Use the buttons to browse through the AA articles archive or to find out more about the newspaper and distribution.
1/5/2024 / Issue #054 / Text: Léa Shamaa

Interview with Maya al Khaldi and Sarouna at Rewire 2024: A night of Arabic folklore and echoes from the past

As Friday evening grew dark, I was blessed to attend Maya al Khaldi and Sarouna’s performance at Het Koorenhuis, Den Haag, for Rewire 2024. With Sarouna on the sound mixer, qanun – traditional Arabic string instrument – and Maya Al Khaldi’s voice, their harmonious yet grief-laden sounds pierced through the audience during the show. The Palestinian artists’ focus on themes of nostalgia, longing, and reminiscence – common topics among today’s Arab diaspora – were brought into the concert space through longings of the past and Levantine Arabic lyrics from their debut album (2022) Other World عالم تاني, which hit really close to home. Mixing in each of these songs are lyrics, melodies, or samples of audio recordings from the Popular Art Center in Ramallah. Full of percussion and folklore, Maya al Khaldi and Sarouna create a soundscape of rattling pasts in the midst of collapsing contemporaries. 

So, for those who are not familiar with your music, could you please describe yourself, the focus of your artistic work and what it means?
I guess I would start with my curiosity around archival material and asking: How can I take it somewhere which helps me imagine some kind of future? Since time is a very non-linear experience, it’s always our remembrance of the past that is very much tied to the future.

I personally come from a mixed background musically. I loved singing because my mom loved singing and we did it together. My mom had love for Fairuz, but also for western music. When the time came, I knew I wanted to study singing. I got a scholarship for studying Western classical opera in Cyprus. Before that, it was all just with my mom. 

After that, I studied jazz, and when I came back home, I was like: “I don’t know these languages.” My head voice didn’t feel right. After a long time, I decided to learn Arabic music, and learned the scales and tradition of the Arabic singing voice. With this project, Other World, what I’m doing, actually, is learning a lot. 

Amazing. I think that’s such a nice description. You started the concert with a Palestinian grief song, and I feel like it created an instant feeling of solidarity among the crowd. At the end of the show, everyone was chanting “Free Palestine” when you were leaving the stage. How does it feel to share these connections with people so far away from home, and how do you think that music can help bring those connections closer?
I really like that you’re using the term connection, because it’s exactly about that. It’s not about conveying a message or getting people to emphasize, it’s really just making this connection with an audience and taking them with us. 

In Rewire, the connection was really amazing. At first, you’re like, who are these people? Are they only here because they are now sympathizing with the Palestinian cause, because of the atrocity? Are they here because the music is good? I guess throughout the concert you start feeling it. But mostly, with the grief songs, regardless of the situation – which is very difficult to say because of the weight of the situation – we can all feel grief. And this is a very strong communal feeling. 

Thank you so much for sharing. My other question is a bit more lighthearted. Which artists did you listen to during your childhood? Did any of them inspire your approach to music, and how you view music today?  
Yes. I guess, so much of Fairuz. I’m only 36 years old and I still discover a new Fairuz song every day. And I guess we also had a musical play which my mom always used to put on, Porgy and Bess, and always listening to that famous song “Summertime.” In my early teenage years, I listened to a lot of Sabreen, which is a Palestinian band. For 20 years, Kamilya Jubran was their lead singer and Said Murad the composer. They’re just brilliant.

What they were doing is taking a lot of folklore and bringing contemporary sounds into it. I think it’s relevant in the Arab world, even today, musically-speaking but also in terms of the lyrics. I think it’s very inspiring to a lot of Arab musicians who are non-conventional. 

Thanks so much for sharing these names! I’ll definitely take a listen after this. Moving on, you included recordings from Palestinian audio archives in your music but you also introduce more intimate moments by adding your grandmother’s voice, which you explained on stage. What inspired this interest in archives? What goes behind selecting them? 
I think it’s my interest in the past, less so of archives, which I think is quite a colonial concept of collecting, like a museum. Really what interests me is listening to the past, and this starts with my grandma because she told us so many beautiful stories about Haifa. She didn’t live in the present, my grandma. She was a lovely storyteller in the way she also connected me to these stories through music. But the archives were just a resource for me to open a window into the past. 

