Palestinian dance troupe Badke head to the UAE

Ahead of dance troupe Badke’s UAE premiere at the NYUAD Arts Centre on 9 September 2016, here’s a re-post of my interview with dramaturg and choreographer Hildegard De Vuyst. We caught up when Badke were invited to perform at the Southbank Centre in London for the Shubbak Festival 2015.

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Badke © DannyWillems

Aimee Dawson: Badke is a take on the traditional Palestinian dance dabke but it is fused with contemporary elements. The performance itself is not an outright assertion of Palestinian identity but is rather trying to find a sense of Palestinian belonging, both nationally and internationally. Was bringing a contemporary side to the traditional dance an important element in getting across that message?

Hildegard De Vuyst: Dabke has been built over years and is the result of an ongoing dialogue with a variety of Palestinian performance artists, whatever their background. We were regularly visiting Palestine and having all of these exchanges in the form of workshops. The three co-creators, Koen Augustijnen, Rosalba Torres Guerrero and myself, had worked with a group of ten Palestinian dancers in 2009 and it was then that we understood that bringing in contemporary dance was not an easy thing to do or to cope with – you come across a lot of big issues that are related to politics, colonialism, aesthetics and values. Everything in this piece has been negotiated with the dancers – the material is theirs. This was important so that the dancers could really defend it – the dance is made up of their own proposals and they know exactly why it is there and what it means. We started with the dabke dance for this reason but also because this is what the Palestinians have to offer the world of dance – it’s not contemporary but it’s theirs. This is what they all have as a starting point, this collective dance that is connected to the soul. So for us, to start from dabke meant starting with their strength and what they have to offer and not from what they are supposedly lacking.

AD: The ten Palestinian dancers come from a variety of dance backgrounds. Was it important for you to showcase these differences?

HDV: Yes, the other thing that was important for us was working with non-professionally trained dabke dancers. There are lots of trained dabke companies in Palestine that really know what they are doing but we wanted to work with individuals, not an already-established group. We also wanted to work with people who were from a variety of different backgrounds in terms of training, socio-economic position, and geographic location. Two come from the Palestinian Circus School; two have come from Israel and have had training at Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company; three come from Serreyet Ramallah Dance Company; one from El-Funoun Popular Dance Troupe; and three are completely self-taught – two are from a refugee camp near Nablus and one is the Palestinian kickboxing champion! And so the element of ‘contemporary’ comes from each dancer bringing their own experience to the performances and sharing with one another. It is a very diverse group of people with different things to offer. What was a triumph for me was that the piece was actually embraced by the traditional dance companies.

AD: There is always the concern when you are reinterpreting a traditional dance of national significance that it will be in some way offensive. But I read that, at a show you did in Palestine, a very traditionally dressed woman came up afterwards and said, “When my girls grow up I want them to be like that”. The audience for that show was also huge despite concerns that this type of dance wouldn’t be accepted. It must be really great to get such a positive reaction, particularly in Palestine where this performance has extra significance and resonance.

HDV: Yes, they somehow really felt like we respected the tradition and that at the same time found a way to deal with something that was contemporary. I think it is mostly in the composition of the piece that you find the contemporary, through the use of space; the use of the group versus the individual and then the re-emersion of the individual back into the group again. It is almost a reflection of Palestinian society on an existential level.

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Behind the scenes: Badke working with the Congolese dance company Ballet Arumbaya Ndendeli in Kinshasa. Photo courtesy of Samaa Wakeem.

AD: One of the things that stands out in the videos and reviews for Badke are the comments on the overwhelming energy and positivity of the piece. Do you think that this is just part of the nature of the dabke dance or is it something that you really wanted to portray?

HDV: Part of it is in the nature of the dance because it’s very affirmative, with a lot of stamping and shoulder shakes. There is an affirmation of “I belong here” and creating a connection with the ground is a very joyful thing. But we were particularly interested in dabke as a social dance rather than the way that it is often portrayed on stage where it’s often used as a representation of Palestinian suffering. For us, the piece is a feast – a wedding but without a bride and a groom! It has this energy that Palestinian weddings parties often have, this wild energy which is also a way to release tension and energy that can’t go anywhere else. So the energy and the vitality of it is one part. But for me, it should also be read as a party that goes on for too long. It’s exhausting itself and emptying itself. For us in the end it’s like the people in this party cannot stop dancing but just have to continue. They turn in rounds and they keep turning – they cannot go anywhere, they cannot stop. It becomes painful. For us it’s a reflection of what is going on right now in Palestine. They are stuck and they cannot stop resisting. They have to go on but it’s not going anywhere. So it ends in a section that is both dream-like and nightmarish, of both joy and pain. That’s what we aim for. Sometimes it’s clearer than others – over time, as the dancers have improved their stamina, it has become more acted whereas before they were genuinely feeling this emotion of pain!

