“And I try to come to terms with it all / But I don’t know how.”
–“Nefsi f Aqli” (Myself With My Head)
In a world overflowing with opinions that reek of false certainty, it takes a lot of boldness and sensitivity to embrace the ambiguities and disappointments of reality and find a way through. This is the path taken in Lekhfa (Invsibility), a joint album released last month by Maryam Saleh, Maurice Louca and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh. Having individually garnered fans and critical acclaim within and beyond the Middle East in recent years, the three musicians first started collaborating in 2014, gathering at a cabin in Alexandria to write some songs. Their combined energies finally culminated in this studio effort, where they embrace uneasy emotions and experimental ideas to create an uncanny sound all their own.
Saleh forged a unique combination of electro-pop and street poetry on her 2015 album with Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan, Halawella, while Abu Ghazaleh, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, co-produced her debut album, 2012’s Mesh Baghanny (I Do Not Sing). He is also the founder of Eka3, the music organization that runs Mostakell, the label behind Lekhfa. In addition to their solo endeavors, Abu Ghazaleh and Louca previously worked together as part of Alif, an avant-garde Arabic rock band that released an album, Aynama-Rtama (Wherever It Falls), in 2015.
Throughout Lekhfa, the three musicians show an easy chemistry, playing off each other’s skills to create some of their best work so far. Although critics have often questioned Saleh’s singing skills because of her lack of formal training, she really comes into her own as a vocalist on this album. Her voice stirs with emotion and power as she rises to the upper registers on “Mazzika w Khof” (Music and Fear), a psychedelic jam of whirling synthesizers and suspenseful strings. Abu Ghazaleh continues to push Arabic string instruments, namely the oud and buzuq, into unexpected directions throughout the album, and his fingerprints are apparent as well in the colorful arrangements and strange detours of tracks like “Woshoush El Leil” (Faces of the Night).
The album also features beat-driven tracks like “Teskar Tebki” (Drunk, You Weep Like A Child) and “Ayez Awsal” (I Want To Arrive), where Louca brings back the surrealist synths and maqsoom rhythms from his acclaimed 2014 album Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot), creating moments of sheer groove-based ecstasy.
The lyrics of Lekhfa were all written by local poet Mido Zoheir, a frequent collaborator of Saleh’s who has also written lyrics for other artists like Black Theama and Dina El Wedidi. Writing in colloquial Arabic, Zoheir offers startling images of betrayal, madness, demagoguery and doubt. That may sound unforgiving on paper, yet his words are laced with humanity and compassion, and the band responds with music that is just as nuanced.
On “Myself With My Missing Head,” Abu Ghazaleh, Louca and bassist Mahmoud Waly draw up a web of uneasy riffs, the oud and slide guitar creeping along in a way reminiscent of American math rock bands Slint and Rodan. Wracked with vulnerability, Saleh and Abu Ghazaleh sing low and deep in the chest, but then the strings brighten and Saleh snaps back into shape with heartfelt vocals: “I live a wayward life sometimes / Then make a mistake, and apologize / Then stop, strike a pose / And behold my flood of prose!”
As Egypt endures soaring prices and crackdowns on freedom of expression, Lekhfa delivers a biting cynicism about the state of the world. The lyrics read as deeply personal reflections, and some might see in them a feeling of post-revolution disillusionment or depression, but Zoheir keeps the details vague and the tone universal, leaving his words open to interpretation.
The mournful opener “Kont Rayeh” (I Was On My Way) describes a person who’s been sabotaged by his loved ones and “snared by a beast,” right at the moment he was feeling most ready to take on the future. “Mathaf Fonoun El Ghesh” (Museum of Deception) is all yawning organs and slithery string bends, Saleh and Abu Ghazaleh drawing out the sheens in the lyrics, dismissing people as “secrets and mirrors” and the world as “a bit of decor.”
Despite the darkness of the album’s themes, the band pushes forward musically, offering progress in the form of innovative sounds and a strange allure. In “Faces of the Night,” Saleh and Abu Ghazaleh’s voices build into a wailing chorus over a tremulous clarinet and a dense rhythm from Louca and drummer Khaled Yassine. Abu Ghazaleh’s command of the oud comes to the fore in “Makonsh Wakoun” (To Be Or Not Be), his phrasings delicate over Louca’s synths and Saleh’s multi-tracked vocals.
On Lekhfa’s more overtly political tracks, the trio resists sloganeering and instead takes aim at deeper structures of coercion and control. “Ekaa Maksour” (Broken Rhythm) rocks rumbling drums and a grey mizmar squall as Saleh and Abu Ghazaleh serve up couplets implicating demagogues and cowed masses alike: “Let us hear your rolling beat / Intoxicate our plucked wings / If falsehood is your game / People will serve you without shame.”
The song reminds me of Kamilya Jubran and Werner Hasler’s “Miraat Al-Hijarah” from 2006: Though Jubran sings in classical Arabic and the arrangement is more stripped-down, both songs set up the listener with a rousing groove, only to end on a despondent note. As Saleh explains in a recent interview with The National: “For me, I think [Broken Rhythm] observes how society and power systems impose certain moulds, paths and frameworks on us, yet what is imposed is actually deformed.”
In other moments, Saleh, Louca and Abu Ghazaleh show glimmers of hope. “You whose tears fall like bricks / in your heart, a branch still blooms,” they sing in “Drunk You Weep Like A Child,” which, despite some bleak and explicit lyrics, is one of the album’s brighter tracks, drifting on cloudy synths, a plinking piano loop and a loose-limbed maqsoom beat.
Even more stunning is the album’s closing number, “I Want To Arrive.” The opening drum beat is an incredible stomp of clattering hand percussion, bass drums and snares — a rhythm that is soulful and heavy in a way reminiscent of the famous break from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.”
Synthesizers come in later, wheezing and bending, and Saleh slices through with an elongated vocal melody, her voice taut as she communes about love and death: “When you want tenderness I turn tender / When you demand madness I go mad.” A whole world of emotion and experience feels contained in the song’s skewed groove and haunting lyrics, playing on the tension between discomfort and catharsis, weirdness and relief. It is ultimately contrasts like these that make Lekhfa such a powerful piece of music.