Someone listened to our music recently and said to me, "At first, I couldn't stand your vocals. Then I listened some more, and I started to get into them." He went on to say that my "Middle Eastern sounding voice, no wait, more like exotic, you know, for lack of a better term," stood in jarring contrast to Stefan's production style. "You sing from the gut," he said, "and to me, that doesn't really go with synths, but yeah, I'm into it now!" I asked him if he had expected to hear lighter, more washed out vocals. "Yeah, sung in more of a head voice," he concurred, "with more reverb on them." Yes, of course. Like this. And this. And this. I told him that I generally dislike fragile, over processed vocals, especially vocals drenched in reverb. That is, I don't personally identify with such vocals. They may blend well with layered electronics, but I have no desire to sound like a wispy dream girl. Fearful of causing offense, he quickly assured me that he fully respected the aesthetic choices Stefan and I have made. "What you guys do, it's different, it's really different," he insisted, "and I dig it. I respect you guys for making a bold choice, you know?" At this point, Stefan, who was sitting in on the conversation, joined in to say that we hadn't really decided to be bold. We had decided to work together, me as myself and him as himself. This was the choice we had made. And anyway, as Stefan put it, "The differences between us are the reason why we're interested in working together."
On a similar note, I recently received an email from a former co-worker who had finally listened to the FEZANT link I sent him ages ago. He wrote that he liked my "Middle Eastern approach" to singing, citing my use of minor modes and plaintive melisma. "You guys pull off a cool fusion of Eastern and Western music," he concluded. Then he compared us to Yazoo. I wrote back and thanked him for his kind words, all the while thinking to myself, "Plaintive melisma?" Yes, I'm from Lebanon and Stefan is from England, but does our making music together immediately equate to a cultural fusion of some kind? Does my voice really sound "Middle Eastern"? What does that even mean? Not that I'm upset by any of this. People hear what they hear. It's not my business to dictate how my voice should be identified or described. But I'm nonetheless intrigued by the label of "Middle Eastern" and the idea of fusion, because I can't sing a single song in Arabic, be it a folk tune, a classical masterpiece or a modern pop trifle. I rarely listen to Arabic music, and I can barely hear the difference between a half tone, a quarter tone, and a three quarters tone. I won't even go into all the different kinds of Middle Eastern music, be it North African, Levantine, Turkish, or Persian, and their respective vocal styles, because I can't sing in any one of these styles. I can't even fake it.
Several years ago, having returned to Beirut after four years in Western Massachusetts, I found myself at a creative loss. I was back in my home country, writing songs in English, listening to music in English, thinking in English, dreaming in English, and then wondering why I couldn't find my way into interesting collaborations with local musicians. Beirut is a fairly cosmopolitan (and somewhat confusing) place. Its citizens are multilingual, multicultural, and for the most part, have ample access to movies, music and the Internet. They consume cultural products from all over the world. Given such an open environment, I hoped that my diatonic pop songs, with their English lyrics and their verse-chorus-verse-chorus form, would be a relatively easy sell. This was not the case. Everywhere I went, I was asked why I didn't sing in Arabic, or at least, why I didn't incorporate Arabic elements into my sound. After all, everyone else was doing it. "You should learn to play the oud," a young oud player told me. "You should read some Arabic poetry," an old poet told me. "You should sing mix jazz with muwashah like Rima Khcheich," a friend of my mother's told me. So I put away my Kate Bush albums, found a music school, and enrolled myself in several courses, most notably, classical Arabic voice.
