Interview: Khyam Allami

PHOTO BY JOHANNE ISSA

I first watched Khyam Allami performing with his Oud at Supersonic Festival in 2009. The Iraqi composer seemed to possess the sort of instrumental intimacy that I’ve often dreamt of having myself, where the join between fingers and strings is as reflexive as that between the arms and the hands, synchronised to the point where emotional sentiment can pass, pure and unspilled, between mind and resonating chamber. Watching this performance, it’d be easy to assume that the Oud is Khyam’s unfailing creative anchor. Dependable at all times, immune to the onset of writer’s block. This interview illustrates how this intimacy can be hard-earned and even harder to maintain, as prone to recedence as all other forms of love; not only that, but that this process of passing in and out of love, skirting hardship and ecstasy and near-failure, manifests in a music that traverses the extremes of expression with conviction and candour.

For this year’s Supersonic Festival, taking place 16th-18th June in Birmingham, Khyam will be presenting a showcase from his eclectic Nawa Recordings label. As well as performances by Two Or The Dragon, Nadah El Shazly and Wasl & Kamila Jubran, Khyam will be presenting a brand new improvisatory set for processed Oud, electronics and percussion. The showcase will also be heading to the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts in Brighton on June 15th and London’s Cafe Oto on June 19th. Below, Khyam talks frankly about his recent confrontation with burnout and exhaustion, explains his deep connection with Supersonic Festival and discusses his process of refractive improvisation.

It’s so great to see you putting on a showcase at Supersonic. I have vague but fond memories of your performances at the festival in 2009, one of the most prominent recollections from which was the particularly rapturous crowd response (the loudest I heard all weekend, I think). Would you mind recapping your relationship with Supersonic Festival so far? How does it feel to be putting on a showcase this year?

Thank you very much! The number of people I continue to meet or hear about who saw me perform that year continues to astonish me. My relationship with Supersonic is a very special one, so I’m very glad you asked, but the answer is a bit of a long one!

I love the festival and it means the world to me. I’ve known Lisa Meyer, the festival director, since the early 2000s when I used to play in Art of Burning Water and Ursa. She was a fan of and friends with Geiger Counter, who were very good friends of mine and put on a couple of shows in Birmingham for us. In 2009, she invited me to play solo at the festival for the first time (the show you mention) and it was an incredible experience for me. I was sandwiched between Esoteric and Jarboe, and being a Swans fan I was obviously nervous as hell, but the crowd at that show were just amazing. One of the most open-minded, generous and honest groups of people I have ever encountered. To express my gratitude for their reception, I did a cover of Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath – which I had prepared before but was unsure whether to play it or not – and it went down a treat.

Beyond the entertainment factor of it all and the generous support of those at that show, it meant so much to me because it was one of the few times in my life where I felt like I actually belonged somewhere and was surrounded by like-minded spirits. Since then I have always considered Supersonic my spiritual home.

I was invited back in 2010 to collaborate with Master Musicians of Bukkake, another awesome experience aside from some technical hiccups that stunted the show a little. And in 2012, Lisa/Capsule helped put on a show for Alif (the band I co-founded) at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham.

Forward on to Summer of 2016 – Lisa got in touch again to ask me what I was up to and we arranged to meet in London and catch up. Truth is, I was going through a rough time, I had been through two bouts of debilitating exhaustion (read: major burnout warnings) and even though I was working like a dog I was really struggling financially (read: fucking broke, debt collection letters on the doormat, debit cards cancelled by the bank etc…), but I am a man never short on dreams or ideas. Luckily for me, those ideas managed to capture Lisa’s imagination and she offered me the chance to perform and be a guest curator with a focus on my label – Nawa Recordings.

Then, within a couple of weeks of meeting with Lisa, I had a burnout, which wiped me out completely. It was a disaster. So I went off the grid and tried to pull myself together. After a couple of months of trying to get my physical being in order, it was time to focus on the psychological. Burnout is a catastrophe, akin to a massive rake pummelling the riverbed that is your entire emotional being and stirring up all the dregs until they turn into a powerful undertow that pulls you down whilst throwing up everything you have spent your entire life trying to bury. For me that meant a lot of uprooted-ness, sexual abuse, workaholism etc. Doctor told me 12-18 months recovery.

My inbox over-flooded and obviously Lisa was starting to get concerned. Fortunately for me, she is one of the kindest, most understanding, patient and supportive people I’ve ever met. She stuck to our plan and waited as long as she possibly could for me to get back to her with something more concrete than just ideas. And to be honest, if it wasn’t for her support and patience, I would have bailed out and given up on the whole thing – and a whole lot more.

