Arab HipHop – Clotaire K
"It's a Bastard Music I'm Doing"

His mother is Lebanese, his father is Egyptian, but he was born and raised in France. Consequently, his music displays a wild mix of various styles. Clotaire K fuses traditional Arab music with HipHop and Rap. A portrait by Tareq Al-Arab

photo: Tareq Al-Arab
According to the British press, Clotaire K easily combines Oum Kalsoum and Grandmaster Flash

​​A demon bursts out of the dark onto the stage of London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, stringy hair down to its shoulders and claws as long as Cuban cigars. Floodlit in glistening light, the creature dances to a heavy whipping hip-hop beat with almost supernaturally lissom movements. Then Clotaire K enters the stage.

Dressed in baggy hip-hop gear, the skinny, shorthaired Clotaire K moves up and down the stage with an upright and proud posture. He raps incessantly – song by song alternating between French, Arabic and English – sometimes angry, defiant and fast like machinegun fire, sometimes slow, sombre and haunting.

Clotaire K seems to be fighting with the demon. Or is he dancing with it?

Streetmusic Arabe in the Queen Elisabeth Hall

Although Clotaire K is playing the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of a festival called "Streetmusic Arabe," hardly any one in the audience is from the street. This concert venue couldn't be more bourgeois with securities forcing people to remain on their seats at the first sign of musically triggered excitement.

And people do get excited. Clotaire K's skilful blend of hip-hop beats, melodic Arabic choruses and sampled traditional Arabic vocals and instrumentals is appealing. More than once, people can't hold back and strive to go past the securities to dance ecstatically in front of the stage, especially when Clotaire K grabs his Oud to perform accentuated riffs to the beats.

The meaning of Tarab in Arab music

Ecstasy through music is crucial to Clotaire K, or rather something that is referred to in the Arab culture as Tarab.

He explains: "Tarab is basically the emotions that the scales in Middle Eastern music give you at some point. The musicians go towards a point, which gives goose bumps to the people".

Then he is quick to emphasise that what he does is not actually Tarab. He just samples the Tarab point of live recordings he had done of Middle Eastern musicians. "This Tarab point moves me most. At one point Oum Kalthoum or Fairouz do a note that makes me feel like …," Clotaire breathes in aloud and opens his eyes and mouth as in astonishment, "… like this is my home".

It is hard to say where Clotaire K's is at home. He is the son of a Lebanese mother and an Egyptian father – a philosophy teacher – but was born in the South of France. He lived for a while in the USA and spent and still spends a lot of time in Lebanon.

It is peculiar that his music is least successful in France and most successful among Middle Eastern youngsters and in Britain and Germany.

A longing for the "old, innocent Beirut"

Album cover "Lebanese", Clotaire K's first album

​​Clotaire K's lyrics seem just as artful as his music. They render a longing for the "old, innocent Beirut" – a world once complete and intact that has begun to decompose during the war.

In his song Maqam, Clotaire K mentions "nothing but one language on the Mediterranean sea. An artist's language". A metaphor for unity?

"Yes, it's something uniting," he explains. "I say: 'On the Mediterranean sea, there is nothing else but one language, the one and only language, the voice of the Middle Eastern female artists'. There is Oum Kalthoum, Fairouz and others that are still played on the radio. People still like it. Kids understand their lyrics. Grandfathers and grandmothers understand them. It's good that a form of art unites everyone. Here in the West, there is no one that everyone could recognise himself in."

The meaning of politics

Despite his adoration of traditional Arabic music, Clotaire K chose to make hip-hop. Because it makes him "dance and party". And because it is perfect for "the message". So, is Clotaire K's music a vehicle for social critique, political, just like hip-hop traditionally was? He denies it. He says, he would not consider himself as someone who writes about politics.

"My music is selfish. I do it to hear the things I want to hear and that maybe I don't find elsewhere and nobody else says, in music or in lyrics." But he says he noticed that the Middle Eastern youngsters want to hear what he is saying, that they recognise themselves in his lyrics. "This is quite rewarding."

"It's a bastard music"

Clotaire K relishes the thought that music producers would make the effort to find the right artists to make "great music again". Find artists like Clotaire K?

"I'm not a great artist of Arabic music. In a sense, I'm a shit artist; it's not pure music. It's a bastard music I am doing. But if my music can wake up some things in the minds of people that would be something already. For me, this is a dream."

A non-political lyricist with a political message. A bastard musician promoting purism: Clotaire K is fighting and ensnaring a demon on his quest for a note that feels like home. Whenever he finds it, many will share it.

© 2004

Tareq Al-Arab

Website Clotaire K

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