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Al-Thawra: Hardcore Punk and Social Change

2 November 2012 No Comment

We interviewed Sahar Salameh and Marwan Kamel, members Chicago-based experimental hardcore punk band Al-Thawra,* about the inspiration behind their work, their perspectives on the role of women in music, and the role of music in social change. Their responses are below.

(left to right) Tanya Nikolic, Sahar Salameh, Marwan Kamel, Mario Salazar. Photo: Al-Thawra.

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What is Al-Thawra? Who are its members, and what is the inspiration behind the band’s music?

S: Al-Thawra is a Chicago based experimental hardcore punk band with a backbone of Middle Eastern influence. Currently we have four members: Marwan on guitar/vocals, Mario on bass,  Tanya on drums, and I do vocals, control samples, and add a bit of keyboard spice.

M: I think our influences vary greatly in range, and each member brings a bit of their own interests and identity to the table, and we all try to contribute as equally as possible. While punk claims to be a genre of non-conformity, an outside listener might be astonished by the lack of sonic variety in the genre, and its hostility to incorporating things that transcend its boundaries. Music is something living, liquid, and lucid, and like water its shape is defined by the vessel you put it in. We are attempting to create a sound that exists outside of the confines of East and West and pre-defined genre. We put in things that sound interesting to us. So, our music may be as equally informed by a Munir Bashir oud taqsim as goth bands like Bauhaus or Siouxie and the Banshees, German proto-industrial like Einsturzende Neubauten, British experimental artist Muslimgauze, or even “post-metal” like Neurosis.

How did you become involved?

S: I have been going to punk shows since I started high school. I was usually the only Arab and Muslim person there that I was aware of. Eventually some of the shows’ runners told me about a guy named Marwan who had a punk project he had just started called Al-Thawra. I was ECSTATIC. We finally randomly ran into each other at a music fest in the summer of 2006 and he asked me if I would be interested in playing derbeke and screams. My answer: F*** yeah! Unfortunately, my presence was inconsistent. It was hard enough trying to sneak out of my house to go to shows late at night, but to tell my Palestinian mother armed with her shib shib (slippers) that I must attend band practice on Saturday mid-afternoons was impossible. Naturally, I rebelled against her wishes as much as I could. Years later, I finally rejoined as a constant variable. The fact of the matter is that there was never a punk song at any show I had ever attended that I could relate to. My identity felt so complex until I discovered that it was merely underrepresented by society and that I have to take it upon myself to represent it to the fullest and most artistic sense.

M: I really just started this band as a way to work out some conceptual idea that would work out my innate identity conflict of being a first generation halfsie Arab-American. I wanted to create music that was both rooted in tradition, but free from its constraints. So, with my computer, some pirated studio software, and a 10-dollar microphone I began–I might also add at this point that it was quite shit at the beginning as well. Not long after, I told Mario about the project and he got interested and got involved. Afterwards, Sahar joined inconsistently, and Micah joined up on drums. For a few years, Mario, Micah, and I toured and recorded as a three-piece. Within the past year, Micah left to pursue his own personal music projects. We searched around and auditioned a few drummers to fill his spot, but then, as she joined backup, Sahar suggested her long-time friend Tanya might be able to fit….. and that brings us up to the present.

In what ways are women involved with Al-Thawra? Do you feel that your gender impacts your experience, both as a member within the band, and your experience engaging with fans and the public?

S: Well, I’m not really sure how to answer this question. We’ve recently replaced Micah’s position with our newest member/drummer Tanya.  We haven’t played shows with her yet, but will very soon, so we haven’t had the experience of engaging with the public as a band. We have however received many surprised and happy reactions from our friends and listeners. Having two female members in a punk/experimental band is just as heavy as its music for some, but for us, it just comes naturally. There is definitely a lack of female presence on stage in the heavy-music scene. We’re not here to play with the boys, we’re here because there’s something missing from the shows we go to.

On a slightly different note, being an Arab woman at shows I always felt lost within the scene, and now, through Al-Thawra alone, I’ve discovered my identity and have finally met other women like myself. The band connected a great amount of like-minded individuals, a large sum being women, and since then things just seemed to evolve into a… community of sorts.

M: It’s not really my place to answer the question directly, but I’d just like to interject a thought. It’s really unfortunate that heavy music and abrasive sonic textures are falsely associated with masculinity, which seems to repel a lot of women who are conforming to their own musical gender roles,  preferring “softer” sounds. I agree with Sahar that this needs to change.

Can you tell us more about Al-Thawra’s recent work and contribution to the HardCore4Syria compilation?

