“If someone fine, dignified, prolific, brilliant is born in the future; if someone unique and unrepeatable is born, a Bach, a Rembrandt, then he will win people over, charm and seduce them.” Witold Gombrowicz, the controversial Polish author, was in fundamental opposition to most things, but he had never lost hope for the art and the artist.
“Are you the person that Gombrowicz describes?,” I ask Hania Rani when I interview her before her concert in Bern in December 2019. “Are you the new Bach?”
She laughs. “I would never put myself in this group of people. Gombrowicz is an excellent observer of life and of the meaning of life. But he also sees the irony in it.”
Hania Rani is a pianist, composer and musical arranger from Poland. This year is her first with international fame, after having released her debut album “Esja” in April of 2019. The album is included in many best-of lists of 2019. On her debut, Hania Rani performs ten compositions for solo piano, each one a gem of a new musical style that has become very popular recently, usually branded as neo-classical. Her music has brought Hania Rani to numerous venues in Europe this year, to Aarhus in Denmark for instance, where she played an acoustic set for a handful of people in a jazz club, to the Netherlands, where she performed in a church, but also to Japan, where she played in a big hall in front of over 1000 people.
“How is your new life on the tour?,” I ask Hania Rani. “How do you stay healthy and in good spirits while traveling so extensively?”
“In the beginning it wasn’t easy,” she says. “But because it is a job like any other job, I must stay focused. I have to repeat the same show every day and give a lot to the people every evening. It was difficult in the beginning, but I got used to it because I really like to perform. It is something that lifts me up.”
“Don’t you get bored after a while, playing the same show every evening?”
“Well, it’s always changing,” Hania Rani replies, “because we play in different cities and different venues. I also try to take my time before and after the concert, to get to know the places and the people for whom I am playing. I want to establish a connection, something that I can remember later on. It’s my first big tour and I want to fully experience and enjoy it.”
“Esja”, Hania Rani’s album, was partly recorded in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, and is named after a nearby mountain. The music on “Esja” is sublime and laid back in a very delicate way, with Hania Rani carefully finding her way through the songs just as my car does when I drive to the office through the falling snow a few days before the concert (while playing her music). One of the trademarks of neo-classical piano music is to showcase the piano as an organic and mechanical body. When listening to songs like Biesy, Luka and Glass, one hears Hania Rani press the keys and play the melodies of course, but one also hears a piano at work, creaking and breathing like a wooden boat in heavy sea.
The first thing that strikes me when meeting Hania Rani in person and seeing her in concert: she is profoundly relaxed and unaffected by the hustle and bustle of a life on the road. She is late for the soundcheck and we don’t have time to do the interview? No problem, she says, let’s talk over dinner, just minutes before she goes on stage.
The audience in Bern is very mindful and ready to receive. Couples kiss when Hania Rani plays and heads turn around in contempt when someone struggles to silently open a plastic wrapper. This is a liturgy of divine sound, for Christ’s sake: who is the heretic in the room? Hania Rani links two, three songs and plays for 15 minutes in one go. At the end of such a run nobody dares to applaud until they are 100% sure that this is really the end. No one wants to kill the sublimity of the moment, and uncover himself as hopelessly ignorant, by clapping when clapping is not yet due. We all know that if someone speaks softly, people listen better. With Hania Rani and her music it is the same.
"For me, what I do is punk."
But who is Hania Rani really? For her Instagram profile she uses another Gombrowicz quote. “Je suis un humoriste, un plaisantin, je suis un acrobate et un provocateur”, it reads. “I like this quote,” Hania Rani tells me, “because it says a little bit how I feel as an artist. I am an entertainer, that’s my job.” And she repeats: “I’m an entertainer.”
However Gombrowicz’s original quote has a second, more subversive part - “je suis cirque, lyrisme, poésie, horreur, bagarre (a brawl), jeu, que voulez-vous de plus?”. Witold Gombrowicz was called a proto punk, a punk before punk was born, for swimming against the currents of his time. Hania Rani doesn’t look punkish at all, but “I like to be a punk in my mind,” she says, when I ask her about it. “For me, what I do is punk. I used to play classical music. Everything I do now is a total rebellion.”
Hania Rani’s second album has already been recorded and mixed and will be out sometimes in 2020. The album will be different than “Esja” and Rani risks to disappoint some of her newfound fans of 2019 which slightly worries her. There will be a couple of solo piano songs - of course - but the rest of the album will have much more instruments as it was recorded with a small band. Already in Bern Hania Rani surprised some in the audience when she was singing (she is probably the best piano player among all the singers in the world). When she announced on Facebook that mixing the new album was completed, she also noted that “Nothing has changed. Everything has changed”. Hania Rani likes to tease her followers by publishing enigmatic messages online.
“On the one hand everything has changed in my life because of ‘Esja’,” Hania Rani explains. “I am now in a totally different place and I am doing totally different things. I also have many great offers to collaborate. On the other hand I think that I am quite the same as before my success and I try to lead my life the same way.”
“So Hania Rani is still Hanna Raniszewska?”
(photo credits:: Aleksandra Pawlowska, Nat Kontraktewicz,, Marcin Leszczynski..)
His numbers on Spotify are very modest. When I talk to Andrea Kaiser, who is just Kaiser to most people, I tell him that he has ten monthly listeners on Spotify (and one of them is me). That’s awesome, Kaiser replies, I’d love to send everyone of them a bouquet of flowers.
Catering to the masses has never been Kaiser’s goal when making music. In fact he would change his musical style immediately should this style ever become mainstream and enjoy commercial success. In October of 2019, one month after the release of his latest album Songs of No Return, this is not a particular risk. Kaiser is the founder and at present the only member of Dnepr, a band that started its career deep down in Bern’s underground music scene of the 1980ies and has not moved up considerably since then. (And yes, there used to be an underground scene in Switzerland.)
Do you still talk about the 1980ies?, I ask Kaiser. Sure, he says, when I’m asked. Kaiser’s memories of the starting years of his career are still very much vivid. Between 1987 and 1995 he had released a bunch of six records and he still remembers every detail about each of these songs. Dnepr combined Kaiser’s heavy guitar - sometimes rhythmic, sometimes gloomy and plaintive - with elements from post punk, prog rock and new wave. The intention was always to be provocative, with a distinct nihilistic attitude, and play with political buzzwords in a period when the cold war was still fully on. Dnepr is a great motorbike brand from Ukraine, Kaiser tells me, and I wanted a name for my band with an eastern, communist touch.
Dnepr’s first album was called Hymn of Nihilon and it was inspired by Alan Sillitoe’s novel “Travels in Nihilon” where a group of people is sent to the country of Nihilon to collect information for a new travel guide. In Nihilon honesty is outlawed, drunk driving is mandatory and nihilism reigns supreme. TV and radio news are announced with “Here are the lies!”. These are just the kind of subversive ideas that Kaiser loves. All of Dnepr’s albums were recorded in Nihilitz Studios at Ulaanbaatar; Nihilitz being the drink that Nihilon’s citizens usually drink and Ulaanbaatar the capital of Mongolia, a former hidden treasure of a communist-ruled country. In reality Kaiser’s studio is just a small room in the basement of his apartment in Bern, just big enough for him and his guitar. Kaiser has never traveled to Ulaanbaatar.
While Dnepr’s music is purely instrumental now, there were lyrics in the first period of Dnepr. Have you lost your inspiration for words?, I ask Kaiser. Not at all, he replies, I never had troubles expressing myself. It’s just that I find it more challenging these days, but also more of a thrill, to produce music without lyrics. With lyrics, you can repeat them over and over again and you have a song. Without lyrics, your compositions need to be constructed differently in order to keep the song going and the audience listening.
