Audible Matter / Wave #5 Wave track September 2021

On the Rhythmic Futurities of Devotional and Labour Music of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa

Mhamad Safa & Reem Shadid

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Al Qadir

Ibtihalat is a series of rhythmic invocations and envisioned spatial paradigms that speculate on the particular aural and musical traditions of occult and work music from the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. Derived from these styles’ singular and evolving ceremonial dimensions, the compositions that make up this album introduce processes of musical synthesis and algorithmic design, initiating rhythmic meters and polyrhythms within beat-based compositions. While drawing resonances between these styles and their intersections with electronic dance music, Ibtihalat contemplates sonic futures of these practices within geographies morphed by unprecedented migration and logistical and extractive accelerations.

Reem Shadid

Where does this Ibtihalat come from and where does it go?

Mhamad Safa

There are many layers to this album and where it departs from. The role of the music that I composed for Ibtihalat is very different from that of the music I’m inspired by or use as a reference; which has specific goals that are related to the condition at the time within a specific geographic context.

I understood it as this geographic context having changed the material conditions, which, of course, had direct repercussions on labour conditions. The whole means of creating electronic music based on these standards, or inspired by this music, extending the life of it, does not recreate the same purposes. So, the question is: what's the role of electronic music in general rather than the role of Khaleeji or North African music strictly (which had various raison d’etre). For example, some older Gnawa musicians used it for healing or forms of communication with specific metaphysical entities; Rai had more to do with specific forms of political liberation and music from the Gulf had similar purposes as Zar music in healing or the occult. I am particularly interested in these styles’ conjunction in labour practices, which leads to the question of how workplace conditions were endured, conjured and survived as seen and heard through these aural cultures. How did they have a certain remedy or a certain kind of escape from their oppressed histories and current reality or how were their attempts to preserve connections with ancestral lands also a speculative practice on the upcoming unknowns?

I'm viewing electronic dance music more in relation to its founding history from Detroit techno, specifically, musicians from Bellville who resorted to electronic music to reflect a certain geographic, economic and infrastructural reality that they were connected to. I’m talking more about the underground side of dance music. Where did it go? It went more towards direct political endeavours against the institutionalisation of music and art in general. It stood against the marginalisation of specific individuals, people of colour, against sexual and gender binaries and class disparity. This is how I think of electronic music and its role. The music that inspired me from the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa is aligned with the overall history of underground electronic music, underground dance music and the history of club culture. On the other hand, the album has a speculative role due to its use of algorithmic and probabilistic models aimed at eliciting thoughts about a certain future of this music. The future of it sonically and practically, meaning geographically; what could it sound like if these musicians were totally malleable with all the environmental changes, all the modifications that are taking place in their area; the extractive and logistical practices, how would these musicians actually play music? So, the second role of this album—or these compositions—is to speculate on the geographic and technological “futures” of this region.


The music that you are inspired by—from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa—has a deep history with many styles but you worked with specific ones: How did you choose?


The focus on this music came from its geographic conditions and the kind of transformation that it had gone through, mainly starting from the Gulf (Arabian Peninsula). The music I chose historically represents specific forms; it’s an intersection between racial migration, labour practices and specific economic infrastructures that were built in that area. I noticed the parallels in history and influence from Zar music (which was previously documented by ethnomusicologists). As such, parallels are drawn between these styles in the Gulf and Northern Africa in terms of history and purposes of this music.

The second layer is my personal interest in rhythmic complexities, in how these rhythms develop. I'm interested in the generative and stochastic forms of music compositions, particularly inspired by Iannis Xenakis’ methods on the development of stochastic composition in the 1960s, its contextual and environmental preconditions and its use with probabilistic models. The musical styles that inspired this album are strong examples of the use of rhythms in a cyclical, seemingly stochastic way, but also generative... It draws on the environmental set-ups, with the conditions that musicians are drumming in, the way they're drumming and the way they communicate with each other.

And thirdly, as I mentioned before, it starts from the history of electronic dance music, to reach modes of dance composition that go beyond the current dominant narratives of dance culture.


I read about the modification of instruments of Gulf music over time. In one genre in the UAE called Ayaleh “عيالة”, there is a central 20kg drum that is hit with a palm tree stick. Over time, younger generations modified it because it was too heavy to travel with. So there’s something directly linked to the passing of time and purpose with this music and how to deal with it. We now know how futures become because we have archives and technologically advanced research tools. So, your decision to work with an algorithmic model to speculate on its futurity is a long leap in time and purpose, how do you even start to get there and why?


Okay, this is interesting. Historically, this music went through transformations in terms of instruments, ways of singing and drumming according to where the migration happened, and where the migrant labourers were forced to work. Sometimes, because of their work conditions (they mostly worked at sea, like shipbuilders, for example), they were not allowed to bring drums, so they drummed on the ship itself. This was a really strong prompt for me, but I couldn't have access to this material, or these musicians and I didn't want to make it an ethnographic project. I considered how this music had changed its forms and how musicians were coerced to adapt to specific environments. Another factor, for example, was the erasure of specific shipbuilding practices and pearl diving. The development of more industrialised models of pearl extraction has rendered shipbuilders and divers nearly redundant. Therefore, the thread of speculation came to me while observing the changes in the spatial make-ups of musical performances, along with the obliteration of specific work practices.

