Mohammed D. Fakhro is a Qatari writer interested in how we tell and experience stories, particularly of people and cultures. He interviewed +Aziz, a Kuwaiti musician who is developing KUWAISIANA, an 8-piece indie rock band based in New Orleans.
Let me start with a confession: I’m a late bloomer when it comes to Arab music. As someone who consumes a steady diet of pop, the repetitiveness of “Ya leily ya 3eeny” and the like in mainstream Arab pop feels dull, and leaves me unable to connect.
A few years ago, however, a new sound had begun to materialize. Though admittedly in existence much earlier for those paying attention, the region’s indie music scene is thriving thanks to an explosion of diverse talents, from hip hop to metal, and despite the lack of industry support.
While bands like Lebanon’s Mashrou’ Leila and Egypt’s Wust El-Balad have drawn inspiration from their respective countries, and in return placed them on the indie music scene map, what seems to have been lacking is a Khaleeji-based presence.
My first introduction to +Aziz’s music was through his solo 2015 Sarrah (تحت الشجر) track, and I was quickly hooked. He was gracious enough to agree to an interview over e-mail and fulfill my curiosity to learn more about the man behind the sound, the band and the +.
Mohammed D. Fakhro (MDF): Behind your blogging at PSFK, capturing street style on Instagram, and creating music is a cohesive identity known as +Aziz. Can you tell us how it came to be and how do you view it today?
+Aziz: The identity emerged in a very haphazard way. And I would also question its “cohesion” because I only feel complete when I collaborate with others. Last month I literally made $1.92 off my music, so I feel the struggle to make ends meet. Thus, while music is a central motivation for me, I have had to do different jobs the past 10 years to support myself and the musicians I work with.
I’m not really sure what I stand for as an artist and that’s partially because I am a persona who celebrates ambiguity. The plus sign is kind of a joke really. I came up with it but it feels like a nickname others would give me too. In reality, it’s a simple graphic design idea I came up with during high school that just stuck.
As for what I do on Instagram, I took up street style photography to overcome my fear of rejection. Anytime I see someone with a dope style, I approach them. I’d say I’m at a roughly 70% success rate 🙂 I got turned down by A$AP Rocky earlier this year and it felt great!
MDF: How do you find the balance between a full-time job and music, not only in terms of time but also in energy, creativity, etc.?
+Aziz: It’s a matter of energy management more so than time management. After living in NYC for a good chunk of years, you can imagine how a place like New Orleans must feel. It’s a slow-paced “music city” and it helps many musicians sharpen their skills, especially jazz players.
Work is work. Stressful at times as I feel the limits of professional expectations. And (as you know) not all responsibilities towards my music career are particularly inspiring: there are always emails to send out, venues to follow-up with, competitions and organizations to pitch myself to. Lots of Excel!
Whenever I’m unemployed, which happens fortunately, I’m working out of libraries or coffee shops. But in general, I try and focus on finding employers who respect my strategic thinking and believe in my marketing expertise. I don’t bring my creativity into marketing at all. I focus on managing creatives and drawing the sandbox so I can run off and channel my creative entrepreneurship into music.
MDF: Being Kuwaiti today means that you’re also simultaneously Khaleeji and Arab, both of which you openly embrace in addition to belonging to the Mipsterz group (Muslim Hipsters). Do you find there’s competition between these, perhaps of being compelled to represent one over the other?
+Aziz: The Mipsterz group, as I understand it, emerged to counter negative stereotypes that Khaleejis rarely have to deal with. It started with fashionistas celebrating the hijab-hipster lifestyle in the Arab-American and South Asian communities in the West. As it exists today, Mipsterz celebrate the plurality of Islamic expression rather than gravitating towards a particular sect or any country’s version of Islam.
The Mipsterz label works well. I see my music as an expression of not only Khaleeji culture but also Arab-American culture. Although I truly am not representative of either community by any means, I relate to and oscillate between those identities.
To me, being Kuwaiti gives me the advantage to be creative with my frustrations. Compared to Emiratis and other Khaleejis, Kuwaiti art and music can be very sarcastic, ironic and dark-humored. Nowhere is this more obvious than in YouTube series like Sheno Ya3ni and 3alam Al-Suwalef.
The reality is that all identity is complex and ever evolving, but I actually like labels! I find them really helpful in getting others to feel that they understand me and it provides a temporary sense of belonging to something. For someone who exists so far out in the margins like myself, labels provide a great amount of comfort.
MDF: You not only have a distinct sound but also a unique perspective, perhaps an instinct, that is clear in your creative pursuits. How did you harness it?
+Aziz: It’s cliché, but perspectives are harnessed by stepping out of the comfort zone. If you, as an artist, are consistently challenging yourself and putting yourself in new contexts, you end up developing what you are referring to as an instinct. My only instinct is that I should be a musician; something tells me it’s worth it and that this is what I should be putting myself through.
MDF: What was your journey of learning to play and write music?
+Aziz: My journey started with learning classical piano in the early 90’s. I picked up a guitar at age 16 and wrote my first song when I was 20 (which is titled Surreal). I wouldn’t start stepping out of my comfort zone until 2013 when I completed my first crowdfunding campaign for a project titled UNCOLLECTABLE.
