It is safe to say that Hunter S. Thompson made an entire career out of dissecting failure. Much of his work deals with the death of “the American dream” and, as a prominent voice of 1960s US counterculture, the aftermath of the movement’s subsidence. Perhaps nowhere else in his writing is this more evident than his famous “wave speech,” embedded at the heart of his notorious roman á clef, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). In this iconic passage, which Thompson himself has described “as one of the best things [he’s] ever fucking written,” he recalls his memories a few years back in San Francisco, lamenting the unfulfilled promise that the revolutionary period brimmed with.
In the ongoing moment of defeat that we are inhabiting meanwhile — here, and now — we couldn’t help but draw certain parallels between Thompson’s (or the novel’s main character, Raoul Duke’s) state during that solitary moment of reminiscing, and our own sporadic revisiting of a different wave that once rose high. That is why this particular text came as a natural choice to us at Mada when we began thinking about the fourth installment of “Found in Translation,” a collaborative series of events we started with Cairo Jazz Club in April 2017. The fact that a new Arabic translation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was recently released by Al Mahrousa, reviving local interest in the novel, was also an encouraging factor.
Luckily, when CJC contacted music producer and keyboardist Kubbara to “translate” Thompson’s text into music, he seemed to already be on the brink of finding a suitable musical scheme. Having always wanted to work on a project with an R&B sound, Kubbara gathered four friends and musical acquaintances with the aim of using the “wave speech” to that end: Hassan Seleit from electropop band Ritza on drums, Mohamed Mallawany — who plays alongside Kubbara in the newly-founded band Saraia — on bass guitar, and Egyptian-American singer Charls Ava and musician (and graphic artist) Omar Mobarek as vocalists.
Together, the five artists came up with seven songs, directly extracted from or inspired by Thompson’s words, which they will perform at CJC on Tuesday. While Kubbara developed the musical compositions, both Ava and Mobarek put together lyrics and their melodies. “The event’s title, See the High, is actually part of the very last line in the text, but [Ava] decided to zoom in on those three words alone rather than the whole sentence, so it became more abstract and open to multiple interpretations,” Kubbara says. The line he refers to is Thompson’s concluding observation in the selected passage: “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
This excerpt, coupled with the repetitive manner in which it is rendered in one of the songs, calls to mind the psychedelic aspect of Thompson’s prose, particularly where he describes his own experiences with hallucinatory drugs — sequences that were skillfully visualized by director Terry Gilliam in his 1998 film adaptation of the novel, starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro. Kubbara also cites Everybody Loves the Sunshine by Roy Ayers as an influence, being a song that is structured around one compelling line. “The general feel is predominantly R&B, particularly neo-soul — the kind of music rooted in the work of artists such as Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill in the 1990s,” he says.
Thompson was a serial experimenter. He challenged the boundaries of journalism to create a new, unconventionally vibrant form of the genre, and — in both his life and work — toyed with the limits of consciousness itself. This musical treatment of the late iconoclast’s words is only one addition to a continuously growing string of works inspired by his legacy, one that Kubbara says he and his fellow musicians have tried their best to make fittingly playful and alive.
In the video below, we share a sneak-peek of what Ava, Mobarek, Seleit, Mallawany and Kubbara have been preparing for next week’s event, shot during one of many jamming sessions:
Found in Translation IV takes place this Tuesday (October 30, 2018) at the Cairo Jazz Club.