Zahed Sultan on Exploring Traditional Pearl-Diving Music of the Gulf

The multifaceted Kuwaiti musician investigates the links between traditional “fidjeri” music and modern trends in his Hiwar film and performance project

Bridging the gap between traditional music and modern forms, Zahed Sultan’s Hiwar project is an exploration of pearl-diving music from the Gulf, created during a residency in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Intrigued by the relative simplicity yet undeniable complexity of the form, Sultan sought to document his collaboration with the musicians preserving this pearl-diving music, collaborating in pursuit of a contemporary, non-puristic vision of a genre that might otherwise be solely defined by its heritage.

The result of these studio sessions and informal improvisations is Hiwar, meaning “dialogue.” In addition to the eponymous short film, premiering below, Sultan and a troupe of musicians will be performing together live at the RBMA Weekender Dubai 2017, representing the latest step in their ongoing creative dialogue. In this interview, Sultan discussed the utilitarian purpose of much of this pearl-diving music, the evolution of related forms in the Gulf and how to celebrate cultural diversity without being a purist.

Zahed Sultan - Hiwar

How did you first became aware of fidjeri? Was it via firsthand experience, in a live performance setting or something else entirely?

I’m half-Indian, half-Kuwaiti, so I’ve grown up in a household that was very attuned to music. If I had to go way, way back, my first experiences with this form of music had to be from my father, who possibly played us their records or took us around and about in Kuwait City.

So from the time you were young this music was actually consumable and sold on records and performed live; it wasn’t just something that the pearl divers were doing on their own and people didn’t really consume it.

That’s an interesting point, because I’ve actually inherited my grandmother’s, aunt’s and father’s records, and I’ve built quite a diverse collection of vinyl for myself. I noticed that all the genres of folk music I discovered from North Africa and the Middle East and the Gulf were all recorded by people from Europe who came to the region. They weren’t even recorded locally, at least on all the vinyl that I have. I question how much engagement actually happened at the time. It’s obviously very different for someone who comes in for a limited period of time and records a certain form of music versus people who live amongst these people and record their music and sounds.

The topics that are discussed are about togetherness, belongingness, separation, loss.

In the region, if you try to even research this music it’s quite chaotic. It’s not documented in a very accessible manner. It’s sort of hodgepodge and there’s a lot of mixed information. The music itself, in terms of genres and subgenres, is very complex, so unless you’re someone that truly comes from a compositional background or whatnot, accessing the sound is quite tough. For example, fidjeri music has eight subgenres alone to it, rhythmic directions, etc... [There are two] rhythmic structures; you can fluctuate between both simultaneously. They can start as one subgenre and fold into another.

Long story short, my access definitely started through my father. As an individual I’ve never really connected with what you call the new version of... You had this form of music, which is, for lack of any better term, “sea music” and “land music,” and that eventually evolved into what you call “sawt music,” where they start incorporating the oud. Once the oud was incorporated you started to have a string-based approach to the music. That has now evolved into what you call “khaligi music” which just basically means “Gulf music.” It’s the commercial, most popular sound you have across the region.

For myself and a lot of the people within my extended circles, or when people like ourselves had access that are more worldly, we don’t connect with the sound because it’s very, very formulaic and very specific. There’s not much room for diversity within the sound itself, hence this rising interest in the independent Arab music scene more recently in the past few years.

When you talk to me about Arabic music, one of my favorite artists is an artist from Nubia in Egypt, Hamza El Din. When I researched him it turns out he’s a professor that moved to New York and collaborated with the Grateful Dead – that didn’t make a lot of sense, now that I think about it. I realized my interest in Arabic music in general was much more based on this minimalistic approach to production, rather than having this overly compressed music. For example, today when they record khaligi music, they’ll record eight to ten stacks of vocals, or they’ll record 16 stacks of violins. You don’t need that many stacks of violins given the type of song they’re producing. This older music – let’s call it pearl-diving or land music or even Hamza El Din – was a very minimalistic approach. You had basic clapping, you had percussion and you had voice, and that was it. That’s one key factor I think that spoke to me.

