Band of the week: Yasmine Baramawy

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Yasmine Baramawy closes her eyes and plucks the top string of the oud. About 50 people sit facing her in a dimmed room, and she opens her set framed by a projected display created by Kareem Osman. The screen behind her shines with a pale blue and warm red tint that streaks across a looping shot of a busy Cairo intersection.

A melody forms after several strokes of the reverberating bass strings, announcing the oud’s melancholic — yet distinctly modern — mood. The songs and visuals progressively blend into each other as the strings’ vibrato bounces around the room. By the time Baramawy begins “Anonymous,” a single from her upcoming debut album of the same name, audience members seem to have become subdued, spaced out in an audiovisual digression specially designed to either infuriate or spellbind. Baramawy and Osman’s collaboration seems to be captivating most, although every so often a few listeners are lost to early exits, sneaking out through the massive soundproof door of 100Copies.

During the hour-long set, Osman experiments with several techniques in live visual mixing.

Keeping a video camera aimed at the doff drum, he creates a wooshing sound by handling the goatskin base, or lightly taps on the instrument. He records the sound and image through the camera and stage mics, and then delays both the sound (through a mixer) and the visuals (through a program called VDMX). Through the circular motions of his hand grazing the drum, a looping ambient sound forms, adding a nice filler between the traditional plucks and not-so-traditional rock strokes rattling from Baramawy’s oud. Osman’s hand movements are presented through the projector in washed out tones, consistent pale blues, warm reds, and lavender trails of the layered visual delays, dancing live on the screen.

“We were trying to experiment with the feedback from both the sound and visuals by using the video camera to capture and portray the feedback coming from both components in the live set,” Osman explained afterward, adding that the performance was a test run for a project titled Rebound, with Baramawy on oud and Osman adding ambient fillers made from the feedback, while also using similar visual techniques.  

Perhaps the show could have been even more resonant were it about 20 minutes shorter, at least until the duo work out the kinks of syncing live visuals with solo oud. But it was pretty cool to see a room full of people choosing to sit around a dark room in downtown Cairo, listening to a girl on an oud, switching between Iraqi styles, traditional Egyptian styles, and jarring yet exciting rock embellishments.

Baramawy is a musician who plays one of the world’s oldest instruments but manages to work with a curious blend of different approaches and genres through collaborations.

“Since studying at Beit of Oud years ago, I’ve started creating some classical music arrangements and compositions like the ones in last night’s set,” she said. “I also come from a background of metal and hard rock. At the same time I’ve recently been studying Iraqi oud. So you can see the spectrum of all of these in how I play the oud.”

With every performance or project, she says, she adapts her style to the song or collaboration. In her work with TAHOON, an Egyptian rapper and R&B artist who’s forging a new sound in the hip-hop scene by mixing in traditional Egyptian instrumentation, Baramawy has experimented with new ways to save a traditional instrument from a traditional extinction, inserting her solos into an Arabic rap ballade. In the resulting song, the oud and finger cymbals add a luscious texture to the otherwise Western-sounding music.

Baramawy also performs with spoken-word Sufi musician and rapper Abdullah Miniawy. In their collaborations she tends to lean more toward traditional Egyptian oud, which she feels makes a nice backdrop to his Sufi chants. To modernize, she’ll add some rock textures, in the form of unconventional strokes or structures more commonly used on a guitar.

“I clicked with Miniawy because he’s very diverse and interested in combining variations of Sufi, oriental, and other genres of music,” she says. “He’s open to deconstructing things — in a live show last week we deconstructed everything, it wasn’t about drums and bass or harmony with the keyboard, it was part oriental, part rock, sometimes with aggressively recited poetry.”

Baramawy is currently working on the “Anonymous” EP, which pays tribute to the many anonymous women who are victims of sexual assault in Egypt. It’s not far from home, as Baramawy herself was horrifically attacked during a protest against former President Mohamed Morsi’s Constitutional Decree in November 2012 in Tahrir Square. Afterward, she bravely made the decision to become an active voice in the fight against sexual violence.

In the 100Copies show, a portion of the video display was dedicated to a looping series of 1000 photographs of women holding protest posters from the Uprising of Women in the Arab World, initiated in 2011. These days, however, the artist finds herself torn between activist self and musician self.

“It’s not really about using my music as a tool for feminism, it’s more that I have reactions to things that happen in my life and that’s what dictates my expression,” she explains. “Last year, the activist won completely — now I’m trying to go back to the musician. Either way, they both make me who I am, so that’s what I express.”

Maha ElNabawi 

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