My current band is a new experiment all-together: managing 8 musicians, working with my drummer 3-5 days a week and always learning and improving based on every performance we do (we’re averaging 2 gigs a month).
MDF: What was the inspiration behind KUWAISIANA?
+Aziz: Well, my intention was just to do a stripped down alternative rock trio where I sang in the Kuwaiti dialect. In typical New Orleans fashion, we kept inviting players to join in and now I have commitments from a number of people, all of whom bring their own influences. I used to have more control over my music when I worked alone, but now there are numerous influences at play in the band. My drummer plays a huge role in shaping grooves and we work as a team to identify what the song is asking for. The key for me now is to try and sustain a big band sound and tour around the US in summer 2017.
MDF: How was the process of putting the band together?
+Aziz: I guess my relocations to New York and then New Orleans were intended to help me get the whole ‘Khaleeji rock’ thing right. I grew up in Kuwait, but my musical ethos is fully invested in alternative rock, with bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Deftones, The Mars Volta, Sigur Ros and Gorillaz being the most influential in my life. I love listening to Kuwaiti music and Khaleeji poetry, but my ultimate goal is to address the problem that Khaleeji music has virtually no presence in world music nor indie rock music (or any other genre for that matter).
The most prominent musical heritages in world music hail from North Africa, the Levant, Turkey, Iran, and India. Basically, everywhere in the Middle East minus the Arabian Peninsula. But the reality in where KUWAISIANA is at this point is that we are an indie rock band more so than a traditional “world music” act.
MDF: True to the band’s name, your songs are in both Arabic and/or English. We’re seeing similar trends across the Arts, such as films in multiple languages becoming more mainstream for example. Is this an artistic response to globalization?
+Aziz: It’s a result of it, but I don’t think it is something for the mainstream. The music I’m pursuing is always going to be niche. There is pop sensibility in there, but my goal isn’t to crack the mainstream, it’s to have a band I can tour with.
Sometimes I wish we could be even more true to the name. Trying to work in Kuwaiti rhythms, maqam scales and such. This is my long-term vision I suppose.
MDF: The songs themselves, both Say Yea and MURRA, are catchy. The influence of world music is prominent in instrumentation while commendably cohesive in bringing differing styles of music together. They also bridge two seemingly incompatible traditions, Say Yea being about traditional marriage and MURRA sung in Arabic, and are presented to a primarily American audience.
What’s been your process of conceptualizing and writing these songs, and what inspires your subject matter?
+Aziz: I draw inspiration from watching Arabic video content. From Khaleeji TV shows, indie comedy shows, to lectures and poetry recitations. This is what feeds me themes to think and sing about. My lyrics are fueled largely by the need to process my negative emotions. I’m inspired by conspicuous consumerism, the politics of urban development and feelings of melancholia and sadness. I feel akin to other Kuwaiti creative acts, which have a cold sarcasm and dark humor about Khaleeji identity.
The most important thing is to keep writing. And then changing your pattern if you happen to stop writing.
MDF: You’ve been and continue to play live in several places across the USA. How has the reception of your music been to American audiences, and has the rise of Donald Trump had an impact?
+Aziz: We’ve been together for less than a year and interestingly, the band’s mission seems to have taken on a new life after Trump’s win. We’ve been having an easier time getting noticed by local radio stations like WWOZ, WTUL and WHIV. We also opened up for Giant Kitty and The Kominas.
We are gigging more often and will try to put a tour together for summer of 2017, facing whatever the road brings with open arms I suppose.
Right now, we’re focused on growing a fan base in New Orleans, which is a very tolerant city that is fairly isolated from the rest of America. Plus, I barely have an accent so I get by.
As for the audiences, they’ve been small but terrific. Lyrics are literally the last thing the average music listener will pay attention to. There are all kinds of languages being sung around me, and as long as I’m not singing in Arabic on a Southwest flight, I should be OK.
MDF: How do you view the current state of music in the Khaleej and wider Arab world?
+Aziz: It’s doing fine I guess. You might’ve heard of Galaxy Juice, Yousif Yaseen or Hasan Hujairi’s work. The talent is very much there, but the economy is not. Give Amin Fari’s Show Me the Money on 248am a good read and you’ll realize exactly what is standing in everyone’s way to being a professional independent Khaleeji musician in the GCC.
MDF: What’s coming for you in 2017?
+Aziz: Getting married and doing a small regional tour around Mississippi/Texas. We hope to have our debut album completed and some band merch by then.
MDF: For fun, some rapid-fire questions:
- Kuwaiti artist to watch out for?
Watch Hasan Hujairi. He’s not Kuwaiti, but he’s the only Khaleeji musician you really need to watch. He is the reason I still enjoy Facebook.
- Dream gig?
The best gigs are the most intimate ones. I’d love to play intimate shows in Khaleeji cities with my band (Doha and Jeddah would be at the top of my list).
- The artist you want to collaborate with the most?
- Advice to emerging Arab artists?
Travel for your music over tourism.
You can follow Aziz (@PlusAziz) and the band (@Kuwaisiana) across the web. Check out the band’s site for their latest news and music.
This interview was conducted over e-mail. It was condensed and edited for clarity. All media content courtesy of +Aziz.
Mohammed D. Fakhro is a Qatari writer interested in how we tell and experience stories, particularly of people and cultures. You can find him at www.MoeFakhro.com.