During the show, you were also accompanied by slow-mo visuals, which I felt really echoed the themes of long term memory and remembrance in your music. I want to hear it from you. How do you feel these visuals complement your work?
Dina Mimi worked on the visuals. We had done a residency together when I started to work on this album, at the Cité des Arts. She was very present in the beginning of the album and understood the music so well that we already created a connection. For example, with the lullaby for Sammy, she was like, “I want to shoot your brother on a horse.” The songs are just so intimate and honest so we wanted the visuals to be like that too. Since I’m talking about my brother, my brother is gonna be there, visually.  

(Next Questions with Sarouna) 

Hello, what a lovely performance you both had on Friday! So, you are the founder of Tawleef, a women-led record label from Palestine. When and how did you start this? And what is your goal with Tawleef? 
I began Tawleef in 2018. The idea developed first when I was studying in America, but I felt like I wanted to go back home and make music there. I wanted to work with artists and to be in the music scene at home. There was also the need for a space that didn’t feel dominated by men. On top of the lack of space due to the occupation and being fragmented as non-cis men in society, we wanted to have a space where we could create freely without needing to be judged, or checked, or whatever… More so on a local scale, there is no infrastructure in the Arab world at large, especially in Palestine. No publishing houses, distribution, copyright... So it’s also taking that off the shoulders of the artists, and offering them these services to record, to produce for free, and to monetize their art in a non-exploitative way.

So, Maya was our first project, and she really trusted me with this and agreed to launch the album Other World on Tawleef. Hopefully, we have a few more projects coming up, with my album and a collaborative album I’m doing with a bunch of female artists in the country, Maya included. Now, we’re just exploring the contracts, because we want to offer artists a space where they can release one album with us and not necessarily be binding to a corporate entity. 

I asked the same question to Maya, but I also want to hear your perspective. How would you describe your work, and how does mixing and mastering relate to your approach to music? 
I went to school for music production and engineering, and I started mixing, mastering, and producing then already. After I got back to Palestine around 2017, I started ingraining myself into the music scene, getting to know the people, and started DJing as well around 2018. A lot was moving culturally, in Palestine, and in the local electronic music scene and music scene in general. I also got involved in a DJ collective called Union, we were organizing underground electronic music parties in Ramallah around the time when Boiler Room came back. Unfortunately, after the pandemic and the worsening of the situation in Palestine, that scene has disappeared for now.

Over time, I was producing more and mixing for people, and mastering for rappers, mostly. There was another project for a five-piece acapella group that Maya was with, called Estiwanaat. And I continued from there, also thanks to Maya, who trusted me to take care of the sounds of the album, but also on a mixing level. Despite the golden rule of not mixing and mastering your own stuff, I think it worked out pretty well. 

I think it definitely worked out pretty well. Thank you for sharing. Is there an Arab artist or Palestinian artist that you would recommend to people who are still getting familiar with music from the region? 
I’m sure Maya has said this, but Kamilya Jubran. Youmna Saba, who’s also on the album and played at Rewire, is an amazing artist. Anyway, it depends on the genres.  

Last question, did you have time to attend any other concerts from Rewire this year? 
Sarouna: Yes, I attended Jlin & Florence To, with Maya at PAARD. It was lifechanging. We also attended Arusha, and I attended Lilian Chlela, who is a friend of mine. So I saw those three, mostly, and I caught bits and pieces of others, yeah.

Amazing. That’s basically it. Thank you guys so much.  I’m happy I got to connect with other Arab creatives, who are really pushing the Arabic experimental music scene. I hope you have an amazing rest of your day.  

Message from the author: 
Free Palestine!