It didn't work out too well. Antonine University is located in a hilly suburb of Beirut. Its faculty comprises both priests of the Antonine order and laypeople. The curriculum is officially taught in French, but everyone speaks everything (Arabic, French and English) with varying degrees of fluency. It was vastly different from any educational institution I had attended thus far. My voice teacher was a young, blind, Egyptian man called Mustafa Said. He was witty, slightly neurotic, and unsparing in his criticism of my "American style" upbringing. In our first lesson, he asked me questions to which I could only offer unfavorable answers. "What do you think of Umm Kulthum?" I don't think of her all that much. "How many scales do you know?" Three or four at most. "What Arabic folk songs did you learn as a child?" None. "Do you realize that the call to prayer is the original form of Arabic vocalization?" No, but that makes sense. He then proceeded to hand me a flash drive full of ancient recordings of obscure imams reciting the call to prayer. He asked me to listen closely to the way they vocalized. "All in the chest and throat," he said. "Nothing in the head. Anyone who sings from the head is not singing Arabic music. They are singing a bastardized form of Arabic music that was perfected in the 1950s as a result of the infiltration of Western forms and styles into classical Arabic music." Oh. Good to know. "What about Asmahan?" I asked. "Wasn't she admired for her mastery of both classical Arabic and classical Western vocalization?" To which he replied, "What a loss, that woman. She could really sing. Why do you think they killed her? She was a spy. And even Umm Kulthum was lost by the end. Only her early recordings are excellent. At first, she was a miracle, but then she began to sing from the head to please the new audiences."
In other words, I was fucked. If late Umm Kulthum didn't cut it and Asmahan got killed for being embroiled in Western affairs, then there was no way in hell I would make it through a reconfiguration of my vocal technique alive. Surely enough, I couldn't sustain a strong chest voice through more than an octave of my range. Mustafa assured me that if I worked hard, I could undo my previous vocal training, unify my disparate vocal registers, and develop a monolithic, far-ranging chest voice, but after three months of lessons, I lost all interest in doing so. I had entrusted myself to Mustafa upon the premise that my musicality was lacking in ethnic authenticity and local relevance. All those years learning complex arrangements in middle school choir, belting overblown tunes in high school musicals, struggling with Italian arias, memorizing jazz standards, and dragging myself through hours and hours of college a cappella rehearsals were pushed aside in favor of the NEXT BEST THING, in this case, the Arabized version of my musical self. As I struggled through one Arabic folk song after another, I remembered the Bel canto teacher who told me my voice was too "cloudy" and needed to be lightened, the choir director who asked me to darken my timbre so as to blend more with the rest of the alto section, the guitar teacher who asked me to stop scooping up to notes so as to sing more "straight," the jazz band leader who told me my sense of time was too fluid and needed to be tightened up, and so on. I learned a great deal from all these well-meaning mentors, but the point is, everybody got their something. I'm interested in my own idiosyncratic muse rather than the infinitely varied and conflicting standards of teachers and peers. You can't please everyone. Not by any means.
The final unraveling of my doomed Arabization experiment was instigated by the insufferable husband of my mother's first cousin. One day, while we ate lunch in my aunt's bright and beautiful garden, he asked me what kind of music I made. Anticipating the worst, I said something monosyllabic about writing pop songs in English and hoped someone would change the subject. No one did. Instead, he, being of a hyper literary, congenitally Marxist, and perversely reactionary bent, began to lecture me on the merits of tarab. "Only Arabic music has tarab. Why would you want to make music that has no tarab? You should sing in Arabic. You should listen to the great singers of the past. You should..." I didn't bother defending myself. Tarab is a complex term. It signifies both a genre of Arabic vocal music and a more abstract concept of musical ecstasy. Although the term comes from Arabic music, it can be applied to any music whose main aim is to express and elicit emotion. It's actually a very useful way of drawing a distinction (as described in the "Arabic Music" blog to which I linked above) between the cerebral and the emotional in music. The purpose of tarab is "to move one emotionally through the music" until a state of ecstasy is achieved. Tarab is all emotion. Clearly, all kinds of music have tarab. I'm pretty sure Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love you" is tarab through and through. Although he made that long ago lunch a miserable experience for me, in retrospect, thank you, insufferable husband of my mother's first cousin, for impressing upon me the value of the term tarab.
