The beauty of rebellion

The Palestinian oud player, singer, poet and composer Tamer Abu is one of the busiest people on the Arab alternative scene. Based in Cairo, Ghazaleh runs his own network for independent music, a music agency and a music label. He is also founder of an Arab music magazine and has just released his third album "Thulth". By Stefan Franzen

By Stefan Franzen

"I've turned into an insect," sings Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, with a touch of the Kafkaesque, in his song "El Balla'at", with its pounding electro chaabi rhythms. "And every time the insect tries to escape it is insulted, trampled upon, squashed, crushed underfoot and burned." Subjected to every conceivable form of torture, the afflicted insect disappears into a sewer, where it drowns. "These are not metaphors," Ghazaleh explains, "this is my way of expressing my feelings, the frustrations and the disappointments over all those things that happened in Egypt after the Arab Spring."

Ghazaleh knows what he is talking about. He is one of the leading young creative spirits on the Cairo cultural scene, a group that feels cheated of its revolution. But he, for one, is not about to give up. From his base in Cairo, he has built up an entire network of initiatives since 2007: the music label Mostakell, the concert agency Almoharek, the publisher Awyav and a music magazine Ma3azef – all of them products of his own eka3 company, which he likes to refer to as a "breeding ground" for independent Arab music.

No ecosystem for new sounds and attitudes

"For far too long we have had to rely on a few big labels, there was no ecosystem available that could nurture, support or monetise the new sounds and attitudes. I am trying to change things."

The situation has not improved in the post-revolution period. While Ghazaleh stresses that he has never experienced any censorship or concrete threats to his work, the non-existence of cultural funds and the complete ignorance on the part of the local media have not exactly made things easier.

His own singing, which the 30-year-old developed from an early age and which is deeply rooted in his Palestinian heritage, provides him with an outlet for his frustration. Although born in Cairo, six of his school years were spent in Palestine, where he was a pupil of the musicologist Khaled Jubran. It was a time that left a deep impression on him.

"My oud and bouzouki playing, as well as my vocal style, were very much influenced by that time, when I was exposed to both the traditional music of my ancestors and modern Palestinian music."

Nowadays he sees his music as influenced by both the maqam system of classical Arab music and by Western concepts such as harmony and counterpoint. He has experimented with these on various band projects, including the Kazamada Collective, which also included Zeid Hamdan of the Lebanese electro band Soap Kills, or the pan-Arab group Alif, whose post-revolutionary sound is known everywhere from Cairo and Beirut to London.

Complex musical architecture

Some members of Alif now also play in Ghazaleh's own band – likewise featuring an international line-up – including Cairo pianist Shadi Elhosseiny, bassist Mahmoud Waly, drummer Khyam Allami from the London punk rock scene and Lebanese percussionist Khaled Yassine.

Some very elaborate pieces have emerged from the collaboration of such diverse musicians. The complex architecture of the music on the current CD "Thulth" is reminiscent of the progressive rock of King Crimson or Genesis, though Ghazaleh insists the genre is not an influence.

"Thulth" is also a total work of art, blending photography and painting into a complex graphic design and bringing Ghazaleh's own poetry together with both contemporary and older poems.

Reflecting political grievances

In the song "Hob", for example, Ghazaleh sings verses by 7th century poet, Qays ibn al-Mulawwah abaus, about the pains of love and succeeds in making the early poem relevant to the present day: "The aggression in the song reflects my anger about the Israeli attacks and the blockade of the West Bank during the second Palestinian intifada," he says.

The fate of his people is also the subject of "Alameh", a song inspired by a poem by young Alexandrian poet Ramez Farag. "It is about the longing of the Palestinian people – for the right to settle or at least to lead a dignified life in the refugee camps; a longing that has now also become reality for millions of Syrians, Libyans and Yemenis."

"Helm" is an outstanding track. Careful listening reveals the melody to the Carlos Puebla classic "Commandante Che Guevara", though here the listener is taken in a completely different direction: "The words come from Naguib Sorour, one of the key figures of contemporary Egyptian theatre and poetry," Ghazaleh explains. "They refer to a dream in a play where a woman dreams of seeing her murdered lover, shipwrecked and disappearing over the horizon in a boat."

The fact that the lyrics are so crucial to Tamer Abu Ghazaleh's music may present something of an obstacle for Western listeners, who must be prepared to engage with the words sung in order to fully appreciate the work. Those prepared to make the effort will be rewarded with the most exciting non-mainstream sounds that the Arab music scene currently has to offer. They are songs that display a great deal of sensitivity along with their anger and rebellious defiance.

"There is something beautiful in rebellion," asserts Ghazaleh. "But I try not to consciously take my songs in any particular direction. I just express my feelings and sometimes they happen to be rebellious."

Stefan Franzen

© 2016

Translated from the German by Ron Walker