For two midsummer weeks, every two years, London becomes a global stage for Arab arts. The biennial Shubbak festival, subtitled “A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture”—a literal play on the Arabic word shubbak, which means window—gathers together writers, artists, performers, musicians and critics for dozens of events spread across the British capital, from film premieres and commissions of new dance works to debates, art installations and—almost every night—music.
Shubbak began in 2011 as part of a series of one-off events promoted by the mayor of London showcasing world cultures from India and China to Brazil. Shubbak, however, proved so popular, and so emblematic of the fresh cultural energy rippling across many Arab countries, that it was made an independent charity charged with staging biennial editions.
In 2015 Shubbak presented more than 70 events featuring 130 artists from 18 Arab countries that drew a total audience of more than 50,000 people. The 2017 festival, which finished July 16, encompassed some 80 events featuring 150 artists, and it drew similar numbers.
“Our purpose is to present Arab artists to the widest possible audience,” says Shubbak’s artistic director Eckhard Thiemann, who helped produce the cultural program for London’s 2012 Summer Olympics and has worked with Arab artists in the uk over two decades.
This year, alongside Shubbak’s programs in art, literature, drama and film, Thiemann oversaw a music program featuring more than 20 musicians and performers who emphasized the contemporary and the genre-busting.
“We look at a lot of work,” Thiemann says. “We select artists because of their innovative approach and their creativity.” Increasingly, like their audiences, he adds, the musicians selected “have grown up on social media and are unafraid to mix styles and platforms. We are always trying to curate synergies.”
And that, said London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who opened the city’s annual Eid Festival on July 2 at Trafalgar Square as part of Shubbak, is “the great joy of London,” a “global city” where “our diversity is our strength.”
Shubbak’s music event on the main stage at Trafalgar Square opened with the zither-like qanun, played by London-based virtuoso Maya Youssef. Like a horizontal harp, its plucked strings haunt and hypnotize, all the more so when amplified before a standing audience of thousands amid the austere neoclassical architecture of central London. Accompanied by cello and percussion, Youssef bent closely over her instrument, laid flat on her lap, plectrums on each index finger, performing both traditional pieces and her own composition “Syrian Dreams,” a fluid, elegiac solo she calls “a prayer for peace.”
Her graceful, accomplished playing brought echoes of Syria to new ears.
“I grew up in Damascus in a house full of music, and I started learning [qanun] when I was nine. It’s been a life companion,” she says.
After leaving Syria in 2007 for Dubai and then Oman, in 2012 Youssef settled in the uk. She now researches ethnomusicology at the University of London and the role of music in healing post-traumatic stress among children.
“I see myself as a tree rooted in the ancient tradition of Syrian music, but from there I can go wherever I want. Being in the uk means I can deliver my music to people who would not normally hear it, and also collaborate with musicians from all sorts of backgrounds, to expand musical horizons.”
Born into a prolifically artistic family in Khartoum, Sudan, Rasha began singing professionally in 1991 after she moved to Spain, where she still lives.
For her first record, Sudaniyat, released in 1997, she says she felt a calling to help introduce Sudanese music to a global audience by adapting tradition to her own personal vision of the style.
“Sudanese music is a mix of Arabic and African music. Our melodies are so melancholic, and our rhythms are complex. We have this desert land, with really dark nights and really hot weather. It’s hard but beautiful, [with] the wisdom of being old. And the wiser you are, the more melancholic you are.”
Wearing cowrie shells in her hair and elaborate, patterned hoops in her ears, Rasha—she tends to drop her family name Sheikh Eldin—performed twice in one day for Shubbak: first on the main stage in Trafalgar Square and then later that evening in the intimate, historic setting of Bush Hall.
Fronting a four-piece band of electric bass, saxophone, cello, and her brother Wafir on ‘ud, while accompanying herself on a stand-mounted tabla drum, Rasha sang fluid, irresistibly danceable songs of emotion and freedom that have created their own genre, which she describes as Sudanese jazz.
“No music and no people are pure,” she says. “We all influence each other, and music—especially music—is the easiest language for everyone. Musical styles come and go, and they’re not the same when they come back.”
One thread running through almost all of Shubbak 2017’s music was the unusual, even startling, often exhilarating, experience of hearing young, intensely dynamic musicians build shattering innovations on one of the oldest foundations: Arabic popular song. As Shubbak unfolded over two weeks, I kept hearing traditional folk themes and snatches of popular melodies reinvented—none more dramatically than by classically trained, Damascus-born Wael Alkak.
“I used to play the national anthem in school when I was five or six years old, on the accordion,” he remembers.
