Tamer Abu Ghazaleh: Producing songs as I hear them in my head
A conversation with Kinda Hassan

I met musician Tamer Abu Ghazaleh in the new Cairo offices of his Arab music platform Eka3 to talk about his recent album Thulth.

The new office is in Agouza, a street away from the home I moved to in Cairo from Beirut, a year after quitting my job at Eka3 in Lebanon. I always told Tamer that the company’s success would depend on his own artistic project, to which he should give most of his time. The release of Thulth is a clear step in this project, and that is why it’s important to talk about it. For over an hour, we spoke in the white dialect, as Tamer calls it: a mix of Palestinian, Lebanese and Egyptian.

Kinda Hassan: I think that by recording this album, you’re putting something behind you — so this is done, we can start something new. But you also decided to include two old tracks from the older album Mera’a [Mirror], Hobb [Love] and Takhabot [Wallowing]. Why did you decide to record them differently, and what’s the difference between the two recordings?

Tamer Abu Ghazaleh: All the work was released in a way or another before, including Hobb and TakhabotFajr al-Bid [Desert Dawn] and Mahragan al-Balaat [Festival of the Cesspools] had initial recordings online. Some songs didn’t have recordings but were performed in concerts. I was hesitant at first between doing this album or leaving behind that whole phase and working on new things. There’s a point at which work performed at concerts needs to be documented, and an idea that it doesn’t only need documentation but also to be recorded in order to be complete as a sound project. But at some point I was tired of these songs and wanted to make new ones, so I didn’t want to record them.

After I was nagged enough and thought about it for a long time, I discovered it felt right. True, I was tired of them, but at the same time their complete form was in my head all the time and hadn’t come out anywhere, not in concerts or initial recordings. True, I wanted to work on new things, but at the same time I hadn’t heard Fajr al-Bid for example with all those instruments like the bouzouki, and the backing vocals. I heard these songs in my head but they didn’t exist in reality. When I thought about it and understood this more, I felt I needed to do it.

By the same token, I needed to repeat Hobb and Takhabot because they were closer to Mera’a and the versions we played in concerts than newer things like Fajr al-Bid. The form HobbTakhabot and Namla [Ant] had achieved in recent concerts showed there was a sound that didn’t only need to be documented but to be completed, but not like the way Fajr al-Bid is complete, through more instruments. They needed to be complete by being recorded in this way on an album, to get certain dynamics and intended dimensions that don’t come out in concerts. At concerts, you can’t have a lot of rich dynamics due to technical and musical challenges. There were new songs, as well, like Al-Ghareeb [The Stranger], which came from an older phase compositionally but wasn’t developed. So it was also important to release it on the album.

KH: What are choices you made in the production process? It’s clear that you wanted backing vocals in all the songs, for example. There’s a big difference in how your voice is mixed compared to the older album. There’s also a difference in the position of your voice in relation to the instruments. Were these decisions deliberate and taken by you? When [producer and musician] Khyam Allami was mixing, were you telling him what to do?

TAG: There were several stages. There was a phase where certain songs could only be completed through specific instruments and sound effects. I had prepared these in advance. Other things came up during recording. When you add piano, percussion, drums and the bass for example, and you start recording the vocals or the oud, you hear the other instruments you’re recording over more clearly, and this generates ideas on the spot.

I knew I needed backing vocals with part of Takhabot to emphasize certain things, but I still didn’t know what to do exactly. It became clear in the studio when the instruments were clearly heard as I was recording the vocals. There are things that became clear with practice during concerts, such as the dynamics in Helm [Dream] and how gradation happens in it. This got clearer with time, as we practiced so much, and peaked during recording. Every song needed to reach a new level, different from before. How to achieve that? For example the piano frequently does a sort of rhythmic gap almost the whole duration of Helm, so every note would be recorded several times to give us its full range.

Some decisions came from imagining the songs before recording and some during recording when ideas became clearer. There’s a part in the mix where Khyam was making choices such as the peak in Al-Ghareeb, how you suddenly enter a space where the nature of the sound is different, there are effects on it like distortions and delays. These choices are related to how much Khyam understands what’s in my head and can pursue that in his own head. That’s very important. A lot of the time you don’t get this [synergy] so you don’t get this kind of result — because I don’t have the tools, they’re with him.

KH: Out of curiosity, in Al-Ghareeb, which was new for me, why did you choose those words?

TAG: The words were from the same group as Fajr al-Bid and Alama [Sign]. They came from [poet] Ramez Farag and [graphic designer] Ahmed Foula. Back then, Huda Asfour and I were in the band Jehar and were working on them. It was a phase. These words were offered to us and we were asked to make songs with them.