Now that I'm back in Amreeka and settled here for the forseeable future, I'm free to sing, think, and dream in English throughout the day and night. I can forget all about Umm Kulthum and the like. Except that people keep reminding of my secret Middle Eastern self. They hear this secret self in my voice. Could it be genetic? Something about my overbite and the shape of my nose? That seems ridiculous. Could it be something in my basic temperament? A fiery passion derived from a childhood spent beneath the hot Middle Eastern sun? Probably not. Could it be the result of passive absorption? Despite having never paid it much heed, isn't it undeniable that Arabic music seeped into my ears via the radios, televisions and calls to prayers that surrounded me for my most of youth? Maybe. Because whatever it is, it's there. I actually agree with the fellow whose thought-provoking comments opened this post. I do sound somewhat Middle Eastern, whatever that means. Maybe what it means is tarab. I can settle on this. Stefan and I are very committed to tarab. Musical ecstasy. Singing from the gut. Analog synths oscillating from the gut. And we're definitely not the only ones. There's this duo called Light Asylum. They're amazing. The singer is amazing. She's all throat voice. Mustafa would be proud. (OK, maybe not, but it would be nice be nice if he were). We're going to see them play in a few weeks:
If we made a record, would you buy it? I mean, if we put our music on a vinyl disc, would you buy it? Do you own a record player? I don't. I barely know how to use one. Therefore, I am indifferent to the format. It seems costly and arcane. BUT BUT BUT. Everyone tells me vinyl sounds ridiculously good, like glistening bacon fat crackling in the cast iron. Like a luscious apricot bursting on the tongue. And anyway, no one buys CDs, and no one pays for digital downloads, so why not put out a record that sounds ridiculously good? Why not sell it for something like $25 and show the world that your music is worth it? Stefan is all for it. I don't mind either way. We're still going to give out free CDs at our shows. We're still going to let you download our music for free. Or are we?
We met this guy yesterday. His name is Ben Tundra, and he has a small Oakland-based record label called Tundra Dubs. Stefan sent him our music, he really liked "Animal," and a few weeks later, we all sat down together for an early dinner at a hipster diner. It was interesting. Ben Tundra had a lot to say. I mean a lot. About everything from multiple formats to licensing to silk screening to outboard gear to techno to hardcore punk to puppy care to pot smoking to song workshops and more. He said people buy vinyl, and sometimes, they pay for digital downloads, especially if they're your friends and they feel morally obligated to do so. Yes, I've heard about the return of vinyl. It's not news to me or anyone, but I never imagined my own music on a vinyl disc. It's never crossed my mind. I guess I imagined my music on a CD. Actually, not really. I don't buy CDs anymore. Sometimes, I purchase digital downloads. I don't really listen to more than four or five new albums a year, so I pay for them. Sometimes, my friends send me music. I suppose this counts as stealing. I don't directly steal. I'm too lazy for that. I'm a passive stealer. Most of my listening happens through my laptop with headphones on. Given the free for all that is the current music market, how should our music exist? How should it be listened to? Any way you like. All formats available. Still, I'm having trouble imagining a FEZANT album on vinyl. And I'm having trouble imagining more than 50 people buying it. That would be nice. If 50 people bought our album, that would be nice. Every single body contains a multitude of atoms. So that's like a million billion trillion to the trillion atoms listening to our music. Excellent. And what about every single soul? Numbers fail to describe the enormity of a soul. So there. 50 people is enough. 2 people is enough.
But I want more. I wanna be where the people are, and I want more listeners. More more more. Which brings me to my secret wish. I want all of it to be for free. I want our shows to be free. I want our music to be free. I want our merch to be free. I want all formats no matter how expensive or inexpensive they were to produce to be free. Um, Zeina, you say, everything you do already IS for free. Yes, yes, it is now, but we're inching our way toward charging for shows and selling our music. This is the natural progression. Nobodies do everything for free and somebodies start charging. If you want to be a somebody, you've got to start charging. It's about self-worth and status. It sure isn't about putting food on the table. As Ben Tundra said, you gotta be in it because you really fucking love music. There's no other reason to be in it. But charge for it anyway. NO ONE MAKES A LIVING OFF OF THEIR MUSIC ANYMORE. But charge for it anyway. OK, fine. There are ways to live off of your music, most of which involve licensing, royalties and endless touring. There are ways. Not all musicians have completely unrelated day jobs. But most do. Most musicians I know, anyway.
