A new television series celebrates the soul and diversity of Arabic music
Are you at all partial to a spot of Yemeni reggae? Or is it hard-core rap from Alexandria that floats your musical boat? If so, it's unlikely your tastes have been catered for particularly well on television. Well, you can finally stop shaking your fists at MTV Arabia - a new series on Al Jazeera could be exactly what you're looking for.
Over 11 episodes, nine countries and 80 musicians, Next Music Station, which begins on Al Jazeera in Arabic tonight and in English next month, promises to be a documentary series like few others - one that explores the musical soul of a sizeable chunk of the Arab world and unearths bands and artists who might otherwise have remained anonymous outside of their own backyards. In 11 weekly, hour-long shows, the previously uncelebrated sounds of Sudan, Tunisia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen will share the limelight with more established countries such as Syria, Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon.
"The idea is to join travel and music, to show the landscape of the country and how the landscape gives inspiration to the artists," says Fermin Muguruza, the series director. In each episode, Muguruza and his small team journey across sometimes an entire country, sometimes just a city, speaking to musicians and listening to them perform. In Egypt, which alongside Morocco and Lebanon is allocated two episodes, he spends one programme navigating the "mother of all cities", Cairo, while in the second he follows the Nile, starting in the south and carrying up to Alexandria and Port Said. In Kuwait, which shares an episode with Bahrain, he hits the coast to hear the traditional songs of the pearl divers before heading to the desert for some Bedouin-style a cappella.
For Muguruza, who proudly hails from Spain's Basque Country and is a passionate and highly politicised musician himself, one of the biggest highs was speaking to some of the region's most celebrated and respected artists, including the 90-year-old Wadi El Safi, considered the 'voice of Lebanon', and Lofti Bouchnak, the much-adored master of Tunisia's malouf music.
"When you meet these artists, it's amazing," he says. "Because of their background, that they've lived through wars, their different stories, you really feel like you're learning a lot."
On the other hand, through Next Music Station he wants to provide a platform for the Arab world's younger, less-established musicians. "Maybe these are going to be the next generation who will become the most important musicians, not just in their own countries but elsewhere."
Among this next generation are AJ, the Yemeni man blending rap and reggae in Sana'a. Then there's Alexandria's answer to US rock band Primus, the hard-core rappers Haoussa. "We heard them at L'Boulevard Festival in Casablanca, just before Sepultura came on," says Muguruza. In Lebanon, he caught up with the energetic rapper Lynn Fattouh, otherwise known by her stage name Malikah and already, despite being only in her mid-20s, considered royalty in Arabic hip-hop.
It's through Malikah, and numerous other musicians featuring in the series, that Muguruza wants to help present a picture of the Arabic world different from the one often portrayed in the western media, where women remain permanently covered and men dominate life. What he found was quite the opposite, especially in music, where the two main icons across the whole region are women, Lebanese singing legend Fairuz and the late Umm Kulthum of Egypt.
"Everybody I met spoke about these two, even those making hip- hop and those playing electronic music," he says.
Unlike in the West, where exponents of new forms of music often disregard or ridicule traditional styles, Muguruza was delighted to discover while making the series that the up-and-coming musicians showed deep respect for their predecessors. "When you find someone who says they started listening to this old music as a child, and that it's now part of their background and they were incorporating it into their own sound, this was something I liked the most."
This respect for tradition was something that Muguruza found in his previous documentary, the acclaimed Checkpoint Rock: Songs From Palestine, which saw him take his video camera through the Occupied Territories searching for musicians. It was this remarkable film that brought him to the attention of Al Jazeera, who first approached him when it was screened in Granada, Spain, in 2009. Later that year, at the Dubai International Film Festival, he showcased Checkpoint Rock and also brought some of the musicians - including the world-renowned Nazareth-based singer Amal Murkus - to perform. "After the festival, Al Jazeera invited me to Qatar, to show me the network and how they work," said Muguruza. He stayed in Doha for a week, after which Al Jazeera suggested he make a music documentary series for them.
Research for the huge project began that December, with Muguruza starting to make contacts, getting in touch with local producers in each of the countries and, most importantly, searching for musicians. Friends, producers, managers and musicians from all over the world were called on to help, with YouTube the most useful resource. "It's not only important to hear the music, but to see the people, the faces of the musicians, how many there are," he says.
Filming began in February in Egypt, where they stayed for about a month, before returning to their home base for editing. This process continued for Morocco and Tunisia, but for the filming of the Lebanese and Syrian episodes Muguruza set up a base in Beirut during June, July and August. Sudan was the last country he visited.
"I didn't sleep a lot last year," he admits. "I worked every day and night, checking different things, especially the internet and YouTube. It was amazing. Very passionate, but very obsessive."
There were difficulties too. Al Jazeera initially wanted Algeria on the list, but Muguruza could not get permission to film there. In Morocco, despite having a permit, his team's equipment was held at the border until he obtained the signature of the minister of information. "We were there for three days waiting for this." Muguruza says they experienced those sorts of hiccups in almost all of the countries they filmed in. In Syria, he started a minor fight between two ministers, one who welcomed him to film because of the work he'd done for the Palestinian cause in Checkpoint Rock and another who didn't want him to enter because he'd set foot in Israel to film it.
Although the series was filmed before the uprisings across the region, Muguruza says through music and conversations he sensed the feelings that were to erupt in revolutionary form. "There are different experiences in each country, but you can realise now that they were saying something very clear." Two bands he met in Egypt later told him they were playing in Tahrir Square during the height of the anti-Mubarak protests, while some of the musicians he met in Tunisia took part in the demonstrations that eventually led to the toppling of Ben Ali.
With Next Music Station ready to air, the next step for Muguruza is to take it on the festival circuit, something Al Jazeera has given him the rights to do. He is adding Spanish subtitling so he can show the series in his home region of San Sebastian, and has also had interest from as far afield as Mexico. "I'll probably spend this year travelling and showing the documentary," he says, adding that it's through this that he hopes to pick up his next project, just as he did with Checkpoint Rock.
One idea could be to return to countries that have been through a revolution to see how the music scene has changed, and whether there are new voices. "Who knows," says Muguruza. "Maybe Al Jazeera is already thinking about this."
Updated: March 10, 2011 04:00 AM