So, to answer your question, I am actually ecstatic to be involved and presenting this showcase as its a bit of a moment of re-birth for me. I cannot wait to share the stage with so many amazing artists – and more importantly to partake in that communion with the Supersonic audience. I’m nervous as hell about my own show, but pretty certain the audience will at the very least be intrigued and captivated by the artists I’ve invited – Nadah El Shazly, Two or The Dragon, Kamilya Jubran – if not fall blindly in love with them as I am.

Your selection for the showcase looks particularly eclectic, which was only to be expected given the breadth of the label’s coverage. Many of my favourite live experiences have been those consisting of constant shifts and subversions in the atmosphere of the evening. How did you go about choosing the artists for the showcase?

I am an ambitious kind of human and I always want to do things that are bigger than my real life capacity. Rather than take a proper break and recover from the burnout in my own time, I decided to work hard on getting better quickly and finding a way to make the most of this opportunity at Supersonic, for myself and for the fellow artists I admire. Releasing recordings by Two or The Dragon and Nadah El Shazly was already in the pipeline, as was talk of releasing something by Kamilya, so rather than take a year out and give up on all the opportunities, I decided to go for it, even if slowly. With all that in mind, it made sense to present artists that Nawa is going to release works by in the near future, rather than presenting those we had worked with in the past. To introduce the Supersonic audience to new music, to take a risk and look forward, with excitement, towards the future.

Your own performance will feature improvisations for processed Oud, electronics and percussion. Is this a new approach for you? If so, what do you find compelling about this particular improvisatory setup?

Yes it is completely new. I’ll be presenting my new work titled Kawalees. I actually premiered it (or did a version of it) at Beirut’s Irtijal Festival in April, but it’s something I’ve been plotting for a long time.

Aside from being an Oud player I am also a drummer. I really love percussion and for years I’ve been trying to find a way to put these two opposing – almost schizophrenic – sides of my being into the same work. I was also struggling in my relationship with the Oud and needed to find a new way to approach it and Arabic music in general. Theoretically and imaginatively I was/am forging new ideas, but practically, touching the instrument felt cold and uninspiring.

After listening to a lot of experimental electro-acoustic music and lots of Iannis Xenaxis’ percussion works I decided to bite the bullet and just let it all out, without trying to control things too much. A few months of experiments and I managed to create a set-up that allowed me to explore the conceptual ideas I was developing, but with enough freedom to feel like I could really express the range of emotional content between hitting things with sticks as hard and as loud as possible at one extreme, and gently whispering through a string stretched across a piece of wood at the other.

How much preparation goes into your improvisatory performances? Is there a balance you’re striking between “known”/prepared elements, and the potential to manoeuvre/adapt to your environment in real-time?

In order not to end up either over-prepared (controlling) or narcissistically self-indulgent (free), I worked very hard to create a set of “tools” – processing effects chains, performance techniques and layout of instruments  – that are capable of representing the gamut of what I wanted to express. Most of this process was based on trying to find a way to communicate with myself – but without using looping and layering in the usual sense.

I wanted to have the option of screaming or whispering, laughing or crying, and anything in between, at any moment. After a lot of research and experiments, I managed to put together the (very simple) technological means that allow me to explore this vast gamut of emotions, whilst leaving enough room for some randomisation and non-linear regurgitation of whatever musical material I create in the moment.

Improvisation can be like trying to play with time and memory. It is a peculiar beast, especially when you use it to really express how you feel, not just perform. When I sit to play, whatever I allow my subconscious to express, right then, becomes the present. I can let it out and let it slowly disappear, but then I have to either try to build on it, or go elsewhere. I have to keep “talking”. But what if I want to stay within the world of what my subconscious is expressing albeit without “talking too much” or without being too distracted and running away from the corners my subconscious is interested in exploring? What if I want more control of time? What if I don’t want it to move at the same speed? What if I don’t want it to dissipate – but instead keep a musical idea in front of me for a while so I can feel it a little more and interact with it? I could capture it and repeat it, like a delay or a loop, but like that it becomes the present solidified – and therefore a static version of the past.

But if it is somehow regurgitated and modified each time it is repeated, it becomes more organic and alive, it is what I “said”, but it moves and breathes alone, interacting with me, like a manipulated reflection or a refraction. I can listen to it and really consider what my subconscious is trying to say. Rather than freezing something, or letting it be a train of thought, I wanted to find a way to explore the grey areas in between.