Hamza El Din - Assaramessuga (Childhood)

The other thing that speaks even more deeply to me is the context of the music. Khaligi music, based on my experiences with it – I don’t want to speak out of turn, because I’ve stopped listening to it for over a decade now – its thematic presentation is very limited. The topics that are covered are some dearth of being loved, loss of love or patriotism for country. Celebratory, nationalistic music, which is usually commissioned by someone from the state or cultural department, or the ministry of culture. Those are your predominant three topics, and they don’t sway inside of or without that. If you go back to the music we’re going to be exploring in Hiwar, the context of this music was a lot more broad. It sits in a very melancholic space... There’s a lot of drone sounds in there, for example. The topics that are discussed are about togetherness, belongingness, separation, loss. And there’s a lot of lament, a lot of pain within the music. I get a lot of my inspiration from that kind of space, the melancholic space in general, as a human being.

Speaking of these individual genres within fidjeri, are there ways in which they are separated lyrically? I’m curious if you could give a brief overview on the differentiation between them, and also your opinion on how they were able to derive this variety of genres from such relatively sparse instrumentation?

I’m not going to claim to have a PhD in pearl-diving music. There’s a lot more people around that I’ve met or stumbled upon who have studied this music and understand it much more in-depth. But from I’ve gathered the music was sub-categorized based on activity. I feel hesitant saying this with 100% confidence, but the songs of fidjeri music in general, you had your “nahham,” who was the equivalent to the conductor who would call out to his crew, whoever his brethren were in his ship, and then you’d have what you’d call this dialogue with each other. It is very chorus-based as well, the music in general, across all these subgenres. He would do a call and they would respond to him. We can call that question-and-answer: It’s meant to lift their spirits, it’s meant to keep them alive. The second most important person within the subsections were called the “mawwal,” who was someone that we would call a mourner, basically. In my interpretation, “mawwal” is someone who mourns, because the most prevalent phrase you hear in this music is basically a lament. In essence, he’s a person called that takes it to a larger space where, again, it’s intrinsic.

Between this question/answer people and chorus, why do they sing these songs? This music developed organically based on different functions, tasks that used to happen through the course of what would be a journey out to sea. The first and foremost task is building a ship, so songs emerged from how you would keep in harmony when you build the hull of a ship. Then you had songs that were based around, once you finished the ship, you had to push it out to sea. Imagine you have to align everyone to exert their energy to push this ship out to sea – song and structure emerged from that. Then you had songs that emerged from when you had to raise the sail on the ship.

If you think about the function of trying to raise the sails in those days on those ships, it took quite a significant amount of people to be in harmony to conduct those functions. Song emerged for those as well. They actually had a song that was related to the diver actually diving into the ocean to search for the oysters. All of these were timed, obviously. These songs were a lot shorter, around the two and a half minute range, then they just sort of loop and go as long as they want them. Lyrically, there’s not much to them. They start the song that the diver used to jump into the sea, and if they finished the song and the diver had not ascended, that means that he was drowning, and they have to send in a search party for him to rescue him.

Keep in mind that men used to go away for six months at a time. It was exclusively male-oriented trips, and the women were left at home. That also sparked a whole different genre of music by women – which is not as explored as it should be – who also sang songs that were looking at it through a different context because their men were at sea. Then you had the third derivative, when men were back home and they were together with their families or whatnot. That had a whole family of music developed out of that which was more celebratory, more seasonal.

How were these songs preserved? Or was there ever an effort when this culture was dying out for people to preserve it in a conscious way, whether it was notation, performance, passing it on to their children?

We’re pretty young as a region... Someone as close to me as my grandfather would have experienced a pre-oil generation, pre-oil country, basically, so it’s not been that long ago. There’s some great books and not so great books. There are people who have passed it down to their sons. You’ve got some great people who are attempting to preserve the music, but as a collective effort I think there’s a big gap. This was a very key reason for me to want to explore this music, because it always spoke to me when I was growing up.

