Praed Promo Photo (photo: Tony Elieh)

Playing with the Dustbin of History

Review
by Thomas Burkhalter

The Lebanese-Swiss duo Praed experiments with sounds that cultural elites call trash or kitsch. Through Praed’s style, they attack cultural canons within the Arab World, and they present a fresh mix towards Europe. Here is a different take on Exotica. From the Norient book Seismographic Sounds (see and order here).

Praed, the duo of Lebanese Raed Yassin and Swiss Paed Conca, perform popular media sounds from the Arab world with techniques from experimental music. On their first CD The Muesli Man  (2009), we hear lots of samples: gunshots, someone screaming, music from Egyptian films, a speech by iconic president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Arabic pop music from the 1980s, electric bass, virtuoso clarinet playing, electronica sounds – all held together through a wide range of editing and manipulation techniques. On their second release Made in Japan (2011), Yassin sings over a sample of Egyptian pop-star Mahmoud El Husseini while a bathroom-pipe is bursting. Japanese voices, screaming, and dub-grooves are interlaced. All of that is put into a grinder and mixed with prepared double- and E-bass, varying playing techniques on the clarinet and scratches from record players and tape recorders. The approach is discussed openly by the duo’s label Annihaya, which specializes in the «displacement, deconstruction and ‹recycling› of popular or folkloric musical cultures», as described in the «about» section. Annihaya «seeks to distort boundaries of popular music», with the aim to present «new ways of listening to original works».

Micro-Korg Sounds and Maqsum Rhythm

The Praed track «8 Giga» (on Made in Japan) serves well to illustrate this approach. Yassin plays a melody on his micro-Korg synthesizer. It keeps repeating itself (on C, B flat and E flat) throughout the track without variation, cuts or changes in dynamics. Ethnomusicologist Shayna Silverstein links the micro-Korg sound to the mijwiz reedpipe, a typical instrument of the rural Levantine dabké music and dance. In contemporary dabké the shrill mijwiz sound is replaced through synthesizers – played with the Korg PA-800 in the case of Rizan Said’s Annihaya album King of Keyboard (2015).

The 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + (accentuated on 1 and 3, unaccentuated on 1.5, 2.5 and 4) of the maqsum rhythm – throughout the Praed track – further links «8 Giga» to possibly the most popular rhythm in the Arab world. One finds it everywhere from rural dance music to the electronic mahragan music of Cairo. The latter, sometimes called electro sha’abi, is produced on the virtual instruments of software sequencer FL studio by upcoming musicians of lower class backgrounds. Today, cheaply produced mahragan is as popular as the expensive productions of pan-Arabic pop.

1980s Arabic Pop and 1950s Belly Dance

In addition, Yassin starts repeatedly shouting «Allah» after 8'48'' of "8 Giga". It’s a reference to classical Sufi music. As Conca puts it: «The ecstasy of Sufi music without the religion». The «Allah» shouts sound distorted and thus do not reference the high quality standards of ethnomusicological records of Sufi chants in pre-war Aleppo, the lighter and well-produced versions sold in the Euro-American world music market, or the over-produced renderings of the many TV preachers on Arabic satellite channels. The focus on imperfection and low production quality is important, as Charles Hirschkind, anthropologist and author of The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics reminds us. He argues that when it comes to cassette sermons, the low-budget and home-recorded cassettes and mp3 files (full of background noise and blasting voices) are higher in demand than flashy productions on TV. «There is an aesthetic of modesty that is appreciated by many people», Hirschkind explains on request: «people have more trust in low quality».

Violating Authenticity

It is this violation of «every boundary of authenticity», the obviousness and easiness, and the amazing sounds that Yassin and an ever bigger circle of local musicians enjoy – Yassin calls them copy-cats or hipsters. More importantly, these styles and sounds have the potential to anger cultural elites within the Arab World and fans of world music abroad. In a conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, BBC world music pioneer Charlie Gillett – shortly before his untimely death in 2010 – expressed indignation at Omar Souleyman’s London concert. He said that Souleyman was the worst wedding singer he had ever heard. One can plainly state that the old, pure, and gentle world music has been attacked and replaced by new, less pleasant sounds.

The micro-Korg sound of Praed expresses this bias directly and indirectly. Music writer Simon Reynolds calls this focus the anarchive. These are sounds and styles that have been outside the canon of official music history in the region for a long time. It’s the dustbin of history. These styles and sounds are seen by many as culturally inferior, as trash, cheap or kitsch. Praed often renders this material with irony and parody. As Conca explains:

«We manipulate sound aesthetics of various Lebanese political parties and put them into new contexts. On stage, Yassin likes to wear the typical mirror-sunglasses of the party leaders of the radical Christian right, while playing the music of Shiites and Sunnites on his synthesizer.»

Praed: Raed Yassin (left) and Paed Conca (right) (Lebanon/Switzerland) (photo: artist)

Positioning in the Arab World and in the West

Raed Yassin positions himself on various levels. With his choice of references he criticizes the elitist cultural canon in Lebanon and he breaks taboos – in his solo piece «CW Tapes» – working with sounds from the Lebanese Civil War. He also presents Europe and the US with a different, not too clichéd image of the Arab world. Praed, however, also positions itself within a European and American context. Paed Conca plays multiphonics on his clarinet at the beginning of «8 Giga». Multiphonics — the art of playing several sounds together using specific blow and fingering techniques — are known from the history of jazz, new music, free improvised music and other music styles. Through these references, Praed creates experimental music that is not just high culture but plays and manipulates material from our increasingly mediatized popular culture.

Experimental music working with pop sounds is still a minor development – it happened in Bastard Pop in the 1990s and in few other instances. One can find similar artistic ideas and strategies in Post Digital Pop, in contemporary jazz where some musicians improvise over pop songs instead of the Great American Songbook, or even in the New Conceptualism in New Music. Conca left Switzerland and lives in Beirut: «It’s more free here», he says. «The way Yassin experiments with local pop culture is rare and fresh. It is difficult to find such unobstructed handling of popular culture amongst European musicians and listeners of experimental music». For Conca, Praed is a «commentary about the randomness, oppositeness, and purposelessness of the acoustic materials that are surrounding us». He explains that the music is «a plea for an infinite, crazy, and open world». Yassin says that he aims to work towards a local and an international audience:

«My work functions differently in places where people understand the language and the music. Here I use nostalgia as a key to get into their feelings. In the West, in order to reach their emotions and manipulate them, I use exoticism – not in a cheesy way, but in a way that triggers questions of why I manipulate music.»

The text was published first in the second Norient book Seismographic Sounds.

Published on March 17, 2018

Last updated on January 16, 2020

Biography

Thomas Burkhalter is an ethnomusicologist and cultural producer from Switzerland. He is the founder and director of Norient – Performing Music Research (norient.com), and artistic director of the Norient Film Festival. Recent main projects include the documentary film «Contradict» (2019), the AV/theatre/dance performance «Clash of Gods» (2018), and the re-launch of Norient (2019). He published the book «Local Music Scenes and Globalization: Transnational Platforms in Beirut» (Routledge), and co-edited «The Arab Avant Garde: Musical Innovation in the Middle East» (Wesleyan University Press).
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