Mawazine sessions: Mesut Kurtis is living to discover
Mesut Kurtis is used to taking his time. Speaking before his recent performance at the Mawazine Festival in Morocco, the Macedonian nasheed singer says it normally takes a while for people to become acquainted with his new work.
More specifically, he is referring to his third album, Tabassam, which came out last year, and is gradually being discovered around the world.
“If I was a pop singer, I would be worried by this time,” he says with a chuckle. “We nasheed singers are lucky that we are not in the pop industry, which requires you to refresh yourself basically every month. As a nasheed singer, it normally takes two years to promote a new album, as there are lots of separate markets – from India and Pakistan to Malaysia, the Arab world and Canada.”
The patience has paid off. Since emerging 11 years ago with his debut album Salawat, the 34-year-old has become one of the genre’s biggest stars, with well-produced albums that find him comfortably at home singing Islamic spiritual hymns in Arabic, English, Macedonian and Turkish.
Born in the Macedonian capital of Skopje, Kurtis’s love for the Arabic language stems from a cultured childhood.
“My father and my grandfather were fluent in classical Arabic,” he says. “They were also fans of the great Arab singers Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez, as well as the nasheed and poetry of Sayed Naqshbandi. As a kid I used to memorise these deep and rich words without knowing what I was saying.”
After touring his home country and Turkey as a youngster with several nasheed groups, Kurtis moved to the United Kingdom to further his education, which included a degree in Islamic law.
It was during that time that he came to the attention of the major nasheed record label Awakening, which signed him up when he was 23.
While recalling the early years as being full of excitement, Kurtis says the added wisdom that has come from age has made him a better artist.
“I do think you need to know about yourself a bit first,” he says. “It’s not as simple as jumping in front of a microphone or thinking that you have a good voice. You do need that certain sense of introspection, as that helps when you are writing nasheeds.”
Kurtis’s recent bout of self- examination unearthed the theme to Tabassam, the title of which translates in English as “smile”.
He hopes the uplifting songs will make people aware of the neglected spiritual power of happiness.
“Generally, I want to spread a positive message,” he says. “I felt that in many Muslim societies today, we have lost some important traditional values, the biggest of which is smiling.
“It is a Sunnah [a practice of the Prophet Mohammed] to always smile. The Prophet said that to smile at your fellow brother is an act of charity. I want to help in my own way to bring this understanding back with the album.”
Tabassam also marks Kurtis’s debut as a songwriter – six of the 12 songs on the album are his own compositions.
He says that just because nasheeds are defined by their lyricism, that doesn’t mean melodies and hooks should be sacrificed.
“The message is very important, but so is the rhythm and melody – they still need to be catchy,” he says.
“I believe that 80 per cent or more of people recognise the melody and beats before the lyrics. I am always thinking about all aspects.”
This includes catering to the more conservative segments of his fan base, who would not be comfortable listening to Tabassam’s full-bodied Oriental musicality of oud, nay, keyboards and percussion. For them, an a cappella version of the album is available. Kurtis puts this option down to respect.
“We have lots of listeners who love the message that I am trying to convey, but they do have that sensitivity to music,” he says. “As a Muslim, I know that the discussion of whether music is forbidden is one of scholarly opinion. That said, I always wish to respect people’s wishes.”
Kurtis encourages his fellow worshippers, particularly young Muslims, to explore their artistic leanings.
Contrary to some conservative opinions, he says that if done correctly and with the right intention, art can be a spiritually uplifting experience.
“Islam doesn’t clash with art because Islam is art,” he says. “You see it in the Quran and its melodies.
“Allah is our creator and the artist, and when you look at the creation, you will discover the most amazing artwork. The only thing we are doing in our existence here on Earth is discovering and getting inspired by the creation.”