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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Love and Revenge: the golden age of Arabic cinema taken to modern day stage

Musician Wael Koudaih and video artist Randa Mirza tell The National how their play Love and Revenge takes its inspiration from the golden age of Arabic cinema, updated for today's audience

Love and Revenge features keyboard musician Julien Perraudeau, Randa Mirza, Wael Koudaih and Mehdi Haddab. Courtesy Celia Bommin
Love and Revenge features keyboard musician Julien Perraudeau, Randa Mirza, Wael Koudaih and Mehdi Haddab. Courtesy Celia Bommin

The story of Love and Revenge, the audio-visual stage project created by musician Wael Koudaih (Rayess Bek) and video artist Randa Mirza (La Mirza) is a journey through the golden age of Arabic cinema.

The collaborators behind the show taking place at London's Shubbak festival met at university in Koudaih’s hometown of Beirut, where they realised their concept of bringing together music and images in a very specific way.

“We always wanted to do something that would be a dialogue between video and music,” says 37-year-old Koudaih. “So we had this idea of revisiting the golden age of Arabic cinema which is mainly Egyptian, and it happened between the 1940s and the 1990s."

That period has caused some problems for them, because, as Koudaih notes, “some of the movies that were allowed in the 1940s and 1950s are not OK today. I mean even with the public. We played once in Tunis and people were shocked by the images they saw".

The pair were also interested in the era due to the fascinating political and cultural characters abounding in the Arabic world. It was the post-colonial era of Arabic nationalism, when Abdel Nasser faced off against the French and the English over the Suez Canal and forced the former imperial powers to crawl off with their tails between their legs.

The title of the show comes from the movie Gharam wa Intiqam, which roughly means Love and Revenge, a film that was shot in 1944 and in which the main character is played by Asmahan, a femme fatale who had a life that was as strange and fantastic off the silver screen as it was on it.

A great singer and actress, Asmahan was rumoured to have been spying for both the Germans and British in the Second World War. She never completed her role in the film as she died mysteriously during the shooting, when her car crashed into the Nile.

So what is Love and Revenge? According to Koudaih, “there are many layers of understanding this project, but basically it’s a trip through time, where you go back to this golden era, you see the movies - well you see some part of the movies, the way we play the videos is not as random as it seems to be".

“Then musically, we took very old Arabic songs, that were really well-known songs, and we worked on them to make them more electronic, more poppy.”

The duo are joined by “two amazing musicians, the first one is Mehdi Haddab, and he’s an electric oud player, and the way he plays oud is incredible because it’s like an electric guitar so it’s really taking a traditional Arabic instrument a lot further to its identity".

The second musician is Julien Perraudeau, who plays on self-created keyboards and the bass.

Koudaih found it was a huge musical challenge to update old songs which were sometimes only available on bad recordings or with weird tempos.

“Sometimes the song is like 15 minutes long and we have to keep the spirits of the song while making it work with today’s aesthetic,” he says.

The pair had to find ways to update everything from the original source materials, even down to time signatures, which frequently weren’t the 4/4 staple of modern music.

“The idea of revisiting those songs and giving them a new identity is also to let people discover, or rediscover, those songs,” says Koudaih.

They have encountered fascinatingly disparate reactions in taking their show around the world. “When we play in the Arab world, the youngest generation, they don’t know those songs, they are not aware that those songs were huge hits in the Arab world, so they rediscover Asmahan, all those great, great musicians and artists with our show.

“And when we play in Europe, people have the idea that those songs are brand new; I mean they know it’s remixes, but they have the feeling that is was recorded yesterday with some effects on the voice, and that’s very interesting to see people dancing along to a song that was written in the 1940s.”

Koudaih rejects the idea that the show is tapping into a cosy nostalgia for the past when everything seemed better.

“I think what we do here is to go further, because of course, the content has many interpretations; the first layer is that it’s an electro-pop visual concert, where you see the movies and it’s very glossy, and very glamorous, very kitsch; you hear the songs, most of them, it’s women singing about love, the love they lost, stuff like that. And you can dance, you can have a nice time, a nice evening.

“The second layer is revisiting this post-colonial period, and understanding that through cinema the actors, the scenario, is actually very westernised.”

Even a figure as revered in Arabic music as Abdel Wahab, who was considered one of the most innovative composers of the 20th century, took aspects of European culture such as the electric guitar and bass, tango and salsa, and mixed them with Arabic music.

“At that time he was not seen as someone who was damaging or ruining this heritage,” says Koudaih. “He was seen as a great artist, a great creative person.

And there there is a third, final layer, which is sexism. “In those movies you see a lot of women ... at the end of the day those movies were made by men, they were written, directed by men. So sexism has changed from the 1950s until now."

“At that time sexism was about seeing a woman in a bikini, because that was the fantasy that men had, and today in the Arabic world sexism is a veiled woman. So the question is what is the form of today’s sexism... we are raising it in a very light way, a very funny way, because I don’t think we have answers to these questions.”

Love and Revenge is being staged at the Shubbak festival from 8pm tomorrow. Go to www.shubbak.co.uk/love-revenge/