Dnepr has always been avant-garde. For “Figures in a Landscape” from Hellhome, Dnepr’s 1993 release, a computer generated voice spoke words that had been fed to the computer by Kaiser (by profession, Kaiser is a software engineer). “Deus Ex Machina” and “The Nile Song” (both from Vandalism, 1991) are similar adventures in sound. Other songs on Vandalism - “The definitive Birth, the ultimate Life and the absolute Death”, as well as “Come back (I want to kick into your ass)”- definitely excel through their innovative titles, one profound and one more than subtly funny. By comparison, The Empire Strikes Back from 1990 is a rather conventional album, with music that can be qualified as industrial heavy metal based on piercing guitar riffs.
What did stop you from becoming as big as Metallica?, I ask Kaiser, because you certainly had the talent. Well, I don’t know, says Kaiser, always the humble man. It also has to do with luck. You need to be young to start such a career, to make it big. Music consumers today are kids and teenagers. They need to be able to identify with you. If you are 30 plus, that’s almost impossible. Add to this Kaiser’s eternal refusal to compromise on his music and you know why Dnepr is not a household name in the charts.
Fast forward 23 years to the beginning of 2018. The world has not heard a lot from Dnepr, or Kaiser, since 1995, certainly not in the form of an album. What happened, Kaiser? Kaiser doesn’t want to talk about these years of near retirement, except in private mode. But then, slowly slowly, he crawled back to life and music and reactivated Nihilitz Studios. Songs of No Return is promoted as your comeback album, I mention to Kaiser, but actually you have already released The Nine Gates two years ago. I am happy that you make me talk about it, he replies, so for the first time I get to explain what is the story behind the nine gates.
"Maybe I am infected by a software virus that damages my operating system."
The first connotation with this album title are the nine gates that lead to hell, Kaiser illuminates me. But I also see this as the nine month of pregnancy and thus you arrive at an equation life = hell. Most people find life quite ok, because they have a mechanism built in that helps them to suppress any fear or doubt they may have. Without this mechanism, we couldn’t exist. For myself, this mechanism is slowly wearing off, maybe because I am infected by a software virus that damages my operating system. George Orwell helped me to see that I am not alone in this: “any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats”.
How come The Nine Gates has twelve tracks?
The three extra tracks are the afterbirth. It happens quite often. I have a concept, I write tracks, and when I’m done, more stuff needs to get out.
With Song of No Return, Dnepr and Kaiser are really back. The album consists of twelve songs that Kaiser wrote and recorded all by himself. I am inspired to work alone at the moment, says Kaiser, it’s efficient, no discussions, you don’t have to convince anyone. Would you consider yourself a loner, a bit of an oddball?, I challenge Kaiser. Yes, he says, to a certain extent. However I am not antisocial.
The Open Enso Talks: one hour with Kaiser a/k/a Dnepr (language: Swiss German)
The new Dnepr album is literature turned into music. Kaiser likes to read - long, difficult reads, mostly from dead authors - and he knows his books well. “Zettels Traum” is inspired by the monumental work of the same title by Arno Schmidt (my song is not a musical abstract of the book; it’s the soundtrack of a dream with breaks and surprising twists, Kaiser says); “Venaska” is a main character in Alfred Döblin’s utopian novel “Berge, Meere und Giganten”, polygamous and bisexual (the book is about contrasts. It’s a dystopia with a woman, a goddess of love, who is called Venaska. I tried to compose a song that is oscillating between the ugly and the beautiful).
Kaiser is a nerd for sound. At any time of the day he may feel inspired to go down to the basement, in his studio, and work on a track. All night long, if needed. Once he dreamt of a counterpart to a leitmotiv he had composed earlier. When he woke up, he immediately ran downstairs, naked as he was, strapped on his guitar and recorded the idea. Are you nerdy with guitars as well?, I ask Kaiser. I am not a collector, he says, I only own two guitars (two handmade Gordon Smith guitars, made in UK). In the end it’s the effect pedals and the amplifiers that create the sound. If I go to a concert and the guitarist hauls a rack with five guitars onto the stage, I know that I am in the wrong place.
Dnepr have never played a lot of concerts, not even in their primetime in the 1980ies and 1990ies. In 2018 Kaiser played one set in the knight’s hall of an old castle near Bern. This year, there were the album launch in September and another gig in November. And that’s it. I like to play loud, Kaiser explains, really loud. Preferably at 120 decibels. In most places that’s not possible. But I can’t trim down. Playing my music at 93 decibels? Even whistling is louder!
Already Kaiser has ideas for a next album. Is he recording? Not yet, he says. I am all about re-inventing myself. But when I start something new, I find my old music crappy. I am not yet ready to ditch Songs of No Return. That’s why I stick with it for the time being.
I don’t even remember how I came up with the last question for Kaiser, but I must have been touched by something when listening to Dnepr’s albums: does he believe in love? Despite of his wary attitude towards society and his reluctance to comply with the masses, despite of all the utopian landscapes and the dystopian soundscapes that he creates: everything in Kaiser’s music is love. It’s a love that he gives and a love that he yearns to receive, forever carried and supported by the big waves of hope - hope for humankind, hope for a more human society - emanating from the strings of his guitar in Nihilitz Studios at Ulaanbaatar.
It is because of love why we are on this planet, Kaiser answers. Without love we wouldn’t do anything, without love we wouldn’t make music. We would simply squat on the ground and pick our noses.
Dnepr will perform at Les Amis/Wohnzimmer in Bern, Switzerland, on November 14, 2019. Be there (and have your earplugs handy)!
My good friend Georgy Flouty was very excited. “You’ve got to listen to this,” he whatsapped me in August. “It’s the best album I’ve heard in the last five years, a French trio in their early twenties.”
Georgy is not just anybody. He is a very talented musician who plays the guitar in a number of Lebanese bands, among them KOZO and Sandmoon. I immediately kicked off Spotify. “I like what I hear, very much so,” I replied to Georgy soon afterwards. “And you know what? They will play in Zurich on October 9. However there will be Deafhaven the same evening.”
“They are insane live,” Georgy texted back (although he had never seen Lysistrata in concert, only some YouTube videos), “It reminds me of the first time I heard Spiderland (Slint’s legendary post-rock album). The same rush of heavy emotions.” And then: “Deafhaven can wait!”
It’s October 9, I am in Zurich heading for Dynamo, a small club near the Limmat river. Lysistrata will perform here this evening, opening for Decibelles, a French band as well. Originally Lysistrata were scheduled to play at another venue, but the concert was canceled because of low pre-sales. Luckily Lysistrata were able to convince Decibelles to take them onboard for their gig. There is a lot of competition in town tonight. Lysistrata are a household name in France but even the best bands have troubles finding their audience if no one knows them, like in Zurich. In a few days, Lysistrata's second album “Breathe In/Out” will be released.
Meeting the band proves simple. Ben (drums), Théo (guitar) and Max (bass) are very accessible and easygoing. We sit down on the edge of the stage and start talking. Max is holding my mobile phone like a microphone to better record his and his colleagues voices. “How did you approach writing and recording a follow-up album when your first album was so successful?,” I ask the band. “You can only disappoint.”
Ben is the first to answer. “We didn’t ask ourselves too many questions. We had all these riffs and stuff so we kind of assembled them. Our first album was a bunch of songs we had played for a long time and we wanted to get them on a record. For the second album, we were getting tired of playing the same songs all the time. We needed to produce some new stuff.”
“Artistically we are totally free,” Max adds. “There is no pressure from the label, they are just interested to hear the final result.”
When reading about Lysistrata one can clearly see that journalists struggle to define the band’s musical style. What is it what they are doing? Something between noise-rock, emo, math-rock and post-hardcore are the stamps that most articles try to put on Lysistrata, each article copying a previous one. The band’s influences are quoted to range from Sonic Youth and Nirvana to Fugazi and At The Drive In, a band from El Paso, Texas. “We have tons of influences,” says the band. “We listen to a lot of bands from the 1990ies, but also more modern stuff. However nothing in particular.”