AD: This is the first time that Badke has been to the UK but it has travelled to other places, too. Can you tell us about the tour?

HDV: Yes, it is a tour with a great deal of contrast. Recently we took it to Salzburg and after that we went to Kinshasa. The Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg (KVS, The Royal Flemish Theatre) put on a festival in Kinshasa called Connexion Kin and so we included Badke. For the Congolese dancers there is a lot of traditional material still there but it is sometimes translated rather problematically into the contemporary world of dance – you would never find a traditional Congolese dance company at a contemporary dance festival and we wondered why.

While Dabke were in Kinshasa they met with a traditional Congolese dance company called Ballet Arumbaya Ndendeli and it was an incredible experience. The dancers worked together, like an exchange, for two days. They each taught the other a phrase from their own choreography. The Palestinians were really inspired by the Congolese body movements – in dabke there is no movement between the chest and the knees – and suddenly in Kinshasa they discovered their pelvis! It’s incredible how it changed their relationship to their bodies and I’m sure now Badke will look different than before!

Book tickets to see Badke’s at NYUAD Arts Centre, 9 September 2016, here.

Read this interview on the Shubbak Festival blog here.

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Dignity Through Music: An Interview with Karama’s Soufian Saihi

Ahead of Karama’s Eid performance at ALEF Bookstore on Baker Street on 7 July 2016, here’s a look back at an interview with oud musician, Soufian Saihi. In this interview, Soufian discusses how Karama, a uniquely international and eclectic band, was formed; the inspiration behind their album ‘Visa’; and the responsibility of claiming back Arab dignity through music.

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Karama, One Year in London, 2011

 

Aimee Dawson: You started Karama in 2011 – what made you decided to start the band?

Soufian Saihi: I have had this idea of starting a band ever since I came to this country in 2004 and these tunes kept coming to me. I went through a bit of a journey before I started the band, though – I went to university to study mechanical engineering in Derbyshire, after that I lived a while in the West Midlands and I moved to London in 2008. This was the real beginning of my musical career. I met this Spanish band here in London and I gigged with them for a while playing the oud. I did a few collaborations and I began developing a network through places like the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and other interesting venues. Two years after I had arrived in London I had begun to concretise the idea of a band in my head so I started looking for members. I had met Elizabeth Nott through SOAS and had played with her before so I invited her to join, and invited another friend of mine. We began to think about what instrument would go well with the oud and we decided the clarinet would sound good.

 

AD: That’s a really interesting sound combination that you don’t hear very often.

SS: Yes, it works really well. We found the other members and I already had four or five songs by then. Our first EP, ‘One Year in London’, was very experimental and was a mish-mash of lots of different ideas. The structure was very different from the norm. I was lucky enough to have met a great sound engineer who suggested that we go and record the music. Then the Arab Spring started, which was such a shock but it brought lots of hope with it. It had been stagnant in the Arab world for such a long time. In the last decades there had been hope that things would change but it didn’t happen.

AD: And this where the idea for the name came from, right?

SS: Yes, I asked myself a lot of questions about why this was happening now and I thought really it is all about dignity – ‘karama’. People had been oppressed for so long by the regimes in the North Africa and the Middle East. To be honest, it is a very big responsibility, you can’t imagine how heavy it is to have that name – it’s not only about music. I decided to go with that name and it’s a bit of a mission for this band, spreading a bit of love in this world that’s full of hatred at the moment.

AD: And that is an important element of culture, spreading positivity and understanding. Did you pick your band members or did it all happen very naturally? Because they each are from a different part of the world – it’s a very international band. Was that intentional? I imagine that these international differences really influence your sound as a band?