You’ve been playing the Oud for 13 years now. Has your relationship with the instrument changed at all over the course of your time with it? Do you still find that the instrument has the potential to surprise you?

As I mentioned before my relationship with the Oud wasn’t going very well. Since I started playing in 2004 my Oud has been with me, beside me, wherever I go. Even if I don’t touch it for weeks, it’s always there. So after 8-10 years our relationship became a little like a couple that has been together for a long time and the sex-life has died out. Especially because I was immersed in admin (overworking) and hardly playing my instrument at all. The passion needed rekindling.

The problem was, I just couldn’t find a way to express how I’ve really been feeling through the instrument acoustically, melodically. I’ve changed and developed a lot in the last 15 years and on a global level the last 5-7 years have been a real mess, and it affects me profoundly, regardless of whether I want to admit it or not. Especially because I have spent those years just bouncing around the Arab world from city to city.

So, noise and abstract, jumbled nonsense is all that would come out of me every time I picked up my Oud, but it wasn’t engaging enough to put out there – to share with people. Once I started exploring Ableton live and some max for live patches made by the amazing community, it was like the long needed spark to get things hot again! Suddenly, I was able to make sense of the noise I was making, and didn’t have to rely solely on melody to express my self anymore. So in a sense I began surprising myself by what was coming out of me rather than being surprised by the instrument itself, which then led to the re-invigoration of the relationship.

PHOTO BY JOHANNE ISSA

PHOTO BY JOHANNE ISSA

I understand that Nawa Recordings was originally set up to release your 2011 record Resonance/Dissonance, and that the label was launched proper in 2014. What led to your decision to expand the label?

It’s always been one of my dreams, to have my own label, to document and support my own work and that by artists I admire. I’ve always been hugely influenced by independent labels like Dischord, Ipecac, Hydrahead, Southern Lord, Brainfeeder, 12K etc… The respect they afford to their artists and the communities they helped to create are beautiful, inspiring things.

In 2014 Maurice Louca was getting ready to release his second album Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot) and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give his album the push it deserved and launch the label proper, to give life to this dream. Aside from the PR and distribution I do everything else myself, so it isn’t easy. In fact, the workload from the label was a big part of my collapse last year. That said, I’m very proud of the results of that hard work and I’m really excited to take things another step forward, as soon as I can find someone to help take the load off a little!

Research tells me that you previously co-ran a label called House Of Stairs, and that you almost started up another label in 2010 as well. How have these previous experiences informed the way in which you operate Nawa?

Yes, House of Stairs started as kind of a collective founded by members of London based bands The Monsoon Bassoon, Stars in Battledress, Geiger Counter/Foe and Ursa (the band I used to play drums in). We used to meet every two weeks and put money in a collective pot towards the albums we wanted to release. Slowly the collective petered out and Jason Carty (Geiger Counter/Foe) and I ended up running it.

We released four albums in one year, lost a lot of money and then put the whole thing on the back burner. Of course I learnt a lot, it was a labour of love and passion and excitement about the community of artists we represented. It was really an astounding movement in London that never quite got the credit it deserved. The Monsoon Bassoon, Geiger Counter and Stars in Battledress being the cream of the crop. But once it petered out, it all kind of disappeared.

That was the most important lesson I learnt. Just having a label and manufacturing some albums isn’t enough. You have to learn how to document your works properly and how to leave a proper trace. You also have to think seriously about your sustainability as artists because real life will come knocking. I didn’t want to make the same mistake with Nawa.

On a side note, I saw that you used to play in Art Of Burning Water! That’s incredible. I saw them at DIY Space For London only last year. Do you have any particular memories from your time in the band?

Yes indeed I do. Me and Geith grew up together more or less, although we haven’t been in touch for a while. I haven’t seen Mike for years either. I have a lot of great memories, mostly to do with the energy of certain riffs or lyrics at gigs we played. Supporting Melt Banana at the LA2, a tiny and very loud show we did at Moriarty’s in London once. It was life or death for us in those years, going on stage was like going into battle. We would do all we could to make every note engulf us whole. I don’t know if it really meant anything to audiences, but to us it was a spiritual experience.