Alkak, 35, sighs, pushing his unkempt hair back off his face as he tells of his recent anguish: six years of self-imposed exile from his homeland.
What has sustained him are his musical roots.
“My story with traditional music started in 2008, with my first recordings. I still use some of them now. Wedding songs, songs at popular events. Before 2011 this kind of music didn’t interest anybody. For my first project, in 2012 in Beirut, the idea was to collect seven songs and rearrange them with popular and ethnic elements, plus fusion with a string section or a brass section.”
That first album broke many molds. Sampled clips from popular Syrian songs—some recorded shakily on mobile phones inside war-besieged cities—became the basis for wildly innovative digital reimaginings, driven by Syrian musicians recorded in Jordan on traditional instruments such as the rababa, a one-stringed Arab violin, all enhanced by Alkak’s synthesizers. Alkak directed the whole project from afar, often over video-call apps from a studio in Istanbul, Turkey.
They named the project Neshama, which in Arabic “has the meaning of someone who is good just for being good, without expecting anything back,” Alkak says.
Neshama earned Alkak a music residency in Paris and became the name of his band, a shifting group of musicians that now recreate Syrian popular songs for a new generation in exile.
“Digital music is what we do. It includes some elements from acid house music and techno-trance music, but we build it on our recordings that we made with our musicians,” says Alkak.
At the Rich Mix music and arts venue in London’s hipster neighborhood of Shoreditch, Alkak was joined by his brother Yazan on ‘ud and three London-based Syrian musicians, including Jammal al-Sakka, Alkak’s own percussion teacher from Damascus Conservatory. They played from Neshama’s newly released second album, Men Zaman (Long Ago).
It was a wild show. Alkak—thin, blazing-eyed, shaggy-haired—worked his decks, live-mixing beats and samples. He left showmanship to al-Sakka, whose party piece was deftly flipping his tabla drum through 360 degrees midair during the most ferocious of solos without missing a beat, drawing yelps of delight from onlookers who crowded the stage and seemed to know every song intimately. Intense amplification turned traditional wedding melodies such as “Dahrij Ya Hamam” (“Dance, Pigeon!”) into desperate, swirling, rough-edged dance beats that rattled the ribcage, driven by urgent bass lines and drenched in dry-ice smoke and mood lighting.
Is Alkak a dj?
“I’m a musician, definitely, but sometimes I need to dj because digital is popular,” he says. “I don’t like borders in music or in life.”
Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries went through a cultural renaissance of homegrown reforms and innovation known as al-Nahda (The Awakening). It energized everything from art and music to philosophy and journalism. It’s this “Nahda era” that captivates Oxford Maqam, which formed in 2008 in the city of Oxford and whose name references the melodic system of classical Arab music, explains vocalist Yara Salahiddeen.
“Nahda music became marginalized in the 1950s and looked upon as old-fashioned, and I think that was unfair,” says ‘ud player Tarek Beshir.
“So we went back and studied it, and found that it’s actually very rich—full of room to grow and improvise. So we rework these earlier songs into our own point of view.”
Their Trafalgar Square set, which evoked much clapping and hip-shaking, showed how skillfully they look both back and forward, with Beshir and Salahiddeen dueling on vocals accompanied by an eclectic mix of ‘ud and nay (end-blown flute) alongside acoustic double-bass.
It was also during al-Nahda that the first method of recording developed, and Oxford Maqam’s debut album features new versions of al-Nahda era songs that it recorded using 100-year-old wax cylinder technology, the group first then digitized. “Most of our repertoire we know from old recordings—and the oldest of them are recorded on wax cylinders,” says qanun player and King’s College London music professor Martin Stokes.
“They impose a lot of demands on musicians because you’ve got a very short time, two minutes and 20 seconds, to get the whole thing in. The wax cylinder changed the [music] in some important ways,” Stokes says, before describing the band's recent recording sessions as a “fascinating experiment.” But then, he adds, “We thought, ‘This doesn’t sound too bad!’ So we made it our first cd.”
Hawidro is a band on a mission, “trying to represent the African Egypt in a contemporary feel,” says lead singer Ahmed Abayazeid, known to all as Zizo.
“That’s what the name stands for: hawidro means ‘the return’ in Nubian. We need to return to our African culture that’s been forgotten.”
Nubia is a territory along the River Nile that straddles the border between Sudan and Egypt. Nubians, Abayazeid explains, have their own cultures and languages. They are part of wider Arab and North African cultures but also distinct enough that “that’s how this music survived,” says bass player Ahmed Nazmi. “It’s more close to West African styles than to the rest of Egyptian music.”
