Syria: Shams Asma – Sircus
Much of the current debate about music seems to be centred on whether it has run out of forward motion. According to some commentators we’ve left an age of innovation and entered a period of refinement and retrospection. Even the once-fertile avant garde is seen as having entered a new and probably permanent period of stasis. Whether this is true is open to (lengthy and often bitter) debate, but the argument is really only made from a North American and Western European perspective, with some lip service paid to Jamaica and Japan. Of course it is easier for Western critics to ignore the Arab avant garde given the fact that most have never acknowledged it in the first place. As Kay Dickinson points out in the introduction to the excellent collection of essays The Arab Avant Garde: Music, Politics, Modernity, even in the most enlightened circles, most Westerners don’t really think of Arab art as having that kind of potential - despite how often it is co-opted by their culture. It is perhaps apt that the French phrase "avant garde" originally referred to units of crack troops –the kind that were deployed in the Napoleonic era during the colonial expansion into territories such as Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Greater Syria, with cultural plunder beginning then in parallel. Dickinson says: “Perpetuating a silence about the Arab avant garde (however ignorant or innocent) has collectively connived to diminish its potency, clearing space, in this supposed vacuum of articulation, for narratives that drown out what the Arab world has to say about these injustices.”
Shams Asma is the leftfield musical project of the avant garde multidisciplinary artist Asma Ghanem, who was born in Damascus, Syria, but now lives and works in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. You can read an overview of what motivates young Arabic avant garde artists, written by her for the excellent Reorient magazine here. She is a great writer as well as an artist and has this to say on the subject: “A space such as Palestine is full of influences that make one think about the very meaning of sound itself. Sound in Palestine is affected by instantaneous elements. During the Intifada, the sonic experience was terrifying. A tank moving on a street would produce the feeling of an earthquake. The sounds made by these instruments of war relied heavily on momentary experiences, which gave a feeling of unpredictability as to what would happen next. I find the state of being in Palestine very similar to experimental sound production, as the latter is not independent, but rather unstable, broken, volatile, disturbing, and quite cacophonous, not unlike the sounds of war.”
Algeria: Group Anmataff – Tinariwen
Never mind the post-colonial politics (perhaps easier said than done), here’s some banging Algerian Tuareg electro blues. It’s a bit of a blast from the recent past, being the lead track on 2011’s Music from Saharan Cellphones released on Sahel Sounds, the excellent label run by Christopher Kirkley. (Come on Chris! Let’s have volume three please!) This track is a rough demo composed with a Groovebox drum machine and guitars. And to put it simply: this is one of my most played songs of the last few years; you can listen to the whole album here.
Egypt: Massive Scar Era – My Ground
Massive Scar Era – or Mascara to their not inconsiderable Egyptian fanbase – were formed in Alexandria in 2005 by Sherine Amr, a powerful vocalist/guitarist. Owing to restrictions imposed by Amr's family, Mascara had an all-female line-up for the first few years of their existence. The band moved to Cairo in 2009, added a few new members and started playing the occasional show abroad. Finally last year they released a series of well received EPs. A lot of people are keen to hear Mascara’s debut album, which is due soon, but in the meantime to give you a flavour of their mix of classic rock, hardcore and classical (the five piece includes two violinists), here is one of their tracks from last year, My Ground.
Egypt: Mayor Mahmoud – El Donya Shemal
The main aim of this playlist – apart from the buzz of helping spread the word about undeniably great music – is on some levels slightly contradictory. It exists to show that the idea that there is a single North African and Middle Eastern "sound" or "tradition" is completely bogus. That even in one country in this region during one particular year there are probably as many differing styles and sounds as there are in the UK, and in the countries such as Mali and Egypt there are probably more. So it makes sense to occasionally compare two strands of contemporary music from one place. (Perhaps in an ideal world Massive Scar Era and Mayor Mahmoud wouldn’t be featured next to each other … perhaps. I still believe the plain truth is that there’s no such thing as a bad genre of music or a bad region for music: just regions and genres that haven’t been explored thoroughly enough. So perhaps they do belong together.) El Donya Shemal translates into English literally as “The world is left” but probably means something closer to “The world is messed up”. (To be honest, even the artist's name is up fore debate: it could be either Mayor Mahmoud or Mahmoud Mayor of the North. After putting about 300 YouTube comments written in Arabic through Google Translate, all I’ve really learned is that everyone agrees that this is a very "rigid" track; a viewpoint I wholeheartedly endorse myself.)
Iraq: Prince Of Assyria – Fantasy
Ninos Dankha, who goes by the stage name of Prince of Assyria, was born in Baghdad to Assyrian and Aramean parents before being brought to Sweden when he was young. His second album Changing Places is out now and is informed by a melancholia that is in the main a product of the culture of the country he lives in, but also the cultural journey of his family. He has just released a video for the track Bring Along Joy but here's the album cut Fantasy, which plumbs the smoky late-night gloom of Tindersticks and Cat Stevens.