In an attempt meant to be half serious but also to make a joke, Lysistrata call themselves “Post-Everything”. All we do is post, they say, everything has already been played and done before, in one way or another. “If you are indeed Post-Everything then you are in fact Pre-What?,” I want to know. “What can happen to Lysistrata in the future?”
Ben has an idea: “Maybe Post-Everything is actually Pre-Nothing. Maybe even Pre-Everything and Nothing.”
Despite their very young age - and perhaps precisely because of that - Lysistrata have a lot of self-confidence. They are certainly not bothered with finding a label and a drawer for their brand of music. It’s just their way of rock ’n’ roll.
When I listened to Lysistrata to prepare for the interview I did it in the gym most of the time. Their energetic, in-your-face rock songs make you go faster on the treadmill and lift heavier weights. What is Georgy’s take on Lysistrata second album? Already back in August Georgy had his doubts. “Their new album comes out on October 18,” he said. “ I hope they can keep the bar up high (which is not doable in my opinion).”
“What caught my attention in their debut album ‘The Thread’,” Georgy later told me, “is the balance that Lysistrata created between the different genres of music I grew up listening to. The album smoothly shifts from harsh noise to emo-like math-rock, with beautifully placed and timed chords and transitions that kept me on the edge of my seat. It’s chaotic and immature in the best of ways. As for the second album, I feel that they tried too hard to be more mature. It’s not as fun and flowy as their debut.”
“We have transposed our setup from the rehearsal room onto the stage.”
For my part I had much fun listening to Lysistrata’s second album and never got bored doing so. On stage Lysistrata are a powerhouse of their own. Too bad the concrete walls of the Dynamo club are a graveyard for any nuanced sound. The band’s energy is extremely engaging and their “singing à trois” makes them anything but choirboys. However what distinguishes Lysistrata from the rest of the rock pack are their long instrumental parts. Guitar, bass and drums are super tight and intertwined and at the end of a long dash to rock heaven and back, the difference between everything and nothing is all but blurred in my head.
Lysistrata being so overwhelming on stage is also fueled by the way they set up the band when playing live. It is the same triangle formation that we know from FC Liverpool’s “trio infernal” of strikers Sadio Mané (let's say that's Max), Roberto Firmino (Ben) and Mohamed Salah (Théo). “On stage you are like locked in,” I ask the band. “What is going on inside the zone?”
Ben again has the one-liner that explains it all. “We have transposed our setup from the rehearsal room onto the stage.”
Théo and Max continue: “to truly play our music we need to look at each other often. It shows that we like a lot what we do. It has always been like that. We are like in a bulb. While conventional groups front the audience, we slightly turn to each other. Ultimately, the music happens between the musicians.”
Lysistrata seem to be gone for a never ending world tour, playing gig after gig. Just last weekend they have been invited to the Blackwoodstock Festival in Nouvelle Calédonie (one of France’s overseas territories in the Pacific Ocean) and flew 30 hours to get there. They also have performed in Malaysia, Vietnam and China. Have they ever been threatened by a sex strike by their girlfriends because they spend too much time on the road? After all, Lysistrata is the historical figure that organized the sex strike in ancient Athens to stop the wars between Greece and Sparta. The band is laughing. “So far all is quiet on that front.” Lucky them, lucky us. The Lysistrata-show will go on. Very soon and very surely in a location near you.
An architect walks into a bar… That’s how I intended to begin this article. But searching the internet for jokes starting with this phrase didn’t yield any satisfying results. Certainly not funny ones. Are architects too busy to go to bars? Or are they not funny?
For my part I had much fun talking to the musicians of KOZO at Beirut’s Tunefork Studios between rehearsal sessions. And this despite the fact that, or maybe because, three of the five members of the band are architects. KOZO are funny but also very smart people. It may have been my smartest interview ever. A talk with KOZO makes you consult Wikipedia more often than an incontinent person rushes to the toilet in one day.
The history of KOZO told in one sentence: they absorbed Filter Happier (another great Lebanese band). In reality KOZO is the result of a lot of courage. Andrew Georges (guitar) and Charbel Abou Chakra (bass) were playing in a band doing Sigur Ròs covers at the time. They were looking for a competent drummer to complement the band. Filter Happier on the other hand were a band “in suspension”; their singer had moved to France and their bassist to the USA. Andrew saw Filter Happier play, liked what he saw and mustered up the courage to talk to them (architects are also shy people). Elie el Khoury (drums) quickly agreed to join Andrew’s band and so did eventually Georgy Flouty and Camille Cabbebé (both guitars, and the two non-architects in KOZO). “I was particularly scared to talk to Georgy,” says Andrew during the interview. “He is a pro, he was in bands, he has been on tour in Europe and has this intimidating aura.” (Georgy: “What?”)
Architects. Music. Enter Japan. On September 7, 2019, KOZO will launch their debut album “Tokyo Metabolist Syndrome” at the SoundsGood Music Festival in Rayfoun and it’s an unusual album. KOZO may not call it that way but it’s a concept album celebrating metabolism, a post-war Japanese architectural movement, and comparing it to the state of architecture in Lebanon. “Actually, I don’t like the term concept albums,” Andrew says. “it reminds me of herbal, cheesy records from the 1970s.”
Charbel and Andrew are both architecture buffs who post regularly about their passion on Facebook. For the rest of us it’s time for a crash course in metabolism. Metabolism was a movement that explored methods of large-scale reconstruction for Japan’s cities severely damaged by the war. Between the 1950s and 1970s, Metabolists like Fumihiko Maki, Kenzo Tange and Kisho Kurokawa emphasized the need for Japanese architects to emulate organic systems in their designs for urban megastructures, highlighting how metabolisms in complex organisms work to maintain living cells (I told you that KOZO were a smart band). In short, buildings and structures (and interestingly enough KOZO means structure in Japanese language) were seen as living bodies consisting of self-sustaining and self-adapting modules.
Now how does the music of KOZO relate to the architecture of metabolism? “I tell you how it started,” says Elie. “We started covering songs from bands we liked and from that we figured out our own sound. It was and still is an entire process.” Andrew jumps in: “the idea of architecture in music is about sticking to a process. And accepting the little inconsistencies that happen when you stick to a process. You get those random results at times. We abuse these and make them part of our music.."
The music of KOZO is heavy on drums, bass and guitars and their songs often don’t fit the usual radio format. They take their time exploring the landscapes and horizons that lie ahead of them. In exemplary math rock tradition it is music made by nerds that doesn’t sound too nerdy after all. “I like when things don’t sound like you expect them to,” Andrew explains. “With KOZO, it’s my doom metal guitar versus their (Camille’s and Georgy’s) sparkly dream pop riffs. And it works!” Performing the music live feels very physical, Elie adds. “For all of us it is a mental exercise because we use a lot of odd time signatures.” The band admits that they tend to overthink their music when in the studio. “But when we play it live,” says Elie, “that’s when I feel that we really unleash.”
“There is a lot of freedom when playing with KOZO. I am not restricted to anything."
Many bands play songs with a “verse - chorus - verse - chorus” schema. KOZO aim to break this established pattern in order to maneuver out of their comfort zone. However there is a side effect: with a regular song you have a place to land on with the song. With songs made by KOZO this comfortable landing spot is gone, for both the band and the listeners. “For me there is a lot of freedom when playing with KOZO,” says Camille. “I am not restricted to anything and I never strum an actual chord. I come in for a bit and then I go out again.”