M: We recently got back from recording our upcoming album, “Threnodies” which should be due out in a couple of months.  Because we changed members and added new elements, I think our sound is evolving in a really unexpected way. “Edifice” was a concept album in that it followed the idea of dichotomies and dualities in a super, over-intellectualized way, whereas “Threnodies” is much more raw, emotional, and visceral. For me, especially, the war in Syria has really hit close to home and has affected my own family, so it’s taken me to a very dark place. Besides this, just seeing the few images that we have coming out of the country at the moment shows the inherent flaws in the human condition and our capacity for brutality. As I’ve also been reading a lot of Sufi writings lately, their focus on self-reflection has forced me to also reflect on these conflicts as taking place inside of myself as well, where an ego wrestles with its own tyranny. I think all of this comes through in these newer recordings, which are less raw and angry and more moody and pensive in a sort of personal-is-political sort of way. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s still loud.

S: Psalm of the Sniper was a song that evolved naturally with Syria in mind. It focuses on both perspectives: the predator and the prey. My favorite verse in the song is “Reehat el ressaseh a’la bashrati,” which means “the stench of bullets is on my skin.” Every day there is propaganda spread, trying to deem Syria as a sectarian war, and its own neighbors, its own people believe this. However, the sniper, the freedom fighter, the child shot while fetching bread, the sergeant shooting at his daughter’s friends, etc–they all experience the same pain. They cannot control their own fate while these types of governments exists. Where loyalty to the ‘state’ is more valuable than humanity. Overall, I can say that Psalm of the Sniper speaks for more than Syria, but it took Syria’s misfortunes to truly show us that pain.

M: It’s amazing that one of the places where civilization evolved over thousands of years has taken mere months to degrade into complete chaos. It’s like the line in our song: “Awlad Ugarit sarru wahsheen,” “Children of Ugarit have become beasts.”

In what ways does Al-Thawra serve as a platform for dialogue and expression both within the Arab world and on a global scale?

S: Well. When it comes to the issue of identity a lot of people, including myself, take a step back, hold a baffled look on their face, and settle for the simplest solution. Within the past decade, I feel that things have changed – we’ve gone from settling for baffled and sort of comfortable to creating an entirely new identity, rejected by both sides of the spectrum, which in this case are East and West. Since joining Al-Thawra there has been a giant increase of fellow Muslims and easterners who have contacted us to express their thoughts and experiences that sometimes seem identical to our very own life experiences. The element of confusion and fascination with the West disappears once we build a community that allows us to sort of fuse both of our upbringings together to finally build on an identity that has never existed before us, and is under-appreciated by the larger scale of society.

M: As all of our members come from different backgrounds and have different experiences, all of those things are reflected in our common work. This can also be reflective of how constructive dialogue is possible on a global scale. Experimentation seems to be something that lacks in human social affairs, as we’re always obsessed with success and we denigrate ourselves when we fail, instead of celebrating failures as part of a learning process. We all bring our own stories and our own individual ideas to the table, which sometimes are very brilliant and sometimes–and more often–not.   Most of the greatest scientific discoveries in human history were made by accident and by not being closed minded towards an end goal. The problem in music is that people often start out their projects with and idea of what their end goal should be, and in attempting to discipline themselves towards achieving that, often miss out on organic subtleties that may have organically happened along the way.

In Al-Thawra, I think that we try to let things happen organically as we plod on blindfolded towards a common concept of what our project is “about,” guided only by our belief in ourselves and our love for what we are creating.  At the same time, as much as we may think of ourselves as iconoclastic, we are doing the opposite. While smashing conceptual idols like  punk and Arabic music–whatever that means, we’re inadvertently creating a new one. The way that I think we are contributing to dialogues is by constantly finding ways to reinvent ourselves  and challenge our own beliefs and ideas about music and society to allow for ever more complex ways of looking at things.

If there was one thing you could highlight to the world about Arab women in music, and the role of music inspiring social change, what would it be?

S: There always needs to be a voice to represent every type of woman. Arab women are not necessarily oppressed or hushed, as the mainstream West chooses to depict us. Look left, and look right – there are Arab women in all types of music scenes. This recognition is essential for progress in terms of East and West reaching a point of acceptance where this identity exists.  Arab women are not just the tame Om Kalthoum and Fairouz, they can be just as wild as Siouxie and as angry as Amy Miret and Eve Libertine. We are not always fully covered, nor are we hiding behind our brothers; we are not hungry, and we are not fundamentalists. We are mere humans, some annoyed by MIA’s newest music video appropriating culture, some wishing they were in the music video themselves. Whatever it is, we exist in many different ways – this is where the change should lie. We exist with our own free will, and that’s that. This is only one of the simpler things that I could highlight and squeeze into a single paragraph. I believe that Arab women carry a much more complex role in music and influence in social change.

*Al-Thawra, in Arabic, means The Revolution

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