+Aziz / “I like rock because it compliments my anti-traditionalist ethos”

Introducing Kuwaisiana, the indie rock band with a world music sound that's infusing rock music, new Orleanian jazz and Khaliji music in mind bending ways.

"Kuwaisiana has that East-meets-West dynamic, and it’s grounded in my desire to explore rock music as a Khaliji Arab,” +Aziz, lead singer of Kuwaisiana. Photo: Supplied

by Maán Jalal

Entertainment 6 February 2019

When you think rock music do you think of Arabs? When you think of genre bending do you think of Arabs? When you think of world music, indie band, do you think of Arabs? The majority of us don’t. Well, get ready to change your mind. Remember this name – Kuwaisiana.

I’ve always taken issue with how the word “genre” can mean that an artist must work within certain boundaries . So, when I come across Kuwaisiana on Instagram, an indie rock band with a world music sound that’s also infusing New Orleanian jazz, dynamic Khaliji rhythms, and Arabic lyrics, I was intrigued and totally there for it.

The 7-piece crew led by Kuwaiti singer and songwriter +Aziz were signed with Universal Music Mena last year. Men in Power, Nada, Murra, are some of the titles from their debut album Chapter 1. While each song has it’s own narrative, the sound that links the album together can only be described as genre bending infused, fun, familiar but new and for a lack of a better word – catchy.

The most interesting part of Kuwaisiana’s sound it that their music doesn’t feel forced. They have organically melded different sounds to sound authentic. Usually when other artists have tried to infuse Arab lyrics with a more world or western melody or sounds, it can come off as clunky or uncompromising. But Kuwaisiana pull it off seamlessly.

Lead singer and songwriter +Aziz who made a conscious decision to write lyrics and perform songs in Arabic. With many Arabs across the Middle East as well as those living abroad, struggling to speak in Arabic and the fact that the language is facing major obstacles, +Aziz’s choice to perform in Arabic is an important one.

Through songs, bands like Kuwaisiana, are pushing Arabic in the right direction to show that the language can be flexible, expressive and interesting through a modern, musical lens.

The Arab Edition had a chat with +Aziz to discuss how Kuwaisiana developed their sound, how he got into music and how he came up with bands interesting name.

What does an indie rock Arabic / English band actually mean?
Well, rock music is rock music. Indie Rock is not a very helpful genre name at all (world music is even more problematic). It seems to mean, music that is guitar-friendly and music that is made independently, which suggests that it’s not very expensive to produce. We spent very little to record the album and most of the budget went towards a good lawyer and promoting the album to college radio and music writers. Also, I think part of the idea with indie is that it’s less pre-manufactured. This music was fully developed, produced and mastered before we shopped it around and Universal Music Middle East decided to pick it up and distribute it.

Follow Kuwaisiana on Instagram

In terms of the bigger picture, I see our music as an expression of not only Khaleeji culture but also Arab-American culture and Muslims everywhere,” +Aziz

How would you describe the Kuwaisiana sound?
The genre you’re referring to is also called “Alternative Arabic” sometimes and it has so many pioneers, most of them hail from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. It was an emerging genre of music in the early 2000’s but now it’s pretty mature and still unprofitable. People like me will continue to make it, but how we sustain ourselves is up in the air. My music is informed by the fact that contemporary Khaleeji musicians have yet to find their footing internationally. Even within the “world music” genre, the most prominent musical heritages in world music hail from North Africa, Levant, Turkey, Iran, and India (basically everywhere in the Middle East minus the Arabian Peninsula). This is partially why I’m so appreciative of the work of people like Zahed Sultan, Fatima Al-Qadiri and Hasan Hujairi.

How did you find that sound?
I got the idea to mix Louisiana and Khaliji music and so I’ve been working towards that but the reality is that context shaped the sound more so than my ‘vision’ or personal agenda.  Meaning, I don’t attribute the sound to myself alone. I don’t write other people’s parts, I don’t really like jazz and I never really listened to ska music, so the musicians who have committed themselves to Kuwaisiana have their touch on the sound. The sound was really discovered by working closely with my drummer Matthieu, who’s a French guy that brings in influences from the Caribbean, music from Louisiana and so many other regions. He lays down something very simple and dancy. Then you have Patrick, our hand percussion, who does more intricate and colorful percussion work. And finally of course is the horn section, which comprises of Nick Ferreirae on saxophone and Dehan Elcan on Trumpet. Both of the horn players are Tulane grads, who are heavily influenced by jazz. We’ve worked with a trombone player, accordionist, synth player and a few bassists at this stage.

How did you get into music?
My journey started with learning classical piano in the early 90’s. I did a couple performances at a young age and then picked up a guitar at 16 and naturally started to see myself in influential rock musicians like Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins and Cedric Bixler-Zavala from The Mars Volta.

It’s very hard for me to convey just how frustrated I was as a teenager with the music immediately available to me in Kuwait. Pop music (in all its Khaleeji and Western varieties) was just too formulaic and this forced me to search the black market and Internet for music I could relate to.

Thankfully, I started discovering bands with more artistic integrity and a desire to explore the spectrum of human emotions. When we first got Internet in 1996, I was always seeking to download low-fi bootleg recordings and was waking up 2-5am on weekday nights to record rock music videos on our VHS (pretty sure I still have those tapes!). I like rock because it compliments my anti-traditionalist ethos.

Kuwaisiana has that East-meets-West dynamic, and it’s grounded in my desire to explore rock music as a Khaliji Arab,” +Aziz

Who would you say are your Arab musical icons or influences?
I am influenced by Arab icons but none of them are in music. The only one that really comes to mind is Abdul Hussain Abdul Redha, because I grew up watching Kuwaiti theatre. I’ve always enjoyed the work of Palestinian and Lebanese poets. Nadia Tueni in particular. I studied philosophy in college and was drawn to Derrida, who’s Algerian-French.

What’s been the reaction to your music from Arab audiences?
In terms of the bigger picture, I see our music as an expression of not only Khaleeji culture but also Arab-American culture and Muslims everywhere. Although I truly am not representative of any community by any means, I relate to, and oscillate between those identities. So our music is building bridges on a few levels. Kuwaisiana has that East-meets-West dynamic, and it’s grounded in my desire to explore rock music as a Khaliji Arab.

The truth is that we are a new act. We need friends and supporters more so than an “audience.” We want to get personal with our fans. Some of them will be Arab or Arabic speakers and that’s nice, but I’m not holding my breath.

When it comes to rock and guitar music Khaleeji audiences, publishers and artists are more attracted to forms of electronic music, from dance to more experimental. Additionally, hip-hop or R&B have had a much deeper impact on our local culture than rock music. But for me, I just got stuck in the 90’s somehow!

WATCH: a message from +Aziz 

How do you go about creating a song?
Some songs I write, some songs were gifted to me, but most songs are pieced together from my notes. It starts with my hand, then moves to the computer and then to the band practice room. I like to mix reality and fiction, so that my personal experience is obscured a little bit. I like to sing about cultural contradictions

I work with my drummer Matthieu on the arrangements, transitions and tempo of the songs, but usually I start off by putting some chords together or I find an interesting pulse to ride on. From there, I share it with Matt, the horn section and the rest of the crew.

How did you come up with the name Kuwaisiana?
As a name, Kuwaisiana emerged from many conceptual conversations I had with writers, creatives, and thinkers (some in music and outsiders to music). I was ranting about Khaleeji culture to this one writer, and he suggested meshing the map of Louisiana and Kuwait together. The visual led to the band name.

Because it’s basically impossible to pronounce, people in the US don’t always see the connection to Kuwait. They think Crazy-iana or don’t even know how to pronounce the name. But it’s good for SEO! Plus I like this obscure connection and this is something you will also find in the lyrics. I choose to be ambiguous and obscure in the way I tell stories. I think it must drive some people crazy though.

WATCH: Kuwaisiana’s Music video for their single Gashxi

Maán Jalal is the Editor-in-chief of The Arab Edition. He’s a writer, writing stuff while reading other stuff other writers wrote. Bibliophile. Gryffindor. His patronus is a hawk.

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