So how do the listeners react to KOZO’s music? They don’t know when to clap, says Georgy, jokingly. When performing in the north of Lebanon as part of a school event, the kids left the concert but the parents stayed. The band has had great feedback from people whose demographics they didn’t have on their radar. And Camille reveals one of the best kept secrets about KOZO: when they sing (and on many songs they don’t), they sing in Arabic! “For a long time,” Camille tells me, “all my friends thought that we sing in Japanese. Because they looked at the songs titles and assumed that the lyrics would be in Japanese."
The song titles are indeed very Japanese and read like a history of the metabolist movement. “Tange” (referring to Kenzo Tange, one of the founders of metabolism), “Osaka 70” (the world exposition in 1970 for which Tange had planned the site), “Capsule Tower” (the icon of metabolism in the Ginza district of Tokyo) and “Tokyo Bay Plan” (Tange’s proposal for extending Tokyo into Tokyo Bay): what is this infatuation that KOZO have with Japan? They have never visited the country and they don’t even speak Japanese (but according to Soundcloud we now have fans in Japan, says Georgy).
Andrew takes a deep breath. “As architects,” he explains, “we became enamoured with the concept of metabolist architecture. And then we realized what Japan did after the war and what we did in Lebanon. We sadly ignored whatever potential was present at a certain time and let it slip away. KOZO’s music is about implying our naive understanding of this land - Japan - that is literally far away and dreaming of an architecture for our land that has the same weight as the metabolists had for Japan. People who built futures in the now distant past that we are imagining for our own future, in perhaps the most childish way.”
If you have 6:44 minutes to truly understand what Andrew Georges means, then listen to “Tokyo Bay Plan”, the last song on KOZO’s album. If you have only twenty seconds to spare, then fast forward to the end of the same song and focus on Elie firing a final salvo on the drums eight seconds before the end. You will know. That’s Lebanon, that’s the Orient, that’s the land of damnation and salvation, in a musical nutshell.
KOZO’s music, although mostly instrumental and without words, is more political than the music of many bands that have been driven to the gallows lately. Lebanese are a people suffering from Stockholm syndrome: they have been conditioned to be in love with their worst enemy, themselves. KOZO are aware of this but don’t know better than to hang in there. “We are a Beirut-based band,” they say, “we couldn’t write our songs outside Beirut.” This was certainly true for the first album. Yalla guys, you now are ready to leave the cocoon. Come to Europe, go to Japan, play concerts, compose new songs, the world is yours. Japanese love surprises. KOZO would definitely be one of them.
Yesterday evening in Oslo, tonight in Bern, tomorrow afternoon playing at a festival on an alp in the Valais: Kikagaku Moyo don’t take it easy to bring their music to the people. "Last night we did not sleep at all," Go Kurosawa tells me before the concert at ISC in Bern, Switzerland. “We finished the concert in Oslo at 2am, at 4am we were back at the hotel and two hours later we had to leave for the airport.” "What do you do to ease the stress when touring? Working out?,” I ask Go. "No, I'm the drummer”, he replies, "that's already pretty physical. I relax when I play on stage. And when I'm really tired I tell myself that I’m extremely lucky to be able to do what I love to do."
Kikagaku Moyo have been around since 2012 when the band started out busking on the streets of Tokyo. Their last and best album so far, "Masana Temples", is from 2018, recorded and produced in Portugal. Besides Go, the band consists of his brother Ryu on sitar, Tomo Katsurada on guitar and all sorts of percussion instruments, Daoud Popal on guitar and Kotsu Guy on bass. Kikagaku Moyo play psychedelic music: they like to improvise and take their time for long songs.
Psychedelic music dates back to a time in the 1960s when artists believed that drugs would make their music sound better. Psychedelic drugs such as LSD led to an increased consciousness among consumers, which then had an effect on the music that was composed and played under the influence of these drugs. On the other hand, this music also had the effect of deepening and expanding the experience of the drugs. It was the classic example of a mutual leverage that was not always understood by outsiders.
"Can you play psychedelic music without drugs?”, I ask Go. "I think so”, he replies. "In the past I also took drugs, but not anymore. It's about experimenting with your consciousness. You can achieve the desired state without drugs. Sure, the drugs have played an important role in the history of psychedelic music, but reducing everything to drugs would be too much of a shortcut. Psychedelic is like a philosophy: it's also about the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, it's about literature and also about fashion.” (Kikagaku Moyo are indeed a band with style and undoubtedly look good. GQ recently hyped them as “they might be the best-dressed band of the decade.")
"Everything is just music and there is no ‘me’ anymore.”
The desired mental state, however, can not be reached through two-minute songs. The true trip only begins when the music draws longer. Kikagaku Moyo then try to focus five individuals on one thing, to create something unique under this burning glass. This is a kind of collective meditation and as if in a trance the band shoves forward with their music. "For me as a drummer, this condition is relatively easy to achieve," says Go. "I'm sitting in the back of the stage, in the dark, and can plunge into my own zone, away from the audience. I stop thinking and my arms and hands work automatically. Everything is just music and there is no ‘me’ anymore.”
Right from the start of the concert the audience falls into an "instant trance". A repetitive bass line, strumming guitars, Go who sits at the drums and sings: The tense drowsiness of the band goes well with the sleepwalking spirituality of their music. A few minutes into the first song the heads of the listeners already bob dangerously. Kikagaku Moyo are constantly looking for a unification in sound until a groovy bassline sets in and leads the band out of their self-imposed impasse. For some songs the drums are left aside. Tomo has all sorts of sound gadgets in his repertoire - triangle, gongs, cowbells - and Go tries his hand at the flute. These are special effects almost like in filmmaking.
My imagination goes into overdrive as well with Kikagaku Moyo’s brand of music. And this not only in a concert setting but already when I listen to their album. Let’s take "Dripping Sun”, the second song from the Masana Temples album. It starts out as a Sergio-Leone spaghetti western and then quickly merges into a 1970s cop movie (it could also be something by Quentin Tarantino, "Jackie Brown" maybe). Later I see a car chase (or even a helicopter overflight?), just before the songs fades quietly back into suburban Japan, to people who wait for the bus while enjoying the sun (if they had the leisure to do so). The city pop of Tatsuro Yamashita trickles down their ears through their Sony walkmen. However the situation is more serious than one thinks. The guitars are racing in California and the last dolphins are dancing far out in the sea. At the end of “Dripping Sun” we are back in the police film which is slowly heading towards a showdown. The hero thinks back to Japan one last time. Then the sun goes down for him as well.
For once in Bern, Guillaume Hoarau, the star striker of the local football club, is not the favorite player of the masses. Tonight it's Daoud Popal, Kikagaku Moyo’s guitarist. His fuzz guitar keeps cutting deep furrows in the feel-good-field of non-violent music that his colleagues till with a smile. He is assisted by Ryu Kurosawa's sitar. "The sitar is really a special instrument, it could almost replace an entire band," says Go Kurosawa. "There used to be quite a few bands with sitars. But we want the sitar not to sound like Indian kitsch, but modern. That's why we use the sitar like a guitar, with amplifiers and effect pedals.
I assume that Greta Thunberg listens to a lot of psychedelic music. If not, she should start to do so, to give her message even more depth. Mindfulness - towards fellow human beings, towards nature, towards oneself - is contemporary. In this sense, psychedelic music is also contemporary. The message of Kikagaku Moyo may be more necessary today than it was then, when this music had its big bang. It goes beyond a mere "Peace and Love". It means, in the truest sense of the Greek origin of psychedelic, to let the soul manifest itself and to develop the potential of the human mind further. Then we will be able to again give little things the appreciation they deserve. This may seem like little. But we have to start somewhere.
