Natik Awayez and His Songbook Of Melancholy
The singer and oud player Natik Awayez has been involved with music since the 1980s, but hardly any of his work is currently available online. He’s dipped in and out of activity, down the decades, but a recent solo release, Manbarani, on the Sublime Frequencies label is now essential listening—pressed on vinyl this spring, but first released digitally in November 2020. Born in Iraq, and dwelling in Cairo since 2015, Awayez has also spent long phases living in Yemen and Sweden. Not surprisingly, this has made his songs “impure,” adopting aspects of varied Middle Eastern and North African traditions.
Sublime Frequencies could be described as an extremely alternative global music outlet, its Seattle team harking back to the old field recording days, but also overseeing modernized pop or electronic collisions. Manbarani was produced and arranged by Maurice Louca, a guitarist and composer who’s very active on the local Cairo scene, but also highly effective as an international messenger for avant Arabic sounds. The foundational percussion lattice was crafted by Khaled Yassine, the Lebanese artist leading a drumming quartet. The lineup is completed by violin (or viola), buzuq, and a four-piece vocal section.
There is the classic string sound of the violin, which almost single-handedly takes on the role of a section. Then, dramatic percussion and chorus dynamism combine, but with a modernized surface sound, perhaps because several of the players are also members of bands such as Alif and Elephantine, accustomed to incorporating dynamic influences from rock, jazz, and electronic music. The voice of Awayez remains low, controlled, and infused with sadness; slow vocal lines often gliding across a racing-heartbeat percussion flow. Violin shadows voice, with decelerated expressivity, underlining or responding to the singing. Eventually, the chorus enters, immediately hiking the excitement and tension with its sharp-focus call-and-response, sometimes surprising with less likely harmonies. Some sections allow the percussive drive to be highlighted, with simultaneous and complex drum solos.
Awayez developed The Art Consulate in Cairo, from 2013, gradually deciding to become rooted in the city. “I arrived here in 2012 for a short visit while going through a rough patch in my life,” says Awayez, a couple of days before his first gig playing this album’s repertoire—a concert in St. Petersburg. “I came to the city to take time out, to think and meditate on what I would like to do next. I was seduced completely by Cairo and felt an attraction to it as if I had lived here all my life. I haven’t been able to leave since. Cairo is intense, polluted (air and sound), and full of traffic, yet it remains incredibly attractive, mighty and ruthless.”
Egyptian music has been profoundly influential across the Arab world, not least because of the country’s golden years of radio and television broadcasts. It looks like Awayez is set on remaining in Cairo for the foreseeable future. “I spend a lot of time in the street,” he continues. “I take breakfast in a street cafe every morning. I go to popular neighborhoods, such as Sayedah Zeinab, where I buy my fruits, vegetables, and fish. I walk long distances in the city, and I often meet friends in Downtown Cairo bars. So I have an intimate relationship with the city, and it has brought back important things I had missed in my life. Most importantly it brought back my passion for music. Before I arrived in Cairo, I had turned my back to music, and Cairo made me take the uneasy route of going back to making music.”
Awayez had periodically become involved with venue organization, founding the Inkonst arts space in Malmö, and then The Arts Consulate. It was often difficult for him to concentrate on songwriting, but that drive has emphatically returned in recent years. “I struggle to keep my mind quiet, and I am always in this internal monologue with myself,” Awayez reveals. “These thoughts and conversations are often about what is happening, and has happened, in the region: Iraq, Syria, Palestine. At times these conversations are quite violent inside of me. Sometimes, of course, the monologues are about personal stories. When the internal dialogue gets too intense, it’s usually good to attempt to take it into songwriting. It turns into texts, melody lines, and it grows into a song. I’ve always made music in this way. The impetus is always with internal dialogues, about something social, political or personal. Then the songs are not necessarily about the topic, story, or incident itself, the songs revolve around the feelings and emotions born out of these dialogues, hence why many songs can be read as abstract, essentially not direct.”
The songs, and their treatment on the album emanate from the worlds of Iraq, Yemen, and Egypt, through experience, travel, and the backgrounds of each band member. “Yassine arranged the rhythms of Manbarani, which are inspired by the rhythms of Yemen, in the form of very dynamic polyrhythms. This is a very important achievement in the project.” Awayez is likewise impressed by Louca’s production skills: “The most significant thing he did was having a very clear vision for the sound of this album and managing to deliver it accurately and uncompromisingly. And when we talk today about the record, we often say that it is exactly how we wanted it to be. There are no parts or sections in it where we wish we could have done it otherwise.”
At the root, it still seems that an Iraqi heritage remains the strongest influence, but the present mixture is highly refined. “I am born and bred in Iraq’s musical traditions. But I also moved to Yemen, and was able to absorb Yemeni musical traditions. These are the two main components that exist very naturally in my musical identity. The difference that you are hearing or feeling in the music comes from neither influences being pure. The Yemeni influence is very much there through the rhythms, and Yemen’s rhythms are beautiful and distinct. But in the melodic work and feeling, there you find Iraqi culture more.
“But even this ladder is not pure, because of my frequent travel, and moving from one country to another. Hybrids of the sounds of places I lived in. The Egyptian influence is always present because of Egypt’s music being heard the most across the region. You can hear it embodied the most in the violin on the record, the feeling and way of playing of the violin, and Ayman Asfour’s improvisations.”
Awayez adds a coda that, “The sadness in Manbarani is also Iraqi. We are somehow averse to happiness in our music making as a people [laughter], and what is hidden is greater and what is to come is greater in sadness, God willing.”