Contrary to common belief, it wasn't erased because of popular styles of music, or dominant forms of entertainment, nor is this music being presented now as folklore music (especially in the Gulf); the main reason was closely tied to the transformations of pre-existing practices. Hence, we cannot know what the future of this music is, we cannot have a linear future for this music, we cannot have a certain kind of deterministic understanding of what this music or rhythm would sound like, what instruments people will use, like the example you gave with the drum. They didn't change their instruments, rather their instruments had to morph to adapt to the specific environments they were in. If you then start to input all these conditions, adding the geographic changes and extractive ventures that are forcing specific people to relocate and the marginalisation of the individuals who are playing this music, you will end up in a totally different place, one we can't easily gauge. This is why I relied a lot on the idea of prediction. This is why I had to use this model of producing music. I'm not fetishising machine learning or algorithmic composition, but at one point, it was essential because when you say, 'I want to think about the future amidst accelerated environmental changes, unprecedented refugee crises, mass displacement crises, etc', it becomes impossible to predict in a linear way.


I am fascinated by algorithms because I am trying to understand their limitations and possibilities and what they could open up to. I understand you worked with an algorithmic model for speculation, but you are feeding it the data and conditions. So how do we know that it will not render a similar future to the one we are currently living in?


That's a very technical understanding of an algorithmic mode of composition, but to make it easier for anyone who's reading, the question is what algorithmic model was used. First off, there was an issue in the idea of thinking about how these rhythms progress. It starts with the basic understanding that these rhythms cannot be played on what is now widely used to generate drumming electronically, which is a linear sequencer (you can try this mode of composition but it's not very accurate on this linear sequencing). So, I was thinking of the Euclidean sequencer, which is a circular sequencer, with way more probabilities and parameters that diversify rhythmic composition. And even with that circular sequencer, there were specific complications because the music progresses differently. I asked a good friend of mine, Anthony Sahyoun, who is a musician and a mathematician/programmer, to help me. I asked him, ‘How the fuck am I going to compose this’? He immediately thought of creating a Euclidean sequencer and designed the sequencer on MAX/MSP. We knew later that Euclidean sequencers already existed, with Buchla being perhaps the most famous example.

I was relying on two references to understand this music. One was Lisa Urkevich’s “Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula”, and the second was a book by Tarek Yamani, which had documentation on music from the Gulf and on percussion ensembles of the Arabian Peninsula. There was a thorough documentation of how rhythms can be made but it was not inclusive of all the styles that I was interested in. Styles have specific time signatures and rhythmic patterns but can become a bit complex as they evolve, shifting and morphing time-signature, speed and rhythmic patterns. Therefore, my interventions were more with a machine learning algorithm called Markov Chain, which learns patterns. It can understand sound or moving image. You feed it patterns, and it gives you a pattern under any form, depending on what kind of tools you are using. I was feeding the Markov specific selected tracks from this music and it produced patterns, really unexpected patterns because it's a mix of music and styles, different rhythms and time signatures, etc. The patterns were in the form of triggers or clicks: a sequence. They were later used on the Euclidean sequencer. After inserting all this data in it, the sequencer comes up with these rhythms, like micro rhythms, a few seconds of small rhythms, and I later developed those into full tracks.

This process was a direct result of a computational rendering of these musical styles that are particularly connected to geographic settings. As such, the different tracks of the album act as possible anticipatory rhythms of a rapidly morphing spatial condition.


I’m curious about where you think the speculative music about a future in the present meets with our material conditions now.


It doesn't, it's not salvation. We’re not finding solutions; using 3D modelling or a 3D environment is speculation. But we are attempting to form or to model this acceleration of scale changes. It is only one possible scenario, and perhaps a fictional one.

My work is not so much in that area of speculating possible solutions but more aligned with two threads. Firstly, the idea of generative music composition, as I mentioned earlier through Xenakis’ work and his contribution and influences on generative music, using complex modelling and mathematical tools based on existing environmental data. On another parallel level, I draw on predictions, chance and prophecies in its religious context. Religious in the social sense, through ritualistic and occult practices, within traditional environments; how specific forms of music are being played through their instruments by worshipers. The idea of worship is interesting for me in terms of conjoining these two worlds: the very mathematical one of Xenakis’ music composition and the religious impact on it. So, I thought of these two, what they have in common, the idea of speculation and how to come up with totally unexpected results.


The Wave Track Al Qadir is an unreleased track that was made prior to the album Ibtihalat (forthcoming: autumn 2021) and draws inspiration from researched rhythms and locations related to it. The research and album was made with the support of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC).

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