Carmen Yahchouchi is a very courageous person, no doubt. This young photographer from Lebanon is not afraid to take risks when she tries to tell the story that she wants us to know about. When it gets dangerous, Carmen Yahchouchi keeps going, embracing the rush of adrenaline that goes with it. She secretly entered the rooms of sleeping migrant workers when working on a project called Vulnerable Visits. For Beyond Sacrifice, she won the hearts of women who stayed single all of their lives - most of them against their desire. Carmem Yahchouchi shot intimate portraits of proud yet deeply sad women sitting in their bedrooms who were able to exactly analyze when and why their lives’ journeys had taken a turn onto a road they hadn’t planned to follow.
Until this point in her career –we are at the end of the year 2016 - Carmen Yahchouchi mostly had taken photos of women and of persons either sleeping or in their bedrooms. Her photos often had two different angles: either her camera looked straight into the eye of the person that she photographed - as in her most famous photo, the intriguing Victoria from the My Mother’s Gun series - or her photos were stolen moments with a voyeuristic feel to it. Carmen Yahchouchi doesn’t deny this side of hers at all. “I love voyeurism!,” she says when I interview her in Beirut. “I always have. I took many photos of my entire family, and of my ex boyfriends too, being a voyeur. Often I caught them while they slept or in other intimate moments.”
When a voyeur and adrenaline junkie meets a narcissistic, attention seeking exhibitionist, things get interesting. When Carmen Yahchouchi meets Suleiman for the first time, she instantly feels that she comes across a somewhat dangerous and perverse man. King Soleil Man, as he likes to be called, had repeatedly posted naked photos of himself on Facebook, sometimes together with African women. Facebook shut down his page as soon as they became aware of it, however Suleiman kept reopening it, posting more photos. Originally Carmen Yahchouchi had looked for single men to complement the many women of Beyond Sacrifice. She soon learned that Suleiman, an 80+ senior from the coast of Lebanon, actually was married with children (although neither his wife nor his children talked to him anymore). “I will tell you everything,” he said to Carmen, “I have nothing to hide.” Suleiman didn’t qualify for the project, Carmen Yahchouchi knew that, but he fit the crispy, out of the box profiles that she likes to get involved with. The exhibitionist had shown his potential and the voyeur had taken the bait.
When Carmen visits Suleiman in his house for the first time, she meets two African women there, Sandrine and Rosy. They are migrant domestic workers. Sandrine, from Cameroon, is a warm-hearted and open person and very soon Carmen starts taking pictures not only of Suleiman but also of her. “When Sandrine was there,” Carmen tells me during the interview, “there were no limits. Suleiman and her were in love.” Suleiman opens up to Carmen right from the start. He loves to have her and her camera around and poses naked almost immediately, with no shame at all.
Quickly the situation at Suleiman's home deteriorates. Sandrine is arrested in a night club without her residency papers on her and must quit Lebanon on short notice. She leaves Rosy behind, alone with Suleiman. Rosy has a different character than Sandrine: she is calm, shy and very religious. Suleiman had picked her up from the street a few months earlier where she had stranded because of problems with her former employer.
And then one day, Carmen receives photos from Suleiman on her WhatsApp, photos that Suleiman had taken, showing him having sex with Rosy.
The fate of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is a very difficult one. Lebanon is home to over 250’000 (female) workers who come from African and Asian countries and work in private households. Stories about them being exploited and abused are widespread. A report published by Amnesty International in April of 2019 titled “Their house is my prison” revealed significant and consistent patterns of abuse. Employers force their domestic workers to work extreme working hours, deny them rest days, withhold their pay, severely restrict their freedom of movement and communication and subject the women to verbal and physical abuse, as well as denying them proper health care. All migrant domestic workers, Amnesty International writes in its report, are excluded from the Lebanese Labour Law and are governed instead by the kafala system which ties the legal residency of the worker to the contractual relationship with the employer. If the employment relationship ends, even in cases of abuse, the worker loses regular migration status. The excessive power employers have in this system over their employees and the strong dependency the women have towards their employers are very obvious.
Rosy finds out that Suleiman had sent pictures of her making love with her employer to Carmen. She yells at Carmen. She is outraged. Rosy suspects a plot of some sorts where Suleiman and Carmen had conspired against her. The dynamics of a destructive triangle begin to work: Rosy is very angry with Suleiman because he had sent the photos to Carmen and she is very unhappy with Carmen having "accepted" these pictures. Rosy starts to get bossy with Suleiman. He in turn is not happy with Rosy making such a fuss about the pictures. Suleiman's relationship with Carmen starts to go frosty too. Whereas Suleiman was very open in the beginning, allowing Carmen to take very intimate photos of himself, he now backs up, “starts to go crazy on me” (as Carmen tells me), insults her and even tries to break her camera. Did Suleiman already regret to have agreed to this project? Had Carmen entered his life and his mind more than he was comfortable with?
Are we correct in saying that Suleiman is an exhibitionist? Is that his pathological condition? This writer is not a psychologist to answers these questions competently and we shouldn't jump to easy conclusions either. Certainly Suleiman has exhibitionist traits, like we all have - think the many selfies on Instagram and Facebook. Exhibitionism, and the addiction to exhibitionism, is similar to any other substance addiction. Often exhibitionism starts with emotional wounds; it becomes a way to numb the pain from these wounds and a substitute for real intimacy and connection - something the addict both longs for and fears. For adolescents, who are about to discover their bodies and their sexuality, staging and photographing themselves how they like themselves to be seen - and posting it online - strenghtens their self-confidence. It is a well documented behavior which leads us to the follow-up question of what is the level of self-confidence of elderly persons such as Suleiman who experience their bodies slowly “expiring”?
Some other things that Carmen Yahchouchi knows about Suleiman at this point of the story: he has a lot (really, a lot, she says) of images on his phone. All photos are from black women, all different women. He is mad about black women. He stays 24/7 on his phone, constantly sending out virtual hearts and flowers. Also to Carmen.
With time, Rosy understands that Carmen Yahchouchi is a friend, not an enemy. After all, Carmen is an African woman too. She was born in Bamako, Mali, and lived there until the age of 18. Rosy entrusts herself to Carmen and tells her that she is mistreated by Suleiman. Carmen goes out to buy a suitcase for Rosy so she can pack up her things and leave. Suleiman is furious. Carmen starts to become an actor in her photo project, not just an observing by-stander. She can't remain neutral and choses her side. The line between the art and the reality becomes blurred and actually stops to exist.
Does this photo project say more about Carmen Yahchouchi than about her subject, King Soleil Man? What is her motivation to keep visiting Suleiman when he clearly becomes threatening to her? Suleiman sends her WhatsApp messages and writes that he wants to make love with her. One day, while she is with him, he shows her how he googles for “sex Carmen” on the internet. I must be strong now and not show any sign of weakness, Carmen says to herself, when on another day Suleiman starts to caress her neck while sitting next to her on the sofa. “What was this obsession that you had with King Soleil Man, Carmen?,” I ask her when I talk with her in Beirut. “Well, as you know,” she replies, “I like the dangerous and the adrenaline. But with Suleiman it went further. I was not able to get a hold of him. With the women that I had photographed for previous projects, it was easy for me to enter into their hearts. Now with a man… I went mad. I kept telling myself that I must finish what I had started.”
To finish what? We all have these father-figures (literally or figuratively), these king-like figures that we put on a pedestal, particularly as a child. Suleiman could easily be one of them, he perfectly fits the profile. And why not put him there? After all, he is a well respected person in his community, a bit strange maybe, but not far off the mainstream. And then at a certain point in our lives we search to demystify these imposing figures and we want to throw them off their pedestals. They have done things that we know of and they know that we know. For a long time we were not able to talk about it, but now we are. However something holds us back. It’s not the right moment maybe, it’s not the right occasion to really turn a desire into action. What are the benefits, what do we have to lose? So we may take aim at another person instead because someone has to fall. You are no king, King Soleil Man. My lenses can see through you. You have become transparent to me.