So then, would you buy it if we sold it? Maybe you would. Would it make a difference to our lives if you bought it? No. Not unless a whole shitload of you bought it, again and again. Or a television network bought it. Or a car company bought it. If music were a gift to everyone but the corporations, and they bankrolled our existence (which seems to be what's happening anyway), then maybe everything would come clear. We would know who to sell to, who not to sell to, and what to aim for. Corporate sponsorship. Of course, there are other ways to go. Cobbling together an income from various non-corporate sources is also possible. Ben Tundra said that every little bit counts. I still like the idea of giving everything away for free as part of a miraculous gift economy. I give you music, you give me dinner? I haven't worked out the equation quite yet. For now, if we put out a vinyl disc, I hope you'll buy it. And then buy a record player. Or fix that broken record player you have in a box somewhere. Until that happens, this is the free CD you can pick up if you come to one of our shows next month. It's a collection of various songs from our 3 EPs. The FEZANT stamp took forever to make. DIY, bitches:
This astute piece of advice came my way courtesy of Bottom of the Hill's exhaustive booking page. It seems obvious. You shouldn't be in a big hurry to play to nobody. But to me, it's a revelation:
"You should feel ready to play the Bottom of the Hill -- essentially this means that if you played a Monday night at the club, you'd feel very confident that 40 - 50 people would come to see your band. If you don't feel that's the case, that's okay. It doesn't mean you suck. it just means that you should wait a bit before playing this particular club. You shouldn't be in a big hurry to play to nobody and that's what happens if you play before you're ready."
When we played Carnegie Hall last fall, the acoustics were mind-blowing and all, but no one came. My mother came, and so did my one friend who lives in Brooklyn, but that was about it. All those beautiful acoustics were wasted on absent ears. So next time I go to a show at this venue or that venue with its epilepsy inducing lights, massive line array speakers, and hordes of drunken fans, and a fellow musician friend says to me, "Damn it, why can't I play here? If I had a stage like this, a sound system like this, and a huge console with my very own devoted sound engineer to mix my shit, then yeah, I'd have screaming fans too," I'll say to her, "Listen, you shouldn't be in a big hurry to play to nobody." And she'll say, "Nobody? Everyone will come if I play here!" And I'll say, "Everyone who? Your everyone is not enough. Even if everyone you know on Schmacebook and Twatter comes, it still won't be enough. A thousand people you don't know also need to come." And she'll say, "Fuck you, I'm great. I deserve a great venue." And I'll say, "You may be great, but playing a great venue is secondary to having a great audience." And so on. You get the point. I used to wonder how we could book a show at this or that great venue. Now I'm wondering how to acquire hordes of drunken fans...
Let's see. There's The Rickshaw Stop, The New Parish, Elbo Room, and Bottom of the Hill. That's about it for the medium-sized local venues that might be into our kind of synthtastic poporgasmatics. But as you know now, I'm not in a big hurry to play to nobody, so we're not ready for these venues. Because we need to...
4) Get a manager/label/booking agent or SOMETHING besides me, Stefan and this blog.
The music is not enough. Write that down. The music is not enough. Or maybe our music is not good enough. Really? Apparently, this music is good enough. So is this music. And this music. I rest my case. All these schmucks have representation. How dare I compare FEZANT to such luminaries? Oh whatever. I don't like their music, and they probably wouldn't like mine. All things being equal, what gives? Which is why we should...
5) DO IT OURSELVES!!!!!!!! YES YES YES. DIYDIYDIYDDIIIYYY!!!!!!!!!!
Make your own t-shirts, print your own CDs/tapes/records, make your own flyers, book your own tour, mix your own music, master it with your own sketchy plug-ins, make your own costumes, design your own face, restructure your own skeleton, and oh yes, pay for your own health care.
6) I don't want to Do It Myself
I'll print some CDs (in the works) and hand them out at shows for free. I'll make some t-shirts. I'll email venues. We'll write songs. We'll perform them. But I miss extended families, borrowing an onion or two from the neighbors, and my parents. I miss how my parents used to take care of everything, especially the boring details. Which is why we should...
7) Focus on the music. The rest is somewhat necessary but mostly nonsense.
Yeah, OK. Here's a song we started a long time ago and abandoned. We didn't even get around to recording the vocals. It sounds interesting to me today: