Michael Figueroa: Arab American Music During COVID, Viewpoints on Resilient
November 16, 2020
Center for Urban and Regional Studies
Kamel holding a stringed instrument.
Part of the series “Viewpoints on Resilient and Equitable Responses to the Pandemic” from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use. We hope this collection of viewpoints will elevate the visibility of creative state and local solutions to the underlying equity and resilience challenges that COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating. To do this we have asked experts at UNC to discuss effective and equitable responses to the pandemic on subjects ranging from low-wage hospitality work, retooling manufacturing processes, supply chain complications, housing, transportation, the environment, and food security, among others.
Michael Figueroa is an assistant professor of music who recently embarked on a study of post-9/11 Arab American race consciousness through an expansive study of musical life across genres and geographical boundaries called Music and Racial Awakening in Arab America. It is through this work that he met Marwan Kamel, the subject of this interview.
Transcript – Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic. Michael Figueroa on Arab American Music During COVID
Michael Figueroa: Hello, this is Michael Figueroa. I’m an assistant professor in the department of music and a Fellow of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And for today’s podcast, I am interviewing Marwan Kamel, a Chicago-based musician who plays with the band City of Djinn and runs the very popular Instagram site called TheDailyMaqam, under which name he also performs a weekly radio show for Root Radio Live. Marwan, thank you so much for joining us today. Let me launch right into things. What have you been up to during this COVID lockdown?
Marwan Kamel: Essentially, like with COVID, I was like, this is my chance. I’ve never had this much time in years to essentially send myself to music school…to intensely study something new or to refine my performance, because all the… Normally I’m performing live a lot, right? And there are things that I had always wanted to learn, but I couldn’t because I never had time to practice it. I never had time for somebody to basically…to show me the way through it. From the beginning…first of all, because I started studying during this whole Corona thing, I started studying the Muwashshahat and the classical Aleppo style via Zoom, partially…basically every day, one or two hours of lessons (laughter). And then, you know, I would have on Tuesdays the radio show.
Figueroa: Who are you taking lessons with? And are they daily? Or how often are you doing this?
Kamel: I’m taking lessons with Mohammad al-Siadi. He teaches at Rutgers and Fordham. He’s from Aleppo and he was a student of Nadeem Ali al-Darwish. And Nadeem Ali al-Darwish is a composer from Aleppo. His dad was Ali al-Darwish, who is Sheikh Ali al-Darwish, who was an even bigger composer, let’s say, of the Aleppo style, like of the Muwashshahat.
Figueroa: And this came about because of the circumstances around COVID that you were able to do this?
Kamel: I think it…basically…essentially what it was that I was bothering him for, I don’t know, three years … I was doing the refugee music program. And I wanted to do some of the traditional songs to be able to teach them. And he finally was like, “okay, fine, I’m going to set up this thing.” So he decided to go with it and start teaching it to me.
Figueroa: Can you tell the listeners of this podcast what’s so significant about the Aleppo tradition that you’ve been invoking?
Kamel: One of the things that also my teachers kind of suggested that I do, is collect the music of Damascus because it isn’t as well documented. There’s a lot of reasons for it. A lot of it is political things that have happened in the last century, but basically the ancient songs of Damascus are not well-documented in the same way that they are in Aleppo… so one of the reasons Aleppo is important in this theory is, first of all, it’s one of the centers of the Mevlevi, or the Malawiyyah…of the Mevlevi Tariqa. Secondly, it was on the silk road. Damascus was also, but the influences are different because, with Aleppo, you have a mixture of, let’s say, things from central Asia. It’s a lot of different, different cultures. It’s like involved in that music. It’s taking pieces of a bunch of different systems and mixing it together and its own way.
Secondly, it’s the place where the Muwashshahat tradition of the Andalusian school was continued in some way. Some of the songs…some of it is reconstructed. Some of them were Andalusian poems that were added to later melodies. And some of them were older melodies that were redone and lyrics were added on top. It’s kind of a varied thing because sometimes you’ll have a melody that’s a very ancient melody and they will just change the lyrics in the modern stuff. That happens with the Qudud, right? You’ll have a song that is used in a Sufi, like a Sufi ceremony or something, and then they will change it to put like secular lyrics on top of it, you know?
Figueroa: Yeah. And that’s a phenomenon that’s cross-cultural too, right? Like in Western hymnody it’s called contrafact. And it happens in protest music, happens in like Weird Al. This is like a phenomenon that exists in a lot of different musical cultures. So, because this is the Center for Urban and Regional Studies podcast, Aleppo’s musical significance is because it’s a crossroads of traditions from the Western Mediterranean and the Andalusian tradition as well as central Asia. Along with the city’s association with spirituality and religiosity through the Malawiyya Sufism with a very old tradition of Judaism and it’s like a separate liturgy from its own urban identified liturgy. And it stands apart from a lot of other Middle Eastern cities, including Syrian cities. And that it’s got this like very strong, religious character or association with it.
Kamel: Especially with mysticism, but it’s not that much different than Damascus in that way, because you have a lot of the same factors in Damascus…but the thing is that from the 15th century onward, and this is the reason that the Muwashshahat, I think, are better preserved there…or that musical tradition is better preserved there is because from the 15th century, it became a more important city than Damascus. Damascus declined in importance. It just became like a stop on the Hajj. It was like the gathering point to go to the Hadj. Prior to that, Damascus was more of a center, but during the Ottoman era, Aleppo went way up in importance because, if you go in Damascus, for example, this is just because of…I’m speaking about the city itself. They’re both two of the oldest cities in the world, right?
So, you have deeper traditions that are built over a time, but like in Damascus, for example, you have some influence of Byzantine song that you don’t have in Aleppo. They have it in Aleppo, but it’s not the same, it’s in a different way. And also, you have, for example, the adhan to the Umayyad mosque in Damascus is done in a chorus, which is a very, very old tradition of the way that they would call to prayer. It’s called a Jawq. Because it’s like in a chorus, I guess a sort of self-explanatory. They basically …one person sings it and the rest repeat it, but that mosque was also a Byzantine basilica. And before that it was a temple to Jupiter. And before that was a temple to Haddad. So, the same site was a shared use mosque and a basilica for a short period of about seven years. So, the cohabitation, I think, like in Damascus and Aleppo, created new musical traditions where people were borrowing ideas from different places. If that makes sense…I don’t know.
Figueroa: Yeah. That’s really interesting and deserves further investigation, but let’s switch gears here, because one thing you’ve been doing during the quarantine or the COVID lockdown has been deepening your relationship to the Aleppo tradition through these lessons. But you’ve also been performing, using online platforms to do more performing. For example, you have the two-hour weekly radio show on Root Radio out of Istanbul. I wonder if you could talk about how that came about?
Kamel: Well, essentially what happened was, we played in Istanbul last year, we did that whole tour where we went to Berlin. We were there for a few weeks and then we went to Romania and then we went to Istanbul and to Ankara, and the guy who started organizing this had a podcast that was called Rootcast. And he kept telling me to make podcasts, but I didn’t really know what to do. And I didn’t really know how I wanted to play other people’s music, but once COVID came about, he decided to do a live stream broadcast if everybody is staying home anyway. And he has a team of people there as well with him, obviously…it’s like a collective. And since he had been trying to get me to do stuff since when we went to Turkey to play, he said, why don’t you do a radio show? And I was like, well, what can I do? And I was like, you know, I’m not really getting a chance to perform and I won’t be able to have other people around me. So what would be an interesting challenge is I try to play everything. I have a bunch of instruments and I have the capability to do it, but I had never really live looped that much before. So I just decided, okay. I was like, look, I’m going to make it. Just before I had this radio show came about, I was doing it like every few days on my Facebook live, just because I thought it’d be an interesting thing for people to see. Like they’re sitting at home…they’re bored…I was bored too, if I’m completely honest. And it was like, I need to make music somehow to make use of this time.
And at the beginning we had done collaborations where it was, like, we were record something. It was not just me. It was a bunch of our friends that had the outdoor jams, by the lake where we would gather in the summer, do cookouts and, you know, play music. We were doing recordings at the beginning where it was like, you know…they would send me a track. I would record some stuff on it, send it back. That didn’t really end up working because everybody was kind of just like…they put on the back burner or they just weren’t making… So, I ended up deciding, you know what, I have to make stuff. So I’m just going to start performing on Facebook. Plus I didn’t have a job anymore. So, I was basically busking. It was like busking on the internet. Because I was like, all right, everybody give me some change. Like I don’t have a job, so I need to make this my job. So, I’d perform an hour or so…livestream and then stream on Instagram as well. And then, when the radio show came, I was just like, okay, this is a way better way to do this, just audio only. I don’t have to worry about the visual aspect of it.