Some of Carmen Yahchouchi's photos may feel uncomfortable to look at. They take us out of our comfort zone. We may think that these photos go too far, that the photographer didn’t stop where she should have. Did Carmen Yahchouchi overly intrude in Suleiman’s private life, can she even be qualified as a stalker? But then again, it was him who invited her into his bedroom, it was him who sent very explicit photos to Carmen. Let me introduce you to one of these “to the point” German words, Fremdschämen. The concept of Fremdschämen means that we are embarrassed because someone else has embarrassed himself (and doesn’t notice, or - even more vexing maybe - doesn't care). Usually we try to avoid this kind of situations, we look the other way, we turn the TV off. Only to turn it on again, to zap until we have found another “The Bachelor”, another “I’m a celebrity get me out of here”, or any other TV show that makes us feel better about ourselves, because these shows provide us with so much material to feel embarrassed about other people. We love to see other people fail. If we feel awkward, even embarrassed by Carmen Yahchouchi's photos, her project was a success.
Carmen Yahchouchi’s photos of the self appointed King Soleil Man also teach us another important lesson: the more we see the less we know. It is not by watching pornography that we learn about the joy of sexual love. It is not by booking a “see all” holiday package to China that we will know more about the inner workings of a society governed by an authoritarian regime. It is not by following Kendall or Kylie Jenner’s Instagram feed that we understand the true personalities of these model-entrepreneurs.
Suleiman showing off his erection shouldn’t make us look past his many personal conflicts, his weaknesses, his anxieties. What we see is what he wants us to see. The message he tries to convey is the mirror he would like to see himself in. When Suleiman says “I will show you all I have”, he actually means “I will hide everything”. The last photo of the series shows Suleiman sitting on his bed, all dressed up in winter clothes, confused and lost. His encounter with Carmen Yahchouchi and her camera had made him drop his shield, his facade had disintegrated and his soul was laid bare. Within a few weeks he had gone from close-ups to closed-up. For a long time Suleiman had clung to a distorted image of himself. We all do when it seems to serve us. Because it is too painful to try real intimacy for a change and to finally start healing our emotional injuries.
For an even deeper dive into the world of King Soleil Man, here is a selection of additional photos taken by Carmen Yahchouchi.
photos by May Arida.
As we all know there are two types of Americans (like everything in America exists twice, once in a bearable, once in an unbearable way): on the one hand we have the cacophonous Americans, represented by Donald Trump. On the other hand we have the introspective Americans. Julia Holter, the avant-garde pop musician from Los Angeles, belongs to the second group. She herself suffers a great deal from the cacophony of some Americans. When she does she often goes back to her studio for a cathartic recording session.
Originally cathartic meant to purge the body of unwanted material. Nowadays the expression is also used to describe emotional release and spiritual cleansing. I meet Julia Holter for an interview one hour before her concert in Zurich to present “Aviary”, her most recent album. “When talking about your new album, you often use the word cathartic. What is the unwanted material you want yourself to purge from?,” I ask her.
“I don’t really know,” Julia Holter says. “For this record I was recording myself improvising and then I created my new songs starting from these improvisations. And while improvising, I felt ecstatic, sort of hypnotic and in the moment. It felt therapeutic in a way. But therapeutic is the wrong word too because it was more intense than that. It kind of put me in a space of something. In a space for me to be in.”
As Julia Holter has said herself in a previous interview: she finds it hard to be articulate sometimes. She actually finds it hard to communicate sometimes. Julia Holter is a rather shy person, a bit nervous when talking to strangers and despite her success with critics and the audience alike, she is not always quite sure about herself. When interviewing Julia Holter one doesn’t get prefabricated replies. She is a seeker who probes, considers and weighs every statement before it is formulated. For a humble, no-show-off-person like Julia Holter, “I don’t know” is a possible answer too.
Julia Holter’s albums are a daring and unique mix of experimental sounds and familiar melodies based on her profound understanding of the history of music, be it pop or jazz. On “Have You In My Wilderness”, her record of 2015, Julia Holter uses strings that feel like a slow camera drive in a documentary film on the history channel, showing objects that in their primetime meant something to somebody but don’t belong to anybody anymore today. Last year’s “Aviary” is full of instrumental parts where the listener is left alone with his or her thoughts. What is it exactly that fascinates me when listening to Julia Holter? It is the yearning that she conveys. The yearning for a beautiful dream.
How does Julia Holter perform her music live? Surprisingly very close to the versions recorded in the studio. Her band (consisting of percussions, a stand-up double bass, synthesizers and keyboards, plus a violin and a trumpet) is able to recreate and provide the chamber pop experience the audience came for. The muted trumpet played by Sarah Belle Reid is masterful, particularly in a duet with Julia Holter singing and playing keyboards on “Voce Simul”. Julia Holter and her instrument are positioned closed to the edge of the stage; she mostly has her eyes turned towards the ceiling, fixing a point somewhere in the middle of the room. The stage is dimly lit and when the spotlights are on, they are rather directed towards the band than towards her. In between her trips to a musical fantasyland one can even tap his foot and dance to Julia Holter’s music.
“You are asking a lot from your listeners. How do you find your audience with music that sounds complex and is not easily consumed?,” I ask Julia Holter during the interview.
“I don’t know how complex my music is,” she replies. “I am not like ‘I want this record to be complicated’. A lot of people I know who don’t make ‘commercial music’ are not thinking about the audience when they are composing, to be honest. In the end it’s really doing what you want to do and that is all you can do actually. It’s not that my music is not for an audience, it’s just not for a specific audience."
“Could you write a number one chart hit?”
Julia Holter is slightly surprised when hearing my question. “Chart hit? I don’t know,” she says. “It doesn’t occur to me to do that. I am told that people writing for the charts strategize and I am not strategizing at all what I do. It’d be cool to have a chart hit though, I am not against it.”
"I want to embrace mystery and embrace things that I haven’t heard before.”
Recently, I tell Julia Holter, I met a musician who told me that he is always looking for the resistance in his music. If it is too easy he is not interested, because through resistance he wants to explore deeper. What is her take on this? Does she feel the resistance when composing?
“I wouldn’t call it a resistance,” she answers, “it’s more like a challenge. For me composing feels less about conflict as the word resistance suggests. It is rather pushing in a free way, like freeing yourself and finding a new path, finding new neural pathways. I want to know what is possible and embrace mystery and embrace things that I haven’t heard before.”
In that sense Julia Holter is a very playful character. She is having fun with what she is doing so skillfully: creating sounds and making music. Almost out of the blue she can produce lines like “I si I tho I sex I jeu I nice I hey I ay I show I fun I tall” (in “Les jeux to you”) to have us bathe in the sounds of these words. Is she aware of the impact her records and her concerts have on her audience? Fully realizing how much her art resonates with many people around the world - and integrating this awareness - should in itself fuel Julia Holter’s obvious quest to own her power. We may not have heard anything from Julia Shammas Holter yet.
photos by May Arida
“I want to see what will happen if I only do what feels right,” says Frida Chehlaoui - who on stage is simply Frida - to an audience eager to discover this emerging singer/songwriter coming from Lebanon. “I want to see what will happen if I just go ahead and try. And now I see where this attitude got me,” Frida continues, “it got me here to play my first concert in Europe. I am really very happy to be here."
The here is Café Marta in Switzerland’s capital of Bern, a cosy cellar made of medieval brick walls in the city’s old town, turned into a café and an occasional concert venue. Frida is accompanied by Marc Rossier on guitar and David Steinacher on percussion, two well known musicians in the Bernese music scene and beyond. Frida had met them just a few days before the concert and two short rehearsals were all it took to make it a well tuned trio. Tonight Café Marta is the hottest place in town: the cellar is crammed with people - and so are the stairs leading down to the cellar and even the steps behind the stage -, it is hot outside and sticky inside and the incessantly revolving fans, despite of all their efforts, cannot make it any cooler.
