An ever pervasive phenomenon in the art world nowadays is the concept of retrospective borrowing, or recontextualizing an older genre by using elements of other genres. At passage 35 in the Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil museum, the band Maqam seemed to embody this spirit in their latest concert, held last week.
The band is founded by the American University in Cairo music professor Ahmed Saleh with lead singer Amina Khalil, an AUC theater major who starred in several productions such as “Guys and Dolls and “The Fever Chart.
Besides Khalil, the band is composed of guitarist Peter Ayman, bass guitar player Mina Bassem, drummer Shahir Rafiq, percussionist-tabla player Ahmed Mostafa, saxophone player Amir El-Shawan, oud/keyboard player Ahmed Salah and young actress Youssra El Lozy, the band manager who also sings occasionally.
The concert lasted for about 40 minutes. Sixties-like melodies segued into one another, combined with raw edgy lyrics inspired by maverick poets Ahmed Fouad Negm and Salah Jahin. Choosing such biting, politically-charged lyrics was a clever move on the band’s part, expressing the political mood most Egyptians are in right now.
Yet the band’s eclectic combination of instruments and musical styles posed something more than just technical problems. Khalil’s voice, a soft, smoky tone, reminiscent of a young Diana Krall, seemed more at comfort and ease in soft, light melodies, while the fusion spearheaded by band members sounded labored and under rehearsed.
Khalil’s voice is faithfully grounded in a jazz phrasing and easy listening melodic interpretation. She sounded more present when exerting the least effort with her voice. The sound system and the acoustics were not in her favor as well. The bass instruments were too loud, overcrowding the string intonations and singing.
While fusion entails mixing and matching of different ideas and traditions, combing some features while others remain unchanged, in the music of Maqam, the right balance of what to give up and what to retain has not been reached yet. The melodies are sweet and nostalgic, fitting well with the choice of lyrics, but the instrumentation and vocals are still a work in progress.
Band leader and principal musician Ahmed Salah is yet to further explore what elements of traditional oriental music can be appropriated with the western and 60s pop and examine how far the two can harmoniously be combined.
One on one with Ahmed Saleh
Why Maqam and who s behind the choice of the name?
I was interested in a certain kind of fusion even before I created the band. And then when I started my own studio, I kept thinking of a name, I wanted something that is related to oriental music. I was sitting with writer and essayist Dr Khaled Alkhamissi (author of the bestselling “Taxi ) and while I was trying different words related to oriental music, I started reciting scale names of oriental music and he asked me what these names stand for. He then suggested I call the studio Maqamat. I decided on the name Maqam, as a word that means status as well as scale, relevant in all cases somehow.
As a band leader, what’s your musical vision? And is this a long-term project?
I am inspired by fusion, by mixing different styles. I am not aiming at all for commercial music. And I don’t want to present a specific kind of music. I make sure that we integrate different styles and different music genres in the work we present. We are keen that our fans are people who are passionate about our music and inspired by it. Most of our fan mailing lists are university professors and artists. We are not presenting rhythmic, catchy music that lures teenagers and young listeners like most music these days.
We present music that we are moved by and are inspired to present. We don’t advertise through the usual venues and we make sure that whatever the press writes about us is not scripted or preset.
Maqam is a life project not only a long term project. It’s something we want to continue doing and are planning to go further with.
One on one with Amina Khalil
Your music sounds very political. Are you advocating a certain kind of music or are you trying to start an activist music band?
We sing what we feel. Our mood now is political, we are inspired by the likes of Ahmed Fouad Negm but it does not mean that we are a political band. We are inspired by what’s around us, but we are not necessarily singing political songs. Our music evolves with time and what we get inspired by.
Did you study music professionally and do you have a voice background?
I have been singing ever since I was a little girl. It runs in the family I guess.
My uncle is jazz musician Yehia Khalil and I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald and all those great jazz singers and musicians. But I did not study voice academically. I am a theater major and last year I was involved in a production of “Guys and Dolls and I had a singing part so AUC professor John Babokus started giving me voice classes. He is the one who taught me how to use my voice, how to train it and how to sing properly.
Do you have a plan to tour sometime or are you thinking of touring in the future?
We would like to first root ourselves here then maybe start performing in other venues and other places. I mean if we get an offer to sing somewhere, we would definitely go, but we would rather sing for 200 faithful fans who love us and are inspired by our music than, 50,000 who take our music lightly. We did get invited to a music festival in South Africa, however, we are focusing on here first – the rest can come later.
Are you planning to release an album anytime soon?
Yes, our album will be released sometime between late October and the first of November.