On their first-ever visit to London, Hawidro played three gigs in two days under the Shubbak banner, their eight-piece ensemble driving loping, clattering percussive rhythms that blended with the fluidity of saxophone, synthesizer and electric guitar.
There were few signs of nerves. Zizo’s vibrant energy and permanent grin under long dreadlocks was contagious, and an on-stage “selfie moment” at Bush Hall drew sustained cheers and laughs.
What did they make of playing in London? Nazmi was pumped.
“London is really important, and Shubbak is such an incredible event. I really like the audiences. They are really interested in [world] cultures. They praise it and give a lot of credit to the bands that play, which is something we really appreciate.”
You could miss award-winning jazz pianist Tarek Yamani in the street. His figure is slight, and he wears clothes that are only remarkable for being unremarkable—plain designs in plain colors. His hair is tousled. He moves lightly, uncertainly.
The fingers are a clue, if you happen to notice them: They move a lot. Spider-like.
When you sit down opposite him to talk and suddenly pitch headfirst into his eyes and then find yourself scrabbling backward up a slope to keep contact with the world before he’s even said a word—that’s when you realize there is far more to this man.
Yamani, 37, was born and grew up in Beirut.
“When I was six, my parents discovered that I had some talent for music,” he says.
“[I was] hearing music from tv and trying to replicate it on this little keyboard—that’s how my father made the connection. So he got me a piano teacher.”
Later, Yamani was enrolled in the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music, but he hated it.
"Jazz has the secret. It has the secret of groove. It carries African dna in rhythm, and we all carry this somehow."
“I was lucky I had this instinct to stop,” he reflects. “What I wanted from music was something else—not classical training. When my teacher told me, ‘Do this,’ I would go home and do something else. She tells me right hand, I want to do left hand. I had the jazz spirit without knowing it.”
As a teenager Yamani lost himself in rock.
“I was exposed to Pink Floyd since I was four. My father used to listen to them all the time, and the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. I went through heavy metal, all the way to death metal. I taught myself guitar, learned solos, made a band. And then, at 19, I discovered jazz, and that’s where this illumination happened in my life. Everything changed.
“Jazz has everything I like: the spirit of improvisation; rhythmic sophistication; harmonic technicality. So I left the guitar, back to the piano and went on this adventure.”
For his 2017 Shubbak show, Yamani worked with long-time collaborators Elie Afif on acoustic bass and Khaled Yassine on drums—but he has not always followed convention. In 2010 he won the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz Composer’s Competition for Sama’i Yamani, his startlingly original rework of a traditional Arab musical form in contemporary jazz style that featured Syrian vocalist Rasha Rizk. This set the frame for exploring musical boundaries among Arab, African and African-American traditions.
“Jazz has the secret. It has the secret of groove. It carries African dna in rhythm, and we all carry this somehow. Learning this language, the jazz language, for me had a mystical significance. Jazz was born in the United States but it spoke to me so much. I felt it was a duty to be able to understand it and speak it fluently.”
On his first album, Ashur (2012), Yamani fearlessly reshaped the jazz trio itself by substituting tuba for bass, bringing a unique sound while revisiting Sama’i Yamani and reimagining a traditional Arab dance form, dabke, for solo jazz piano.
By then living in New York, he went deeper into Arab music for his 2014 album Lisan Al Tarab, developing classical music from Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq in a jazz trio setting.
“I consider myself a scientist in a very modest way: I like to make experiments, mix things, try stuff out.”
The Lisan Al Tarab track listing—lisan is an Arabic word for language and tarab refers to the trance-like atmosphere shared by performers and listeners—formed the basis of Yamani’s show at upmarket Kings Place.
The trio’s effortless communication over fiendishly tricky syncopated rhythms mesmerized the crowd. Unprepossessing in a simple T-shirt, quietly spoken at the mic, Yamani created chromatic keyboard runs that felt like sweeps of bright paint across a canvas, punctuated by Yassine’s plunging off-beats and Afif’s architectural bass. Sama’i Yamani was like a call from the 19th century to the 21st, its rare 10/8 time signature and minor resolutions breaking down dizzyingly amidst chords and unpredictable beat drops over Yamani’s left-hand drone.
“The sound was immense,” says Alise Kirtley, a singer-songwriter from London who heard the sold-out show. “Passion without theatrics. Tarek’s left-hand work was exquisite, at speed and perfectly placed, with insane time signatures that they all nailed. This was original music—not just another night of standards—and each with a story.”
Characteristically, Yamani is not standing still. His album this year, Peninsular, draws jazz improvisations out of the traditional khaleeji (gulf) music of the eastern Arabian Peninsula.
“There’s something special about khaleeji music,” says Yamani. “The main characteristic of khaleeji rhythm is the swing, and these rhythms are all so African.