With time, Al-Ghareeb became one of the songs with very touching words, in a depressive way. I always felt an energy was coming out of them. Little by little, I started working on it until the song idea came out, but it wasn’t finished. It was complete in terms of structure, main composition, but not in terms of how to hold it together and perfect the melody. I couldn’t call it a song yet. Al-Ghareeb‘s beauty and problem is that it relates to any human being, I think. Especially me. It was a time when I was very attached to Ramallah, which I’d just left to come to Cairo to go to university. I wanted to return to Ramallah. So the song relates to that time and feeling. But I think it goes beyond that, because there’s still a certain influence to it.

KHKhabar Agel [Breaking News], which I know you wrote more than 10 years ago, is old but also very different from where you started. When you entered the world of singing, you had something militant, like singing Ma Fi Khof [a patriotic song that Tamer sung at five — he laughs], but when you decided to sing a direct song that speaks of Palestine, you had a very different position.

TAG: True. [Laughs]

KH: Maybe you can tell us about this position, which has a bit of nihilism and a bit of cynicism.

TAG: When I think about it, I feel that the way Palestine is spoken about in Khabar Agel was the product of childhood, when I was singing in a revolutionary way that I’d learned from being in the [Palestinian]  Abbad al-Shams choir in Egypt. I think it also has to do with how much we sang for the nation and the cause and the beautiful things and the revolution, and how much we were disappointed as a people, to the point where you can’t really be serious. What’s serious really? What? [Laughs.] There’s nothing to be said. You can only vent in a different way.

KH: Do you feel a rapport with artists making work that’s more nihilist than militant?

TAG: I think the closest example is [Lebanese musician] Ziad Rahbani, who put this thing in my head. He was maybe the closest reference in Takhabot. But it didn’t come out prominently until Khabar Agel, which is the nearest thing to the extreme artistic and musical influence Rahbani had on me. There’s this venting in his music, but not in a serious way, and that’s very nice about Ziad. I think it came out somehow in Khabar Agel.

KH: It also came out in Mahragan al-Balaat, as if it’s still present.

TAG: But now it’s a bit different. The difference between Khabar Agel and later humorous songs is that Khabar Agel has that reference in a clear, strong way. Other songs have a bit of a mix. Mahragan al-Balaat has a mix of the humor of Khabar Agel and the absurdity of Takhabot. Many elements were added in a different way later, and there weren’t many humorous songs after that. I think it happened in three years, between 2007 and 2009… Ah, but also afterwards. For example, Al-Khad has a humorous style but something else as well. Maybe Al-Khad is humorous for enjoyment, not for criticism. It’s an intriguing question.

KH: Other than humor, which is a form of expression, I’m interested in how after such a long time you came back with Mahragan al-Balaat, and before that, also Ah Men al-Ikhwan [Oh from the Brotherhood]. It’s as if there’s a position, or a desire to take a position.

TAG: You mean in politics?

KH: Not in the direct sense of political militancy, but there’s a position on an art and a music that’s engaged with its surroundings, in those two songs that came long after Khabar Agel. There’s something in Mahragan al-Balaat that I find intriguing, even in the final words where it humorously says, “I who speak Egyptian when I’m Palestinian.” It’s as if you’re saying, why should I care if I come from elsewhere? It’s a song that creates a relationship, alongside Khabar Agel, in a nice way. Of course they’re different musically. But there are similarities. How did you decide to take a position through the music in those tracks?

TAG: Let me tell you the truth. When I think about Khabar AgelMahragan al-Balaat and Ah Men al-Ikhwan, those three came out of how much there was talk about the issues around me. I remember how much talk there was about the Muslim Brotherhood and what the Brotherhood were doing. One day I was in a taxi and caught myself singing: “Oh the Brothers, they’re in paradise now, they hijacked the square.” Did I hear it somewhere and am singing it? No. I discovered that the song had just come to me and that’s it. So I think it all relates to being in the middle of something intense. Or maybe to being implicated or needing to continue a work in the direction it came from. It is primarily political. It is a decision at the end of the day. Maybe I am not taking the same decision now. It was also a phase.

KH: How much does having a band influence you as you’re composing, the band having specific instruments and people with whom you’ve worked for a while? Do you think about these particular instruments when you work with them? How does the band’s presence influence you, positively or negatively?

TAG: It is very influential. The idea is that you always work with what you have. In some cases, my only given was that I have a band, and so the songs came out in particular ways and reached a compositions based on that band’s sound. It shows in how HelmTakhabot and Hob developed. I can’t say this is positive or negative. It is part of artistic production, you use what you have to produce. I don’t think there’s anything limiting, as much as it’s a question of the ingredients I have to work with, whether I like it or not. If there’s something necessary for a song, though, I’d find someone to play it. At some point I started looking for electronics and making loops and working with software. So when we were performing in concerts, with the band and their instruments, electronics had to be introduced too. A new tool was added to the old and familiar ones, as opposed to replacing them. What’s bad is when I have a sound in my head that’s not compatible with the band, so I wonder what to do in this situation. Do I need to find other people, or what?

KH: How are you dealing with this in your new body of work?

