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.

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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.

The Revolution within The Revolution: Art and Syria Today

Untitled.pngIn 2011, a small piece of graffiti demanding the fall of the Syrian regime instigated a vicious crackdown by the government upon its young perpetrators. This graffiti was arguably one of the catalysts that led to the Syrian Revolution, which has since deteriorated into the now four-year-long civil war. It is somewhat fitting then that today, the cultural and artistic responses in the war-torn country have been described as the only positive development of the conflict. Despite the widespread devastation – which has seen over 230,000 people killed, more than 4 million fleeing as refugees, and almost 8 million internally displaced[1] – Syrians have been responding to and documenting their crisis creatively, taking advantage of greater freedom of expression of an essentially collapsed state (compared to the fierce censorship that reigned during Assad’s unchallenged rule). That is not to say that artists are free from the repercussions of their work – many artists have been forced out of work, threatened, beaten, imprisoned, forced to leave the country or, in some cases, killed[2]. In spite of the danger, and beyond the sounds of shelling and bombardments that try to drown them out, many artists both inside and outside the country continue to battle against tyranny to make their voices, and those of the Syrian people, heard.

Continue reading on the Mosaic Rooms Blog.

 

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.