Frida was announced as Arab Soul from Beirut. But what was it exactly that brought such a large crowd to Café Marta on a midweek summer evening? The words Arab, Soul and Beirut all have their own particular connotations, an almost magical promise to discover an emotional territory not usually accessible to Western Europeans. However Frida is much more than what she seems to represent. Starting with a warm and slightly smoky voice, and the natural ability to talk to an unknown audience and make them listen to her, Frida’s universe mainly relies on three pillars: connecting to one’s higher frequency, co-creating and experimenting. All of this is topped by a roof that Frida calls “the role of joy in the creative process”. Why suffer to create when you can walk the path of least resistance and thus bring out the creator that lies in all of us?
“I know things beyond the physical realm"
As a child Frida signed her first poems as Free-da and thirty something years later this makes more sense than ever. “My connection with the audience is that they see someone on stage who is absolutely free in that moment,” Frida tells me when I interview her after the concert. “I am free to say what I want to say, free to do what I want to do, free to allow myself to feel what I am feeling without thinking if this is going into the right direction.*
“What allows you to be this free?,” I ask her.
“I know things beyond the physical realm,” Frida replies.
Frida’s freedom doesn’t even stop when facing Nina Simone’s Sinnerman, a monument of black American music and one of two cover versions that Frida has in her repertoire. Not happy with the original lyrics (on Judgement Day the frightened Sinnerman goes to the rock, the river and then the sea, desperately looking for protection and finally turns to the Lord who refuses to help him and sends him to the devil instead), Frida added her own twist to the song, because after all the Lord is love and not supposed to send anyone to the devil, no matter how much this person may have sinned. “I see you,” sings Frida in Arabic, “I see the fear in your eyes, I see the chains you’re carrying, but you seem to have forgotten how you were the one who put them there. It is now time for you to see your power, the power of a thousand suns shining from within you, shining to remind you: don’t you know that you and I are one and the same?” This is extremely powerful and beautiful at the same time.
Frida’s songs are meant to remind us who we truly are and that we should forget about the restrictions that we limit ourselves with, that we can be much more than we think. In “Out and About”, Frida describes how our bodies must open up to embody the light that we truly are. In “Aala Mahli” (going slowly) Frida tells us the story of the heart that must be our guide, the only guide we ever need. Frida herself is “Bint el Kol” (the daughter of everything); her homage to the divine feminine will also be the title track of Frida’s first album set to be released in September of 2019. Frida is the daughter of the wind, the daughter of the sun and of the waves (“like the waves I can be calm, like them I have been fierce”), she’s the daughter of the earth and the daughter of ether (“unseen and omnipresent, weaving us all into one”).
Frida’s concert in Bern was a success beyond expectations. The audience was thirsting for her message of self-love and collective empowerment and for her well tempered dose of spirituality that many of us are lacking in our get-up-and-go lives. Visiting Bern has enabled Frida to meet musicians such as the exceptional accordionist Mario Batkovic and ECM recording artist and bassist Björn Meyer to talk about their approach to music and about possible future collaborations. Already Swiss rapper Greis joined Frida on two songs at Café Marta, subsequently inviting her to be his guest at his own concert later that week. Frida sang Ya Sadi’i (my friend) on this occasion and this song’s story “about the courage to chose the less traveled path to experience the magic unfold so we become the makers of our destinies”, is a story that speaks to all of us, regardless of our mastering the Arabic language or not. Frida’s message is an universal one. We need her to be the companion of our lives for many years to come.
from The Open Enso archives.
Photos: May Arida
Three concerts in a row in one of the music capitals of the world: that’s why Sandra Arslanian and Sam Wehbi came to London in this early September of 2018. Sandra and Sam are members of Sandmoon, an indie pop/folk and sometimes rock band from Beirut Lebanon. Sandra founded the band eight years ago, a few years after she came back to Lebanon from Belgium where she grew up; she writes all the songs, sings and plays the ukulele, the guitar and the keyboard. Sam plays the lead guitar, particularly when Sandmoon perform live. The rest of the band couldn't make the trip to London, not least because of visa issues.
We arrive in a sunny but windy London on Friday afternoon. We: that are yours truly reporter from Switzerland and May, a photographer who is originally from Beirut, like Sandra and Sam. Both of us have known Sandra for quite some time, closely following her career, from releasing three albums and an EP to winning a Lebanese Movie Award in 2017 for composing the score of Philippe Aractingi’s Listen.
We meet Sandra and Sam in Katja Rosenberg’s apartment in Walthamstow in northern London. Katja’s flat is small and well stuffed, but this is London where space is rare and expensive. For this weekend the apartment is Sandmoon’s home base.
Yesterday’s concert in a chapel was amazing, Sandra gives us the update after we all sit down. Two dozen persons only, but the place was sold out. We played for eighty minutes and the people wouldn’t let us go. Now we are curious what tonight’s concert will bring. It will be a Sofar event at a private place in Bethnal Green.
"It is really nice to play in front of people who actually listen to the music."
On our way to the Sofar concert Sandra hands out Stimorol chewing gums to everybody. Tonight, Sandra says, I will be the great unknown. Nobody this evening will ever have heard of Sandmoon or Sandra Arslanian. I like the idea. Our music, she explains, might not work in Spain. But in Portugal, with all their Fado, it might. Here in London our music definitely works, people like what we do and how we sound.
Are you fed up with Lebanon and the Lebanese audience?, I ask Sandra. Not really, she says. But of course Lebanon is a very small market for English lyrics pop and rock music. And there is another thing: unfortunately in Lebanon only a few people go to see concerts because of the music. They go because others go too and it then becomes a social event. It’s like a herd moving from place to place. It is really nice to play in front of people who actually listen to the music.
Sofar tonight takes place at the loft style apartment of Casey and his girlfriend Rachel. Sandmoon start their concert with Home, one of their trademark songs. Sandra sings without microphone, without nothing, to an audience on the floor and on sofas with all eyes on her. Sam is her ideal musical partner, getting the best out of a rusty acoustic guitar that he had to borrow from a friend.
With the small combo, Sandmoon depend even more than usual on Sandra’s voice and performance. The audience is like spellbound, particularly when Sandmoon perform The Answer, a song from last year’s recording session in Berlin. Then they play Walk, an old favorite, but not Temptation, a newer song that wails like a prayer. It’s Friday night and the audience asks for something "more party".
After the show Sandra is sweaty and exhausted. The public slowly leaves the apartment, they very much liked what they got. We pick up some Chinese food at a takeaway in Walthamstow. Then we all huddle again in Katja’s apartment and eat.
"Me improvising on Bach, what the hell!"
The next day, when we meet again, Sandra is in a good mood, offering Belgian chocolate to everybody. Sam lies on the bed and fingers around on his electric guitar before he goes into a catchy rock tune from his own Uncle Sam band in Beirut. In the meantime Katja is busy doing some household work, watering plants and hanging laundry. Katja was born in Germany but lives in London since 1998, working as a freelance powerpoint guru and an organizer of art events. It is thanks to her that Sandmoon play three concerts in London.
Katja sits down at her piano, jammed between the bed and the wall, and plays Bach. Sam plays along on the guitar, still on the bed, his eyes staring at the ceiling. Me improvising on Bach, Sam says afterwards, what the hell!
Saturday night’s venue is the Hornbeam Café, an organic, authentic neighborhood café and also a community center. The Hornbeam is a place similar to the Onomatopoeia in Beirut where Sandmoon like to play. What is Sandra for you?, I ask Sam outside the café, just before the show. Sandra is like a mother to me, Sam says. She is a great teacher; it’s three years now that I am playing with her. She makes me control myself better, musically and also in general. I am still relatively young, Sam explains, and therefore I have a tendency for wanting to storm the sky.