Back home we have these things called “jalsa,” which is basically called a sitting or a gathering. Men – sometimes it’s mixed – sit in a room and it’s this experiential sort of happening in a space where everyone’s a part of the performance. You have your percussionists, you have your vocalists and you have your main person playing the oud, but then you’re all partaking in it somehow either through dance, through clapping, through song. You sat down in these spaces and it’s very stripped down, it’s very raw. It’s very rhythmic, which obviously was adopted from Africa once upon a time. That spoke to me.

In many places across the region, there’s this attempt to preserve this culture. But the attempt to preserve this culture – this is my own two cents worth, and very subjective – is almost contrived, because you’ve got myself as a generation and x amount of new generations now, your Generation X, Generation Z, millennial generation, whatever you want to call them... None of us have any access to this culture except through what is fed to us. It’s like a monologue. It’s presented to you on TV screens. It’s presented to you on occasions where you’re meant to celebrate it, like National Day. It’s used as heritage memorabilia when people come visit your country. It’s used as propaganda when large institutions want to celebrate x amount of history of being in existence, like a bank, you know?

I’m not a purist. I don’t believe it has to be maintained and kept in its exact form.

Celebrating our country’s history, what actual access and touchpoints do you have as a young generation to this culture so it’s relatable, so that you can be empathetic towards it? There’s nothing, really. It doesn’t exist. It’s considered passé. It’s considered part of a different generation, and that to me was the impetus for embarking on this journey, trying to explore and understand this culture the best I could. The essence of that culture – not trying to maintain it... There’s a lot more people who are more skilled, better researched and more capable of documenting this culture in the manner that it needs to be archived and logged. That’s not the direction that I want to go in.

What I want to look at is the core of why this culture came about in the first place: What sparked the need to develop this kind of music, to sing this kind of music, the relationship between your nahham, your mawwal, the brethren on the ships, etc... Understand the ecosystem around it and then think, “OK, if we think about genres and music evolving” – I’m based in London now, and you can imagine how many amazing genres keep emerging out of this city – so I think to myself, “What if this culture got appropriated, and then it evolved and developed and it kept developing. What would it look like? What would it sound like? What would it feel like today so that it’s relevant, accessible, and so that there is this non-contrived link between what happened in the 1800s and what’s happening today, but it’s a natural progression? It’s not something that is fed to you.”

That’s basically the premise for for this project that I’ve entitled Hiwar, which is “dialogue.” To me it’s this generational dialogue that I’m trying to discover. It’s respecting the core of what something is but also realizing that that doesn’t... I’m not a purist. I don’t believe it has to be maintained and kept in its exact form, and there’s a lot of people who will be very upset by the words that I’m saying.

Jazz is one example. I think of Jamie Cullum – once upon a time in the UK they pissed off a ton of people. There’s many examples of someone who sort of disrupts a genre and people who are purists don’t like it. I’m nowhere at any level at this point of time of disrupting this genre or this world culture, but I think that it’s just got a lot of textures. It’s got a lot of form. There’s so much to it and there’s so much that can be explored within it and around it, without having to have it be this contrived process.

And dialogue itself is not something that has a beginning and ending. It’s an ongoing process whether it’s music or anything else.

Exactly, and I need to be okay with the fact that this is not always gonna turn out perfect. Some explorations may work, some may not. What’s important to me most is that I feel like if I can find something that I feel a strong connection to and I feel is current and relevant, that that could potentially be appealing to a larger audience as well, and they’ll start to explore it using their own art forms. It could be through print, could be a design, could be through sound experimentation. The options are endless. It could be through film. There’s definitely a necessity in whatever scenario to document this culture in a way that is just easily accessible to people.

Even the music we’re doing, it’s not entirely stuck to fidjeri – there’s still other genres around it. Predominantly it is fidjeri music, but there’s a lot of the surrounding genres that came out around the same time, at different sort of directions, but they’re very much within the same family of music. It’s very diverse, basically, and I think that to celebrate that diversity doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a purist at the end of the day, either. I look at the world we’re in today, this idea of globalization and integration of community, culture... I think that same application would apply when you’re exploring heritage.

By Red Bull Music Academy on April 12, 2017

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