“This strong need [to cling onto cultural roots] is everywhere,” he adds.
“There are two kinds of musicians: traditionalists and explorers. I am the latter, but both are needed. If it weren’t for the traditionalists, we wouldn’t know what was going on before. Then you get people who make new traditions. Everything we do echoes something old. No music comes out of nothing.”
The last night of the Shubbak Festival was given over to Kahareb (Electrified), a five-hour deep dive into Arab contemporary underground electronica with multiple djs and musicians. Each performer brought a fresh perspective, from the danceability of Beirut World Beat to French-Palestinian dj Sotusura and Jordanian guitar legend El Jehaz.
Anchoring the first half of the show was Inès Abichou, known by her dj name Missy Ness, who fused pounding British drum & bass with American rap and the hardest of Arab hip-hop.
Born and brought up in Paris, Abichou became the first Tunisian female dj after hearing cult Palestinian hip-hop collective Ramallah Underground in high school.
“They showed me that you can totally do this contemporary underground urban sound and mix it with Arab music without being kitschy,” she says.
“I admired the way they did this synergy between all their influences without being orientalist. I started listening to French hip-hop, talking about our reality—the reality for people living in outer Paris.”
Inspired by the urban underground in both Paris and London, Abichou also draws on wider musical currents.
Though her focus is on Arab and North African influences, she says, “I have huge interest in Latin American hip-hop, and recently I’ve been digging into the Senegalese hip-hop scene. In Tunisia I love the rapper Klay BBJ. He’s very interesting in the way he uses language.”
So, with such vibrant contemporary sources to draw on, why does she, like so many of Shubbak 2017’s artists, look back to traditional or classical Arab music?
“I can’t really answer you. I have this double culture, French and Tunisian Arab. Young [French] people my age have absolutely no idea about their music from the last century. But we [Arabs] know our musical history. We all have a story with Fairouz or Um Kulthum or Abdel Halim Hafez or Sayed Darwish.”
Missy Ness played loud. She blended heavy Arabic hip-hop with all sorts of percussion and chants and snatches of American rap or bits of Egyptian song. Her hands, in constant motion over her laptop and twin turntables, swapped vinyl while her sneakers tapped along at the end of her skinny jeans and the audience danced and danced.
“It’s very easy for people to have this preconception of who I am. Some people are very surprised when they hear me play. ‘This is not at all what we expected!’ they say. My main challenge is always related to getting outside of these boxes.”
Headlining Kahareb, Cairo-born composer and musician Maurice Louca played from his 2014 album Benhayyi al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot), a swirling, surrealist journey into what he calls Egyptian psychedelia, although that label “is not very accurate,” he admits. “It’s hard to describe music now, with all the genres melting.”
Consciously unshowy, unassuming, Louca hesitates before telling how he picked up guitars as a teenager before he switched to keyboards and samplers in his early 20s.
“I couldn’t have imagined having musicians play my work when I started,” he says. “The technology helped a lot, experimenting with sampling and drum machines. You’d use it to compensate for not having access to musicians. But when my first record [Garraya, 2011] did okay, I immediately invited musicians over. It’s a pleasure to work with people on realizing ideas.”
Something of a cult figure on the European alternative music circuit for his uncompromising sound, Louca has toured festivals and club venues there and across the Arab world for several years, but his home city remains key to his musical vision.
“At the beginning I felt isolated [in Cairo]. It was very hard to find places to play. That changed in the 2000s, and now it’s the contrary: I feel very inspired in Cairo. There’s a massive audience base, a lot of music coming out. Cairo is vibrant.”
As well as his own work, Louca plays in several bands and composes for arts, theater and film projects. For Benhayyi al-Baghbaghan, he drew on Egyptian shaabi (peoples’) pop, warping and distorting it into new forms—darker, wilder, stranger—then testing out the results with friends.
“People talk a lot about the folklore element, which I can’t understand. It’s a very contemporary record for me. There’s no sampling of any old music.”
Yet several tracks feature deeply traditional instruments, such as the rababa or buzuq (a kind of lute). Doesn’t that show a nod towards musical heritage?
“I never thought of them as old,” he says. “The rababa and buzuq are very much alive in contemporary music. For me it’s not about nostalgia at all.”
And there was precious little nostalgia in evidence on stage. Louca evoked the density and complexity of his music with beats and samples and live electronica, the hammer of Massimo Trisotto’s bass and Tommaso Cappellato’s relentless drums spinning a whirl of sound to knock you sideways.
But despite headlining a bill of djs, Louca draws a firm line.
“I’m in no way a dj,” he declares. “This is composed music.”