SS: It does. I always considered myself to be international in spirit – although I’m Moroccan and I am proud of where I come from I don’t want to associate my music with any particular country. I want it to be borderless. With the band members, they kept changing because of the nature of our work in London and people being very busy with different projects. At this stage now we have bonded and we have been together for four years. We have all invested a lot of time and energy in the band and now we are like family. I’m also really happy that we’ve recently taken on two new members so we are now a seven-piece. We have a violin and trumpet. We had our first gig last week at Stroud Sacred Music Festival and it was a great sound. We also had a session on the BBC Radio 3 programme ‘In Tune’.

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Karama

 

AD: You also have a second album coming up soon – have you started recording yet? Do you already have ideas for songs?

SS: We have all the compositions ready but we haven’t started recording yet – we are actually crowdfunding at the moment to raise the money to record the album. I moved from London to Bristol two years ago and that has really helped me to write the new material. I have had more time and space to write. The album is going to be called ‘Visa’. I have personally experienced the difficulties of obtaining a visa and so have millions of other people, so I dedicate it to them and all ‘third-world’ citizens. Sometimes I have this feeling of inferiority because of it; there is a line that divides the North and the South.

AD: I think people in the West often don’t realise what a privilege it is to be able to travel so freely and how difficult it is for others. Does the music reflect that feeling of travel, borders and nations?

SS: I’m not sure, I don’t really sit and analyse my own music that much and I’m not the type of person who writes musical phrases for their own sake or because they are coherent with one another, it has to come naturally. It took me two years to write it. There is an important song on this album called ‘Araby’. This song was the one that gave me the most trouble – it was very hard to write, it took the longest time and it emotionally drained me to find the phrases. It’s about the Arab world today and how it’s in a terrible state. In the song I compare the Arab world now to how it was hundreds of years ago when it was actually bringing knowledge from the East to West. Loosely translated, the lyrics are:

Oh Arab, why did your worthiness fall/ What was the cause of what happened?/ Was your mind drugged or was it your imagination?/ Or were they both lost in a current?/ Amongst you there were a thousand scholars/ Poetry and visionary minds/ Pioneers in geometry, algebra and physics/ You went into a dark deepness/ Only God knows how your history evaporated like water.

AD: Your band has a very special and eclectic sound but it is clear that Middle Eastern issues and sounds are its roots.

SS: Yes, it’s true. I guess most of the music we hear now in the Arab world is very commercial and I feel like one of the best things we can do to revive Arab culture is to return to basics and build from that. That’s what I try to do with my compositions, following in the footsteps of the old master composers from the Arab world and presenting it with a new, contemporary twist.

Book tickets for Karama’s performance at ALEF here.

Originally posted on the Shubbak Festival 2015 blog.

D-CAF – Downtown Cairo Art Festival 2016

The French Consulate in Downtown Cairo is one of the many D-CAF venues. Image courtesy of D-CAF.
The French Consulate in Downtown Cairo is one of the many D-CAF venues. Image courtesy of D-CAF.

D-CAF launched in April 2011, just months after the uprisings that saw Egypt’s then-president Mubarak step down. The festival points to the turbulent context of its inaugural edition by focusing on public space and performance, with venues this year including Horreya garden, the Egyptian stock market, local cinemas, theatres, shops and cafes. “The festival is about being in the city and bringing art to the urban environment—taking back the space not just politically but also creatively,” El Attar says. The festival’s wide range of venues can in part be attributed to D-CAF’s co-founder and main corporate sponsor, Al-Ismaelia for Retail Investment, which has been buying property in downtown Cairo since 2008.

D-CAF has an ambitious three-week programme this year that spans contemporary music, film, visual arts and, for the first time, literature. Unlike previous years, no events will be taking place in other Egyptian cities, but parallel shows will be held in Lebanon. The performances in Beirut are designed to include Syrian performance artists who are routinely denied entry into Egypt, despite the festival’s efforts to include them in their programming.

Continue reading on The Art Newspaper.

D-Sisyphe / Décisif: Constructing a Better Future For Tunisia

D-SISYPHE © Dahlia Katz
D-SISYPHE © Dahlia Katz

D-Sisyphe (pronounced as in the French ‘décisif’, meaning ‘decisive’ in English) is an important piece of performance, both as a creative expression that fuses contemporary dance with physical theatre and as an insight into the kind of socio-political situation of Tunisians that ultimately led to the 2011 uprisings that began in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East. The piece offers a humanised perspective of one man, Khmais, with his own feelings of loss and desperation at what he sees as the wreckage of his life – loathed by his wife and son, rejected by society and having lost faith in God, he is alone and afraid.

