In early November, I went to an open mic for local poets at an Abu Dhabi venue called The Space. It was the fourth event in a new Rooftop Rhythms series for Arabic poetry, organized by Rooftops founder Dorian “Paul D” Rogers.
The event featured about fifteen poets, who combined elements of Arabic poetry with spoken word. They were multilingual UAE residents from a variety of Arab backgrounds—Palestinian, Lebanese, Emirati, and Sudanese. Many were regulars at Rooftop events but usually performed in English. They reminded the audience of this since the connotations of writing poetry differ from one language to another. Arabic poetry is associated with mastery of Classical Arabic and a deep knowledge of the Arabic literary heritage, while spoken word favors poetic prowess that is grounded in lived experience. But the audience was open-minded, receptive to hearing Arabic poetry in a variety of dialects, registers, and styles. The evening had a warm, familial vibe, with listeners snapping fingers supportively from their bean bag chairs.
Poets and friends at The Space in Abu Dhabi. Photo Farah Bushnaq.
Sharing the vision of the community-led arts and music festival Saga Fest, which will have its pilot launch on the 23 and 24 of May 2015.
I had the chance to share the vision of Saga Fest at October’s Arts & Audiences conference, a convergence of Nordic arts and culture leaders with a bend toward social and environmental justice.
Here is the slide deck I used at the conference:
Ugo is a ghost town.
In the first full week of November, I headed back up to Akita prefecture to meet the president of the Nishimonai Preservation Society for the Nishimonai bon-odori Buddhist festival of the dead. This was my first time leaving the “concrete jungle” of Tokyo for months, and I was naturally beyond excited to be out in the woods and mountains for which Akita is known. I was also eager to reconnect with the nearly magical music and dance of this festival. I’ve been to Ugo several times, but this would be the first time I would see the town without the enchanting smokescreens of the festival and the unique atmosphere it creates.
Riding a rented bicycle around Akita’s Tazawakō, the deepest lake in Japan. Save for a few passing cars, no one was around for miles.
Oléna Simon performed tracks from her solo project at September’s GRASSROOTS with Fannar Ásgrímsson on beats and production.
The two of them, along with Jónas Thór Guðmundsson, are also a part of a three-piece music group called Asonat. Although they consider themselves an Icelandic group, they’re very much international: Jónas is living in Estonia, Fannar Ásgrímsson is in Iceland and French vocalist Oléna Simon plans to move to Japan.
Though, Jonas says, “Despite this constant moving around, we are in total synchronization toward how the music should be.”
Their new album “Connection,” was released at the end of September, and has been well received by the press. The record landed on the number 1 spot at WRAS Radio 88.5FM in Atlanta and Nordic Playlist rated it as one of “10 Unmissable New Nordic Albums” alongside Ásgeir’s “In The Silence” (Iceland) and Love To’s “Queen of the Clouds” (Sweden).
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Voices are musical, though you may not notice if you understand the languages they’re speaking. I noticed it when I began to learn Spanish, and later Arabic. I couldn’t distinguish the boundaries between words, so instead I heard textures and pitch contours. A beautiful speaking voice, like a beautiful singing one, has its own unique quality, something you can’t quite put your finger on.
In high school, my violin teacher pushed me to hear the tiniest deviations in my intonation, and in college, I learned to transcribe—modes, chords, bass lines, progressions, atonal intervals. Linguists develop a similar skill. My pop song transcription class overlapped with linguistic transcription and left me fascinated by the difficulty of transcribing syllables and vowels as they aligned with melody and rhythm. Melodies play with familiar word boundaries, drawing the listener into a soundspace detached from everyday speech…just like languages we don’t yet understand.
The ear training I’ve described inspired me to study, more broadly, the intersections of music and language. I fell in love with Arabic language and Arabic music during a year of study in Egypt, and I learned them together. Spread across many countries, Arabic contains so many voices and so many kinds of music, and there is always more to learn.
An Abu Dhabi audience dances dabke to the music of Jordanian singer-songwriter, Omar Abdallat