Even without the full band, Sandmoon cover a lot of musical ground with their performance this evening. Sandra clearly has made the transition from recording artist to performing artist. She is at ease on stage, displays a lot of self confidence and is closer to the audience than I had ever seen her.
During Sandmoon’s concert all their videos are projected in an endless loop on a screen behind Sandra and Sam. The audience sees images of Beirut in the 1960s and of people protesting the political order in recent years. The video of Sandmoon’s 2017 single Shiny Star passes by and Pierre Geagea dances in Beirut Mansion to the music of Time Has Yet To Come. Seeing it like this, from A to Z in one sequence, it is an impressive body of work.
On our way back to the apartment we stop for a late night dinner at Thainese, an Asian restaurant on Walthamstow’s main road. We talk about Prince and Bowie, Sandra’s musical heroes, and also about Fentanyl and discuss if pain killers should be classified and treated as drugs.
For Sunday lunch we again go to Walthamstow’s pedestrian area and to a Bulgarian steakhouse. What is the way ahead for Sandmoon?, I ask Sandra. Could hiring local musicians in London be possible, to play future concerts here with a full band? It could, Sandra replies. However it is hard for me to play with strangers. Sam and me for instance, that’s like an osmosis.
In addition to not being strangers, Lebanese musicians are all shaped by the same experience: Lebanon. Could musicians from London emulate this experience? Often this is an experience of war and it is also reflected in Sandmoon’s current setlist going from songs off the first album raW to Masters of War, a Bob Dylan cover. I don’t know the war that well myself, Sandra says, at least not first hand. In 2006 I was abroad and when my family left Lebanon because of the civil war, I was only seven months old.
Does it matter? Despite not personally being there, war and the consequences of it are profoundly anchored in Sandra’s DNA.
Back in Switzerland Sandra messages me that Sandmoon will soon start to record new songs, with an aim to have a new album out in 2019. Sandra has been very creative lately, also inspired by the good experience she had playing in London. She was in a flow and has written many songs that now need to be developed, refined and recorded. And: We clearly aim for an another Sandmoon visit to London soon, Sandra says.
Londoners dig the melancholic side of Sandmoon’s music and they always love a good storyteller. And that’s precisely why Sandmoon came to London: to find a new audience and new opportunities to spread their message and their musical love. Sandmoon will be back in London; new concerts are scheduled for August of 2019. As for the new album: all the songs have been written - it will be somewhat of a new direction for Sandmoon - two songs have already been recorded and "Fiery Observation", the first video off the forthcoming album "Put a Gun/Commotion", has just come online. For Sandmoon, it's a road that never ends.
Photos by May Arida
At the end of the film "Sia - the dream of the Python”, Sia confronts the new king, undresses herself and storms bare-chested out of the palace. She then time travels and in the next scene you see Sia walking in the streets of Ouagadougou where she demonstrates against tyranny all by herself.
The main part in Sia is played by Fatoumata Diawara. It is a fictional story, but the persona in the film also carries quite a lot of Fatoumata Diawara character traits: fierce, unapologetic and authentic. As a child and as a teenager Fatoumata didn’t have an easy life. Growing up in difficult family circumstances, first in Ivory Coast and then in Mali, she had to fight to survive, against the tyranny of a family and a traditional society that had earmarked her for a different role in life. At the age of twenty Fatoumata Diawara ran away from home and joined a French theater troupe. "If I had that slip by," Fatoumata once said in an interview, "I wouldn’t be here today. I’d have minimum nine children and be very, very old (Fatoumata is 37 years old). My breasts would already be sagging and I wouldn’t have a job because I don’t have diplomas.”
Tonight Fatoumata Diawara takes the stage of the Kaufleuten in Zurich. In the meantime she is no longer just an actress, but has also become a musician; she writes her own songs, plays the electric guitar and tours the world non-stop. It is a sunny Sunday evening in Zurich, you could also take a walk by the lakeside or have a barbecue in the garden, but the Kaufleuten concert venue is full. It is a mixed crowd that is waiting for Fatoumata, multi gender, multi age and multi ethno. Do they know what is in store for them? Can the audience anticipate that it is about to experience the greatest show that one can imagine as a concertgoer, with a personality - a woman, an artist - whose energy and presence on stage are second to none?
Fatoumata Diawara doesn’t need to sing love songs because she herself is love.
And then Fatoumata Diawara enters the stage. She is tall, she is beautiful, she starts to sing and to play, from Mali, from Africa, actually from all of us. For we are one planet, one humanity, one heartbeat, says Fatoumata, and the collective love that we derive from it makes it happen that by the third song already everybody in the house claps, dances and feels happy. Words are important to Fatoumata Diawara, however only very few in the public understand the lyrics of her songs word for word. Fatoumata sings in Bambara, a language from Mali. But she speaks with the eyes, with her voice; she talks with her gestures and with her body, and everyone knows what she means. Fatoumata Diawara wails, she jubilates, she accelerates and then slows down the pace again. It’s like a ride on the roller coaster of life where at the end the comfort of human warmth and the laughter of love await.
I had hoped to interview Fatoumata Diawara before her concert in Zurich but her management shielded her from any requests because she needed to rest and to refuel before her "never ending world tour" continues. Experiencing her performance this evening, I understand why. Fatoumata goes all in when she's on stage. She has just been exhaustively touring in the USA, Canada and Spain, and after Zurich she will play in France and at the big festivals in Glastonbury and Montreux.
I would have wanted to know from Fatoumata Diawara how she, who speaks a lot about her responsibility towards Africa and the Africans, can handle this responsibility. Is it not too much for her at times and too heavy a load? It seems like she wants to save all of Africa on her own and counteract the rampant afro-pessimism (the Africans are muddling through and it's never getting any better) with a robust self-confidence that advocates specific African values and a self-responsible attitude to shape the continent. "Let's talk about the new Africa," says Fatoumata, the spokeswoman for a better Africa, in Zurich. "Many positive things happen with the new generation.”
I also wanted to ask Fatoumata Diawara how she reconciles her two vocations, activist and artist. Can one say that her music embodies the artist Fatoumata and the lyrics her activism? How does she manage to find the right dose for both the fun and the serious? Incidentally, this dual role is not unknown in the culture of Mali. Already the early hunters - activists, if you will - became artists after a successful hunt and picked up an instrument to sing their own praises.
Self-evidently Fatoumata Diawara doesn’t sing her own praises. She doesn’t have to and she is way too smart for that. The rifle of yesterday's hunters has become Fatoumata's guitar of today. Just like her idol Fela Kuti, the Nigerian musical activist who invented the Afrobeat, a mixture of American funk and traditional African rhythms, often paired with provocative lyrics critical of the ones in power. In her repertoire Fatoumata Diawara has a song Fela-Kuti-style as well. When she performs “Negue Negue” (let’s have fun) from her current album “Fenfo”, Zurich goes through the roof. There is no more holding back; Fatoumata is grooving, the bass is booming, the audience is going wild. “We are having fun,” she sings, “it is what makes this world a better place to live in.”
Fatoumata was not programmed for fun when she was born. Consequently she began her career as a musician writing and singing protest songs. "That's what I can do," she said in an interview for Afropop worldwide. "I can’t sing love. I can’t sing lightly."
Fatoumata Diawara doesn’t need to sing love songs because she herself is love. She is love for the music, love for the people and the light on her face radiates and warms and brightens up even the last spectator in the darkest corner at the rear end of Kaufleuten. I am your sister and you are my sisters and brothers, says Fatoumata. We all want to hug ourselves and Fatoumata first and most strongly. Fatoumata is fantastic, Africa is fantastic, music is fantastic, we are one life and one love. We are one with Fatoumata Diawara.
Kurt is based in Bern and Beirut is his second home. Always looking for that special angle, he digs deep into people, their stories and creations, with a sweet spot for music.
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