Then there was the tour with Foe and Chicago’s American Heritage to support The Combined Stupidity of Spiteful Men (a split record we released on House of Stairs). That was the disastrous tour that kind of killed everything, but there are plenty of funny stories from that one. In particular a show in Dublin where we lost a box of merch, played to 30 random people in a swanky converted cinema with very expensive champagne on the menu and then the promoter paid us in vegetables and tinned bamboo shoots instead of cash.

I see that you took part in a workshop with Bang On A Can Allstars earlier this year, which must have been incredible. Can you tell me what that was like? Did it trigger any particular reflections on your relationship with your music?

Actually it did. It was exactly the push I needed this year.  Each of the BOAC All-Stars – Ken, Mark, Ashley, David, Vicky – are really masters of their craft and when you are around such humble musicians, it immediately makes you reflect on what you do, and how and why you do it. During the workshop they all shared some of their own or solo works, and their cellist Ashley Bathgate played a new work composed for her by Jacob Cooper called Ley Line. It’s a work that at one point has to be played with two bows, with two hands. Aside from looking a little sensational and being a marvel to watch, the sound that came out of Ashley’s energy and the acoustic cello was just astounding. She is a spectacular musician.

Then they played Workers’ Union by Louis Andriessen for us at breakneck speed – a million times more viscerally than the recording of that piece. At that point I thought I was going to spontaneously combust. It had been so long since I had felt that kind of overwhelming and honest energy from a live music performance (last I can remember was Swans at Supersonic 2010).

Unintentionally, they helped me break down some of my own barriers related to the Oud and Arabic music as a whole – particularly the concepts of culture, tradition, change, rule-breaking etc… You can read about and listen to recordings of contemporary classical music all you want, its not until you experience it that it makes sense. Plus they played a role in rekindling the flame between me and my Oud because they are so at one with their instruments, no matter whether they are screaming or whispering, every note is always full of life and respect for the sound that is emanating from them, individually and/or collectively. Massive inspiration.

What other music are you listening to at the moment?

Oren Ambarchi – Hubris, Taylor Deupree – Somi, Popol Vuh – Hosianna Mantra, Brian Eno – Reflection, Ryuichi Sakamoto (bit of everything), various Uyghur 12 Muqam recordings, The Stooges, Alberto Iglesias’s soundtracks to the films of Almodovar,  Gustavo Santaolalla’s soundtracks to the films of Iñárritu, Julius Eastman – Unjust Malaise.

What’s on the horizon for Nawa and your own music? I understand that you’ve got a new solo record in the works; can you tell me anything about that?

Nawa will be releasing the debut EP by Two or the Dragon, debut EP by Aya Metwalli and the debut album by Nadah El Shazly before the end of the year. There are a couple of other things in the pipeline but nothing confirmed as yet.

I am currently working on the soundtrack for a new feature-length documentary film by Dutch-Indonesian director Leonard Retel-Helmrich about a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Plus my first contemporary classical composition which will be a new work for Oud, Harp, Percussion and Orchestra, commissioned by the Royal Orchestral Society in London. I also have a commission for the Swiss pavilion at the Venice Biennale which will be a bi-lingual Arabic/English poetry-based exploration of words and music with Lebanese singer Naim Al-Asmar. All of those will premier in November this year.

Before that I am putting together a new project featuring Andrea Belfi (drums), Daniele Camarda (fretless bass) and Layale Chaker (violin) which will premier in Berlin this August. This one is inspired by J.G. Thirlwell’s Manorexia, Gustavo Santaolalla, Bohren und der Club of Gore, Arabic maqam and the rhythms of the Arabic Muwashshahat. A curious mix I will say! It’s also a commission, from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), but I’m really hoping that it won’t be a one-off.

In between all those, I’m waiting to do a few more shows of Kawalees and develop it live before going into the studio to record it. At the same time, I’m working on some new music which at the moment I can only describe as ambient arabic maqam music (hence my recent dive into the worlds of Eno, Sakamoto and Deupree). This is something I am really excited about and have been working towards for many years.

I still need to be very careful with my health and try to keep my demons at bay. Travelling less and opening my email inbox less makes a lot of difference. But there’s really no medicine like a little self-love mixed with a lot of creativity and expression. Especially once you start focusing on yourself a little, and ridding yourself of your self-created fears and restrictions, everything just comes alive. Music is a beautiful thing.

Khyam Allami – khyamallami.com
Khyam Allami on SoundCloud – soundcloud.com/khyamallami
Nawa Recordings – nawarecordings.com
Nawa Recordings on Bandcamp – nawarecordings.bandcamp.com

Nawa Showcase Dates: