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Escape Velocity

Hidden Histories, Alternate Timelines: An Interview With Safa
Adam Quarshie , May 3rd, 2022 08:39

Ahead of the release of his debut album Ibtihalat, Adam Quarshie caught up with music producer, researcher and architect Mhamad Safa to discuss polyrhythms, machine learning and the forgotten histories of the Middle East and North Africa

Mhamad Safa portrait by Jimmy Mould

“When you’ve been listening to electronic music and producing electronic music for a long time, you start thinking about the roots of it. You think about Detroit.” So says architect, researcher, score composer and electronic musician Mhamad Safa. The decaying cityscape of Detroit – once an American success story, now reduced to a crumbling shell by the collapse of the city’s automotive industry – is generally understood to be one of the core locations in the history of modern electronic music, and certainly the key city in the emergence of techno. But what if electronic music had an altogether different lineage? “What if electronic dance music had emerged from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula?”, asks Safa, whose debut album Ibtihalat has just been released on Lee Gamble’s UIQ label.

A dense and complex record, Ibtihalat crackles with angular glitches and polyrhythms, many of which are drawn from diverse musical styles from across the Middle East and North Africa. These include gnawa, raï and zar from Morocco, Algeria and Egypt respectively, and leywa, samiri and sea music, which all have their origins in the Arabian Peninsula. On the album, these rhythms morph into something altogether more alien through complex sequencing and algorithmic processes. The aggressive style that defines much of the album also signals an interest in the histories of colonialism and resource extraction that have shaped the region.

Safa, who grew up in Lebanon and now splits his time between London and Beirut, initially had a conventional musical upbringing. “I'm classically trained”, he says. From the age of ten, he learnt various instruments, mainly guitars. “But then when you discover alternative music – rock, punk, metal etc. – you're like, 'Fuck classical training!’ In Lebanon, metal was really prominent. Everyone had bands, playing drums or guitars or whatever. Then at one point, someone invited me to this event, telling me they're going to play metal, but electronically. I was 17 or 18, and it was like a breakcore/hardcore techno event. They did free raves – they would do them in the mountains. They introduced you to electronic music by playing a mix of Slayer with electronic music.”

Making the transition from punk and metal to “ambient and darker electronic stuff, and then going into techno”, Safa’s own explorations into electronic music production led him to become a score composer, working on documentaries and art films. But alongside this, he is also rooted in an entirely different discipline – architecture. This was what first brought him to London in 2018, when he enrolled at Goldsmiths University to do a Masters in Research Architecture. After years of study, his interests in architecture and sound gradually began to converge. “I started moving into [architecture’s] artistic side, and my work started to deal more with acoustics. Before doing the album, I did a few installations on sound and space, mainly focusing on conflict, or thinking about instances related to violence. I worked a lot on explosive sound. Now, I'm doing a PhD on sound during armed conflicts.”

Perhaps driven in part by the situation in Lebanon – which has gone through a severe economic collapse and intense political upheaval over the past few years – his architectural practice began to lean in a much more political direction: exploring the relationship between geography, resource extraction (particularly of oil and gas) and changing labour practices. “You think about land, you think about territory, you think about displacement. I started realising that there is a kind of spatial transformation that is happening in certain areas, in my case in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. The stories about these spatial conditions can be learnt from specific styles of music. We can learn from what we call oral cultures and testimonies – we learn about the violence that these spaces have witnessed.”

After applying for a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, he met a researcher who was studying at NYU Abu Dhabi, who had access to a library of sound recordings related to the practice of pearl diving. He began honing in on the idea of using these recordings as historical documents, particularly in the case of samiri, a highly hypnotic and ritualistic form of music from the Arabian Peninsula, which was also performed by seamen. “Styles like samiri used to be played in highly working-class environments”, explains Safa, “by individuals who participated in specific types of jobs, like pearl diving.” Pearl diving, which was practised in countries such as Bahrain and Kuwait, “was a manual practice, so people would jump in the water and would extract pearls. When industrial pearl diving became more prominent, for example in Japan, specific types of bodies were compromised.” The galloping rhythm on the track ‘Gazelles’ pays tribute to these forgotten labourers.

Similar testimonies can be drawn from raï, which originated in Algeria but became popular throughout the Arab world and whose lyrics often addressed social and political concerns. Though many of its most famous singers are men, “in the sixties, many women were actually very powerful in this style of music. These women were coming out of specific harsh conditions of sex work and exploitation, and they were able to say whatever they wanted. But after that, there was a change in how the style was being played. More power was given to men.” Inspired by the style as a form of social commentary, the claps and triplet rhythms of raï feature heavily on the album, particularly on the track ‘Ouda And The Strikers At Najd’.

Safa’s research began to find rhythmic parallels between many of the styles of music he was studying. For instance, the use of triplet rhythms in gnawa – a form of trance-like Sufi music mostly found in Morocco – was also found in certain forms of ritualistic music in Egypt, including a style called zar. “I thought about these two styles, the styles from the Gulf and from North Africa, and I managed to find that they both have East African roots”, he says. He noticed that many of these forms of music shared a common connection to the history of slavery in the region, and employed similarly complex polyrhythms, which presented some challenges from an electronic music producer’s point of view.

“Both in gnawa and amazigh music [played by Berber musicians in North Africa], or in different styles like samiri and leywa [a highly percussive style played mostly in Bahrain, UAE and Oman], the problem with them is that they have polyrhythms, but the types of polyrhythms cannot be played easily on a linear sequencer. So I asked a friend, who's a musician and a coder. He designed a Euclidean sequencer, which is like a circular sequencer. We did it on MAX/MSP. But the second challenge was that some of the musicians, they stopped following these rules. They developed a music according to how they're feeling, so they start to change the rhythm and they start to accelerate. This is where I thought, ‘Ok, I need machine learning to learn how it accelerates and how it decelerates.’”

Much of the album was composed via intricate machine learning algorithms based on microsamples of recordings he obtained via his researcher colleagues at NYU. “To be precise about it, it's something called the Markov Chain”, he explains. “It's something that learns from a history to think about a future. So basically it learns from a set of historic conditions”. In other words, the music he produced is partly a computer’s extrapolation of what certain sounds, with their roots in specific cultural and political locations, would sound like in the future – a window to an alternate timeline in the history of electronic music.

With music this dense and complex, and with so many diverse reference points to uncover, I ask him how he thinks audiences will relate to it. Safa hopes that it will lead listeners to discover some of the musical styles from across the Arab and Berber world, and also to question some of the orthodoxies of where electronic music comes from. “It’s a very political and social engagement – the idea of rethinking dance and rethinking electronic music in its material, political, geographic understanding. Rather than just thinking about it like: we just dance and hang out.” For Safa, the music he makes is innately tied up in questions of history, agency and power. “There are some locations, areas and scenes where electronic music had a lot to say. It had lots of contributions to political action.”

Ibtihalat is out now on UIQ