We read Constantine Cavafy then listen to Kamilya Jubran at Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Cavafy’s poetry lives in images of the past, but without nostalgia. They are images that locate memory in the body and transform history into more than a cemetery of defeated trajectories.
We love Kamilya. We love her prestigious yet light presence on stage. We love her audacity in reinventing her musical identity.
We listen to Kamilya’s new album Wa and leave unsettled. It feels elitist and obscure. Some members of the audience leave before the show is even over. Perhaps the space plays a role: The hall is luxurious, the musicians on the stage, elevated above the audience. We sit there as though a very serious message is expected to come our way. The evening takes a formal character of some sort. We believe that it is better to listen to Wa in a more intimate setting. It’s like meeting people we are excited about for the first time, but they aren’t easy people, so we need to take them away from noise, and then we can listen to them properly.
Listening here is making an effort. The music in Wa refuses to play its traditional role of lifting us up to a state of gentle elation. This becomes distinct from the first moment. The electronic music accompanying the oud doesn’t have clear features. Most of the time, there aren’t clear melodic lines or fixed rhythms, but intertwining and at times discordant impressions, casting one sonic cloud over the entire experience. We end up with a charged contemplative state, one in which we can be immersed, yet without feeling totally comfortable. The whole experience reminds us of the inherent invasive quality of sound as it penetrates spaces and souls. A lot of times, we can’t help but submit.
With an embodied consciousness of this invasive quality, the musicians use surround sound techniques. We sit still in our places, and different musical elements are whirling around us from different parts of the hall. They envelop us. There is no escape.
Clouds hover over the lyrics as well:
Clouds, gloom, gloomy
Cloud of the I, cloud of the eye, iCloud
Kamilya Jubran comes from a musical heritage where singing and the chanted word are its crowned heads. In Wa, she puts us in a state of unsettled interrogation of the authority of the word in singing, or the authority of the word in general. Here, she puts a halt on the unfolding of words into meaningful sentences; she only sings words. Some of these words exhibit that state of interrogation. At one point, she dances us between two words against Werner Hasler’s electronic rhythms: language and confidence. At some point, they become “confidence of language” and at others, “language of confidence.” Then she takes us to an abstraction that further crystallizes the question: the confidence of a language?
But Kamilya journeys with words to yet another ambition: How can they become the music, tunes that dance and play with those coming out of Hasler’s electronic and wind instruments, and those coming out of her own oud? How can words become sheer tunes? Are we talking here about the cancelation of the word’s function as a generator of meaning?
Well, not exactly.
In one segment of the single-track album, Hasler gives us an agile rhythm, the fastest throughout the composition. With it, Kamilya sings to us these words: He sat, wrote, studied, read. The rhythm keeps going, looping systematically, while she repeats the four words in different vocalizations and breaths. In some moments, we forget the meaning of the words and are submerged in their affective register with the music. We move some of our fingers with the words/rhythms, perhaps one or both of our legs, perhaps our heads too. This is probably the easiest part of the composition, where the words merge into the music with a familiar rhythm. But we aren’t totally liberated from the meaning of the words. Kamilya’s rich and confident singing repertoire smuggles itself to her performance today, at times challenging the ambitious deconstructionist and interrogational state that this album proposes.
The singing on Wa is not traditional. Some would consider it dissonant. It is as though Kamilya is trying hard to suppress her beautiful voice. She almost deliberately misperforms some of the tunes. But let’s be precise: there is no melody for this composition to start with, one to perform correctly or incorrectly. The sound here will not conform to the dominant frameworks of musical harmony; The tunes are often discordant, and surprising in the trajectories they take throughout the album. The voice refuses to play its traditional roles alongside the music accompaniment.
At some point, Hasler plays a tune with his trumpet, and Kamilya simulates the melody with her voice. Here we are exposed to the idea of the human voice as a sheer musical instrument. This is not a new idea, but it is not a shy one in this album, and this is despite Kamilya’s formidable vocal performance against the trumpet, a voice that comes off at times as that of an orator triumphing the act of singing, not one succumbing to the act of questioning.
This is how her voice journeys away from certainty and becomes a question mark.
We, cosmic lovers, imagine that Kamilya’s voice in Wa struggles with her old voice that her audiences, especially in the Arab World, are used to. It is as though it is running away from it, liberating itself from it. Instead of becoming a bearer of simple, complete meanings, this voice chooses to embody the distressing confrontation of the past. It pursues a post-modernist approach in deconstructing consistent renderings of history, music, singing and language. It’s an approach that often stops at breaking open the past and putting us in the face of its insides; an approach that deconstructs, but falls short of generating. Instead of offering an imaginary for renewal, it is an approach that opens up a space of doubt and places us before a mirror reflecting ourselves — What are we clinging to? What are the limitations of our engagement?
Or, in other words: If there is a soundtrack to the movement of history, how do we imagine it? Would it necessarily be readily and easily savored?