TAG: I’m still not dealing with the new body of work. I’m working on the new songs in a different way. I’m not presenting them in concerts, but working on them by starting with recording at home with the tools that I have. I’m replacing instruments played in space with the computer to try to understand how the sound would come out. When this group of songs is done, I’ll understand what can be done to develop them. It’s a different way of working and can take me to another place or a new one. I don’t know.

KH: What’s the difference for you between doing your own individual work and collaborative work?

TAG: I think this is important, a core issue. I also think everyone establishes it in their own way. For me, the main difference in my own project is that it all depends on my individual imagination, while with a band, including Alef, it depends on my imagining based on what’s come out of the band. So I can’t go to the band with a new idea I have and tell them to implement it. But if we sit together and play some lines, ideas come out. The creation process becomes a shared one that includes Maurice Louca, Khyam, myself and everyone. It’s not like the work of each of us alone.

KH: But how much do you feel that your role in the group hasn’t reached its limits? You know what I mean? Sometimes, when you work with others, you have to compromise.

TAG: Actually, in Alef, I was feeling that way a bit. And then when we all started meeting and working together more, in an open way, it became useful. I learned a lot from this experience. It was useful to see things I had an idea about and understand them better from these guys. It was part of creating together.

It all developed in a simple way. At the beginning, we gathered around the 2012 London Olympics to do a workshop and produce songs to perform. Then it developed with every period where we had a workshop to compose together and think of new things. At the beginning, when people don’t know each other, those on the organizing side tend to have a bigger contribution. But when everyone got comfortable and closer to each other, and had more trust that their opinion would be well received, it was different.

KH: At what point does the audience exist for you during the writing, composition and production processes? Do you think about audience in the production process?

TAG: Of course not. [Pause.] I’m trying to think if there were songs where I thought about the public during the production, but I don’t think so. What comes to my mind is how the ideas I have can come out in a clear way when they’re listened to, rather than thinking of the public. That’s the more important element for me. A lot of the time, and this is one of the things that I’m learning, I find things to be clear for me in terms of their features and colors, but I don’t notice how in presenting them to people, they become different. That’s the main thing in the production process. The most important thing for me is how to make the public hear what I’m hearing in my head.

KH: What’s the thing that disappoints you about the public? Does anything disappoint you about the public?

TAG: No, I don’t think so. Maybe disappointment comes from expectation, and if you have no expectation from the public, then there’s no disappointment.

KH: You made a decision long ago to stay in this region, as it’s meaningful for you politically, socially and belonging-wise. You also thought, if we leave, who will stay? But there’s another point related to working in the region — my question is, what’s the relation between belonging and working? How do you deal with the idea that the ceiling is low here? There aren’t many instances where you can find people to learn from. Of course you learn from your experience, but at some point you reach a phase where you feel you lack guidance. How do you work on continuing to develop yourself?

TAG: So far I don’t feel I have a problem. I learn from the people around me and with whom I work. What I’ve noticed is that there are different things to learn, as opposed to one thing into which I go deeply. Lately I’m learning how to record in order to implement what’s in my mind in a better way. I’m learning how things are produced during recording so that in the mixing it gets closer to what’s in my mind. That’s an example of things I’ve learned next to the music itself. I don’t know if one thing’s more important than the other in what I’m learning. But I don’t have clear priorities and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe sometimes it’s good to hold onto a thread from the beginning and keep developing it by learning about it till it’s a dead end, for sure that’s useful. But I don’t think I’m saturated here. I feel that I continue to be challenged and I still want to learn more. Thank God. [Laughs.]

KH: Do you feel that with the tools you have you’re able to deliver the ideas you want to deliver? You spoke a lot about this in relation to the last album — that you wanted to produce songs as you heard them in your head, with their full potential. For the work that’s yet to come, do you feel you have what it takes to live up to your aspirations?

TAG: I really don’t know, because what’s yet to come is not complete to know whether I have the tools for it or not. Maybe there is a question here: What can I do for my work in terms of developing the tools that exist in the region? Maybe I can think in an opposite way — do the available tools make me rethink what I have in mind? I don’t know what you do in this situation. But I think the region has its advantages and disadvantages as usual. Before, I was more attached to staying here than I am now. I feel that music changes according to place. When you think about it seriously, you’re coming up with things from your environment and if your environment changes, what you’re producing will change and resemble the environment it comes out from. So while I did have a strong position against changing my environment and hence my work, I no longer have this objection, for many reasons — including age. You see things differently.

KH: How?

TAG: You discover that you’re attached to things other than the environment, even different from the language. We think identity and culture are made of certain things, but in reality, these things don’t matter that much. What matters is that I can be in the best shape and that I’m comfortable with myself so that my expression is perfected. This isn’t easy and there are many choices to make. But at the same time it doesn’t take much to make one comfortable with oneself. The idea is to find out what it takes to be comfortable, and environment is a natural part of that question.

Kinda Hassan 

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