Figueroa: You talk about the challenge of playing multiple instruments using live looping. So, first of all, can you explain to us what you mean exactly by live looping and how meeting those challenges has affected your musicianship?
Kamel: Live looping is basically a repeating phrase. So as the phrase keeps repeating, you start adding more stuff on top in order to make it sound as if it were like a full band or something. I think that in some ways…it’s a fact of my musicianship…well, first of all, the reason that I got the idea for the live looping thing is it’s basically a super, super extreme version of taqasim, which is the art, the improvisation in Arabic music. It happens in a lot of traditions, but you know, creating something that only exists while it’s happening and then it dies afterwards. And that’s essentially kind of what I’m doing with the live looping. It’s like, I’ll record something and then it’s done. Like I never return to it. It’s something that happens spontaneously in the moment. But the way it’s affecting my musicianship, I think, is that essentially…like if I would have kept going with, let’s say, even time signatures, that gets boring very quickly. Because it’s easy to fall into a groove where you just keep doing easy things. But I decided, okay, this is a chance to try to do odd time signatures or weird time signatures that will challenge me to find new ways to phrase things. Because often, for example, in taqasim there’s rhythm. So I can phrase things however I want, and it can be six, it can be five, it can be four. It doesn’t matter because there’s a pulse that matters only. And the way that you are able to pull a listener through the pulse and also give them time to chew it over. So you stop and then let them think about what’s happened as you’re moving through this melodic progression that needs to happen.
But with the live looping, I think in some ways it’s also affected by, let’s say, the sounds of the city for example, because it’s like a mechanical sound that keeps repeating and it has no mercy, it just keeps going and going and going. So if you mess up…it doesn’t stop for you or slow down. And it’s forced me to be a lot tighter with a lot of my phrasing, and have to be only because, for example, if you want to loop, let’s say a 10-beat cycle, right? Like a 10-beat rhythm. And I wanted to go for, let’s say, four measures. That means I have to record 40 beats worth of percussion, for example, without messing up. And there’s no metronome. I have to just count it in my head. So, in some ways it’s forced me to be a lot tighter as a musician because if I mess up, it’s still going to keep going.
Figueroa: And that’s the challenge, right? It’s interesting that you link it to the sound of cities, which are marked by repetition and rhythms that are beyond the control of individuals, which can feel unforgiving, right? Like the buses run on a certain schedule. In Chicago, they’re mostly on time, but you know, like, yeah. But like they’re on a schedule, right? And if you’re late, you miss it, you know? And the same thing is true of rhythmic timing when you’re playing with a loop. It’s also true when you’re playing with an ensemble, but when you’re with other people, there’s a give and take in terms of your sense of time. Whereas this digital multi-track recording, you’re doing it with the looper, it’s the same every time.
Kamel: Exactly. It just keeps going. And also, I think that let’s think, in terms of density, there is a lot of people, for example, when you’re playing in the loop, you have a layer…it’s like people on different floors of the building, you need to separate the voices so that they’re not fighting. Even though it’s dense, there can still be a harmony and it’s all about how you organize it.
Figueroa: So, one of the things about your radio show is that you mentioned there’s no video, right? It’s an audio stream that you’re doing from Chicago. It’s going through a station in Istanbul and it’s being listened to by people, presumably all over the world, but at least around Turkey and the US simultaneously, right? Which is a kind of performing live that you can’t normally do. Yes, you can and you had a studio album that people can stream from anywhere on Spotify or a Bandcamp or whatever. But in terms of the simultaneous listening and understanding that this is happening in the moment, because as you mentioned, these long form improvisations is taqasim, they live and die in the moment as you often say. And that sense of being privy to that as a listener in real time, even though you’re sitting by yourself on your own headphones or in front of your own laptop or whatever, is pretty unique. Of course, in some ways it’s an old, and by that, I’m using “scare quotes.” Even this is all audio right now, but it’s a century-old technology with radio, right? Like radio broadcast or life, everyone within not earshot, but within tuner shot or whatever, of the tower, can listen at the same time and hear live musicians. That’s nothing new, but doing so over the internet and beyond any kind of physical territory, right? Like the fact that you’re recording from Chicago, bouncing it through Istanbul, I’m listening to it, same time in North Carolina. Someone in Ankara is also listening to it. That is not a common way of performing, certainly not performing on a weekly basis for most musicians. And that’s something that’s come about through COVID.
