bossanova or Straight Edge, Kendrick Lamar or Kraftwerk, music has always played a pivotal role in our development as human beings. Investment in the creation and sharing of music has always been at the heart of great record labels, whether it was Motown or Ipecac and regardless of how many records they sell. But, music making and the dissemination of music need support. Especially in the face of restrictive, controlling politics.

I want Nawa to be known for supporting artists that are active in re-defining and expanding the musical culture of the Arab world. I want it to be known for working with artists, for respecting them and their audiences, and for respectfully sharing and making accessible to anyone anywhere, works of musical art that can challenge, invigorate and inspire us.

In saying that I am planning a couple of first time vinyl releases of previously released albums, but only a couple and for very specific reasons, I prefer to focus energies on new works. You can also check out a label playlist just below, featuring musical highlights from Nawa thus far.

What was the main reason for starting the label? Were there a lot of musicians that you felt deserved more attention?

KA: The musical culture of the Arab world is really untapped. I would say that for the entire Middle East actually. As a musician and creative spirit, I find this to be equally frustrating and immensely exciting and challenging. But as a fan I find that there is far less music available than there should be and definitely not enough boundary pushing, a lot of mediocrity. Where good music does exist, there is very little exposure (often in the wrong kinds of "world music" environments), and not enough proper long term vision, strategy or support.

Many of my friends have great ideas and are making great work that deserves to be supported and documented and made available today and for future generations. They also deserve the exposure that will help them try to develop and continue a career as working musicians. It is an important phase in the history of the world and the region, and there is very little support of independent music making, music infastructure or music education.

The gap between the support of contemporary Arabic music and contemporary Arabic arts or cinema for example is immense. Millions of dollars are spent on nurturing and supporting contemporary art production in every way imaginable, from commissions, residencies, workshops, networking and festivals. Money is spent on music but very often by EU NGO supported projects looking for what I like to call fireworks displays, i.e. one offs or short-sighted projects that tick boxes of "cultural bridging", "dialogue" and other latent imperialist, orientalist ideologies. In other words money flushed down the toilet for the benefit of bureaucracy and back-patting.

Whilst in Cairo for example, a city of 20 million people, there is only two or three rehearsal room studios and no proper dedicated music venues. No proper dedicated independent music venues in Cairo, Beirut, Alexandria, Tunisia, Amman, Ramallah and so on... What exists mostly are government-run theatres or clubs. Whilst we still can't distribute physical albums in the Arab world because of censorship and import/export laws on music, nor distribute digital albums with ease because of e-commerce restrictions and regulations. Zero forward thinking music education, only conservatoires and private schools that maintain dinosauric curriculums. Lets not get into freedom of expression. That doesn't make sense to me. In fact I find it shameful. Shameful on the NGOs, the Arab governments, the US/UK/EU governments that prop them up and their collective agendas.

But rather than just sitting around complaining, Nawa is my humble attempt to participate in countering that reality and inspire fans to listen and music makers to keep going. I'm a one-man show but I try to do my best.

Do you feel that studying Ethnomusicology in the past has significantly informed your own music and how you run Nawa?

KA: Absolutely, but no more so than being a drummer in DIY bands growing up in London. Studying at university and being involved in academia helps develop your critical faculties, helps you learn how to be inquisitive and how to research. It also helps you learn how to find answers through rational and logical methods. I used to hate education because I always felt it to be authoritarian and imposing. But putting myself through university, even at a late age, was one of the best decisions I ever made. School is shit but university is awesome.

Ethnomusicology helps you understand how to listen to music on many different levels. Not just the sound coming from the speakers, or the lyrics being sung. You learn to hear where it comes from, how it relates to history, politics and culture, how it reflects the human condition and many other varying complexities of music as an art form.

Unfortunately that kind of study or outlook is often perceived to relate only to non-western musics. The truth is, it applies just as aptly to Public Enemy or The Velvet Underground or any other album that was recently released. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly for example is overloaded with religion, politics, gender, race, culture, class, business, economics, history and much more. It's all about context. But when you read about those topics in relation to non-western music, it's rarely called ethnomusicology or even musicology, it's called music journalism. It is changing within the academic field, but very slowly within public discourse.

What do you have coming up with the label and yourself this year aside from the showcase at Supersonic, and how active is your approach to seeking out new music to release through the label?

KA: Nawa's schedule for the rest of the year is relatively simple, we just released the debut EP by Two or the Dragon, and have the debut EP by Aya Metwalli and debut album by Nadah El Shazly coming up before the end of the year.

I don't actively seek out new music because the scene is quite small and things get around quite quickly, but I am in touch with a lot of great fellow artists whose work I love and there are a few projects that I would like to produce, but we need some financial investment to get those off the ground, so if you know anyone (nudge nudge wink wink)...

On a solo level there is a lot going on. This summer I'll be finishing the soundtrack to a new feature-length documentary film by Dutch-Indonesian director Leonard Retel-Helmrich about a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Then I'm putting together a new project featuring Andrea Belfi (drums), Daniele Camarda (fretless bass), Layale Chaker (violin) and Christine Zayed (Qanun) which will premier in Berlin this August. It's something I've had in mind for a while, inspired by J.G. Thirlwell’s Manorexia, Gustavo Santaolalla, Bohren und der Club of Gore, Arabic Maqam and the rhythms of the Arabic Muwashshahat. This is a commission from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), but I’m really hoping that it won’t be a one-off.

I'm also working on my first contemporary classical composition which will be a new work for oud, harp, percussion and orchestra, commissioned by the Royal Orchestral Society in London. I'm so grateful to have such an opportunity and can't wait to finish it. I also have a commission for the Swiss pavilion at the Venice Biennale which will be a bilingual Arabic/English poetry-based exploration of words and music with Lebanese singer Naim Al-Asmar. Both of those will premier in November this year.

In between all those, I want to do a few more shows of my new solo work Kawalees and develop it live before going into the studio to record it. I’m also working on some new music which at the moment I can only describe as ambient Arabic maqam music. This is something very beautiful that I am really excited about and have been working towards for many years. Hoping to put out some of that work early next year.

Khyam Allami presents his Nawa label showcase at Supersonic this weekend which takes place from June 16-18. For tickets and more information, click here

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