The experimental sounds of Shams Asma

On the floor surrounding Asma Ghanem are the instruments of her art. A xylophone, a melodica, a pair of maracas, an oud, a tambourine, a ukulele and what appears to be a wind-up musical toy are scattered like confetti around her. Ghanem herself sits silently, her thick, dark eyebrows and blood red lips staring straight ahead.

That, at least, is the image I recall. An image based on snippets of conversation and strewn photographs. Blurry recollections of late nights in Dubai. In reality, she is sitting in an internet cafe in Toulouse, politely answering my questions.

The multidisciplinary artist behind audio-visual project Shams Asma, Ghanem has been busy creating a name for herself in the world of experimental music. Her avant garde take on sound in the Arab world has found a ready audience amongst the disillusioned and the shell-shocked, while her exploration of the realm between reality and illusion in the Levant has come to a head. Awarded funding from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, she is working on the production of her debut album alongside artists and musicians focussed on the concept of ‘The Occupied Sound’, with last summer’s war on Gaza the inspiration behind that concept.

Her music is at times beguiling, at others impenetrable. Rhythm and melody are more often than not absent, while the sounds of machines, movement, war and instruments are utilised in order to question not only music itself, but sound in general. At times she talks or sings, her voice heavy with the strains of desire, although there is no discernible ambition to create music in a traditional sense. In Comme promis je t’écris une lettre en Arab her vocals glide over minimalist electronica, while a collaboration with electronic musician and rapper Stormtrap moulds the sounds of gunfire into ambient reflections. In places, Arabic movies have been toyed with, while in What is Philistine? a father and son’s conversation around the word ‘Philistine’ plays over the top of what sounds like radio interference, an untuned television set, crickets and sci-fi distortions.

“My inspiration comes from my environment, but all the art I create is connected and affected by my childhood and memories,” says Ghanem, who was born and raised in Damascus. “Because when I was a child it was very hard to understand my situation as a refugee. This situation that most Palestinians lived, and still live, was interesting to think about – about how everything connects and relates to art and music because for me it was the only world I could be in without limits. Art was also something I could make and my parents couldn’t correct me. I was this child who was completely amazed by art.

“I remember once my teacher asked ‘what would you like to be in the future?’ Most of the other students wanted to be doctors, architects or lawyers. I said ‘I want to be a painter’. I didn’t know that I could use the term ‘artist’, so the students laughed and the teacher too. She said ‘Painter? That’s nice for children, but can you imagine an adult being just a painter? How could you survive in life and make money?’ I said ‘my sister is a poet and this is what I like’. That was another reason to make her laugh because ‘she knows life better’.”

In the flesh a few months earlier, Ghanem intrigues, her talk of imagination and expression heightening curiosity, especially in light of the origins of her artistic personality. She once said that Shams Asma was the direct result of her inability to pursue musical education as a child, whilst much of her work is a consequence of her status as a refugee. She is also an anomaly. Or at least one of only a small band of experimental musicians and sound artists in the Arab world who delve into the obscure. Artists such as Sary Moussa (a.k.a Radio KVM) and Jad Atoui in Lebanon; Donia Jarrar and Stormtrap in Palestine: and Ismail Seleit and Mohamad Ali Talybab of Elmanzouma in Egypt.

Her creative process relies on live recordings and a handmade style of production, rarely using music-making software and only relying on basic editing at the end of each recording. “I record all sounds I want to use and if it includes text as well I play it live in my room around the recorder,” she explains. “Sometimes I put sounds very far away and others very close, so I can get the layers I want exactly the way they should be present in the space. The idea is to criticise and analyse language, culture, stereotypes, images and audio that have affected who we are.

“I began with field-recordings and with my trying to think and write about music and sound,” she says. “I was already making visual art via photography and experimental films, but working on sound and image is an integrated process. It is connected. At first I tried to let other musicians make sounds for me but it was very musical. It wasn’t as open as I wanted it to be. It wasn’t undefined or unstructured music, so I started making it myself. I began to use the term ‘experimental’ because the music I was making was an experience of the unknown. The audience can’t exactly get the rhythm, or never catch it, and that works very well connecting the visual side and the conceptual side to music and making it more like artwork.”

The first time we met, Ghanem was at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) for the GCC premiere of Suspended Time, a collection of short films by nine Palestinian filmmakers, of which Ghanem was one. Although she grew up in Damascus, she later moved to Ramallah, and then to Toulouse, where she earned a scholarship for a masters degree in visual arts at the École supérieure des Beaux-Arts. It is there that she currently lives, popping back to the Middle East occasionally for performances at venues such as Yukunkun in Beirut, where she appeared alongside video artist Ayman Nahle and DJ Tash Hochar in March. Although music is a passion, she delves into other forms of art, most notably film and photography, often combining all three in her live performances.

“The issue is why do we want to make and produce music? Because for me that’s why I try and produce different types of art. Some concepts might fit better with photography than they do with music, or painting rather than film. We should listen very carefully to the idea and collaborate with others to produce better ways of making art. We should listen very carefully to the idea and the reasons of making it and sharing it with other people. I don’t mind if electronic music remains small in the Arab world, because to get bigger or to become regular is not the mission. It’s more about what we want to say, what interests us in life and who we are.”

Writing in The Guardian last year, John Doran noted that it was easy for Western critics to ignore the Arab avant garde, given the fact that most have never acknowledged it in the first place. Yet Shams Asma, which means both ‘Asma’s Sun’ and ‘Highest Sun’ in Arabic, is a counter balance of sorts to such notions, although she readily admits that the history of experimental music in the Arab world is uncertain and certainly undocumented.

“We don’t know when experimental music started in the Arab world,” she admits. “Maybe when John Cage was expressing and analysing everything about music and sounds, also others like Howard Skempton, or my favourite Cornelius Cardew and his amazing musical piece with The Scratch Orchestra, The Great Learning. [But] I received an email two weeks ago from a Lebanese friend that said: ‘Asma, I discovered an Arab electronic musician from the 40s! His name is Halim El-Dabh’. So it’s not just what art, history and art history includes, but also what it excludes.”

During a villa party at DIFF, Ghanem talks to me about the acoustics of war. We’re on a balcony with others overlooking Al Qasr and the Madinat Jumeirah, the sounds of war and their interpretation in music diametrically opposed to the view before us. It was in Ramallah, she says, that her music first began to bloom, criticising the phenomenon of construction in Palestinian cities and focusing on questions that arise around the audio-visual transformation of ugly, yet alluring, independent, yet occupied cities.

“A space such as Palestine is full of influences that make one think about the very meaning of sound itself,” she once wrote in Reorient. “Sound in Palestine is affected by instantaneous elements. During the Intifada, the sonic experience was terrifying. A tank moving on a street would produce the feeling of an earthquake. The sounds made by these instruments of war relied heavily on momentary experiences, which gave a feeling of unpredictability as to what would happen next. I find the state of being in Palestine very similar to experimental sound production, as the latter is not independent, but rather unstable, broken, volatile, disturbing, and quite cacophonous, not unlike the sounds of war.”

* Published in Emirates Man, April 2015

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