Kamel: Yeah, I think, well…so I never had to think before COVID about performing at 11:00 am my time, which is going to be evening in Istanbul, you know? So my mentality has to be different about how I phrase stuff, because I have to think about how people in different time zones are perceiving it. Because for me, it’s like, I’m not a morning person to begin with. So, I have to put myself into evening mentality right away, which is a weird, it’s a weird thing. It’s like, I’m living in a different time zone than I am physically in.
Figueroa: You know, speaking of traveling or rather, not traveling, we had you scheduled to come down to Chapel Hill to give a concert at UNC and had to postpone it until at least next year due to the COVID lockdown. And a lot of different kinds of events are being pushed back or even canceled due to this global health crisis. But do you have any examples of projects that rather than being canceled or pushed back have been adapted or transformed to the circumstances?
Kamel: I’ve been working on a project for the University of Hawaii, which is…we were initially supposed to go there to perform with City of Djinn. But because of COVID, we kind of got stuck in place and we haven’t had any way to do it. So I turned it into a long-form audio art piece, which we also made a piece that had a visual component. One of my friends that does visuals, she did visuals at our show in last year when our album release was, in July last year. She did visuals for that. So, we decided to collaborate on a piece that hopefully will come to the Shangri La Islamic Art Museum in Hawaii. Hopefully that will be available on there, which also has an audio component, which is a small-scale version of the piece that I’m working on for University of Hawaii, which is going to be an audio piece that includes poetry, music…
Figueroa: I’m really happy you’re able to make that project keep going because, obviously, it was already like a gigantic ocean barrier between, not to mention the land one, you’re in the Midwest, right? Between where you are and the University of Hawaii. But you’re able to mitigate that by changing the workflow, by changing maybe even the ethos of the project a little bit.
One more activity of yours during this time I want to ask you about is…you have done a concert as a band, right? And I wonder if you could talk more about that because that’s something I’m seeing more with other musicians as well now, but I want to hear how yours came about and what it was like to perform for a mostly empty venue and have that broadcast live.
Kamel: Well, I don’t think performing live for an empty venue is really anything new for a lot of musicians (laughter). A lot of times you’re playing and it’s just the, you know, it’s the dudes in the other band there and, I don’t know, your significant other. And then, probably the sound guy. I mean, it happens, you know? It’s like, okay, you’re on a Wednesday night in Omaha…it’s like, okay, cool. Who’s going to go out to this? Anyway. So, this group of people that are doing the online streaming shows…I think they kind of read the writing on the wall and they had a venue prior, in Madison, and ended up closing. But one of the guys, he has a studio, a recording studio and made part of his recording studio into a live stream venue essentially. You have a camera crew and then there’s, you know, all the tech equipment and stuff…and lighting also. And you also have a PA and all that stuff. Like you said, you have it in the live venue, but what’s weird about it is there’s no people. So that was a bit strange. And plus it was a two-hour set. Which you would think, okay, now I’m used to it, but it’s different when there’s three people with you or two people with you. It’s performing, they have to have the same stamina for it as you. We had no idea what time it even was. Your sense of time completely goes away because normally when you’re performing in a venue, there are people there and you can kind of gauge from the energy how long it’s been. Even if you do create a sense of trance, you know, they’re restless. They want to go get a drink. You can see there’s some way to measure the time, but in this venue, because there are no people there, you’re kind of just…you’re stuck in your mind. It’s a little bit weird.
Figueroa: But you know, people are tuning in, right? Like, I I tuned in and had it casting to my TV in my living room and stuff. So it was like a living room concert, you know? You knew people were watching you at the same time. They’re just not…you don’t know who they are.
Kamel: Yeah. It’s because you don’t see anybody.
Figueroa: What’s the main thing you’ve learned about yourself as a musician or as a person as a result of the COVID lockdown?
Kamel: We have to bend to reality. Reality doesn’t bend to us. And as a musician, you have to evolve and adapt to things and find new ways to make things interesting in different circumstances. Because even when you’re playing live with people at a venue like pre-COVID, not every show is the same. You have to…there’s a negotiation of energy. Like, you have to reflect the audience or whatever. You can’t just come in and then dictate to them because they’re going to tell you if they don’t like it, you know? And the same thing with adapting to circumstances, except for now, everything is kind of beyond your control in some way.
Figueroa: This has been a really great conversation. Thank you so much for giving us your time and sharing your experience with our listeners.
Kamel: Alright. Thank you.
January 23, 2023