The play follows Khmais for one night at the construction site where he works, overthinking his life. Award-winning actor Meher Awachri developed D-Sisyphe as his final project at university, starting with a text he had written based upon The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. In an interview with al.arte magazine, Awachri described how the book raised questions for him “about my life in Tunisia before the revolution during the time of dictatorship, about the problems within Tunisian society and about my problems with society. Camus compares the absurdity of man’s life with the situation of Sisyphus. In D-Sisyphe I created a Tunisian version of Sisyphus”.

Continue reading on the Shubbak Festival blog.

‘Shahba’: An Interview with Hello Psychaleppo

In this interview, Samer Saem Eldahr (aka Hello Psychaleppo) talks about his video Shahba commissioned for Shubbak Festival 2015; his upcoming album; and his hope that electronic music can bridge both a musical and non-musical divide between the Middle East and the West.

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Still from Shahba, Hello Psychaleppo

Aimee Dawson: In the Middle East you often hear traditional, classic Arabic music such as Umm Kulthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez but your music takes these classics and remixes them – re-invents them almost – in a way that attracts both new and old audiences.

Hello Psychaleppo: Arab people are becoming increasingly nostalgic for our heritage and culture and I’m trying to use it in a new way that you can really dance to. I think that just clicked at some point and people seem to really like it.

AD: I read in an interview that you did that you felt like electronic music could help to bridge a gap between audiences in the Middle East and the West. You’ve recently moved to the USA – have you found a positive reaction to your music there?

HP: I’ve actually only been here for about four months so I haven’t had an opportunity to play here yet. But last week I was at Fusion Festival in northern Germany and I got some really nice feedback. The people didn’t understand Arabic, which most of my samples use, but mainly they related to the music phrases, the electronic sound and the dance – it’s this whole experience that they like to be in.

AD: Despite the fact that some Western audiences aren’t able to understand the Arabic, because they are drawn in by this familiar sound but with a new dimension it encourages them to find out more about the music and get to learn about the musical culture from Syria and the Middle East that they wouldn’t normally know.

HP: Yes, the music is fresh and it’s very new in the Middle East to have this kind of fusion of modern and heritage. At every gig there are a lot of people that don’t know this type music and it is always fun to watch how they are slowly engaging with it – enjoying certain lines or rhythms. At the end of the set people often feel like it’s been a journey and that’s very nice for me. Observing these kinds of small details is why I love playing live. After the set you get great feedback and lots of questions and that is why I do what I do.

Continue reading on the Shubbak Festival blog.

Interview with eL Seed

As part of Shubbak Festival 2015, I interviewed calligraffiti artist eL Seed during his first street art commission in London. For the piece, which he created just after the terrorist attack in Sousse in eL Seed’s home country of Tunisia, he chose a quote by John Locke reads that reads “It is one thing to show a man that he is in an error and another to put him in possession of truth”. Accompanying music: ‘Sand Song’ by Syrian musician Hello Psychaleppo (check out his music here).

ARA-B-LESS? : An Interview With Riffy Arts Collective

Meriem Bennani, the New York-based artist who was recently featured in the New York Times, is one of the artists selected by Riffy Ahmed and Sarah El Hamed for the ARA-B-LESS? project at the Saatchi Gallery, part of The Nour Festival of Arts. I spoke with Riffy to learn more about the project.

Ara-B-Less poster
ARA-B-LESS poster

How did you conceive the title ARA-B-LESS ?

The project title ‘ARA-B-LESS ?’ is a neologism born of a play on the word ‘Arabness’ (Arabism). Two designs hint at the meaning behind “ARA-B-LESS ?” –  the first emphasising ‘BLESS’ suggests that Arab identity is a blessing, while the second emphasises “LESS’, the ways in which what it means to be Arab have evolved over time, perhaps losing something along the way. ‘ARA-B-LESS?’, as a question, also focuses on whether we, the artists, consider ourselves to be more or less Arab for having been born and brought up in the West, albeit by parents from Arab countries.

Continue reading on the Nour Festival blog.