Masaa's Rabih Lahoud in interview"Arabic needs artistic support"
When you listen to "Beit", Masaa’s new album, you get the impression that the musicians are addressing the listener very directly. The sound is intimate and warm. And of course, beit means "house" or "home". Does this mean that after years of wandering, Masaa is finally home?
Rabih Lahoud: I would say yes to that – at least, that’s the feeling I have. After 20 years, I’m a bit more at home in Germany. I’ve been here half my life now, contributing, not as a guest. I no longer say, "Here, I’m elsewhere". I say: "Now I’m here". And this music, these ideas of mine are helping to influence the soundscape here.
What does beit mean as the album's theme at a time when increasing numbers of people are being forced to abandon their homes? Many buildings were destroyed by the huge explosion in the port of Lebanon, and still more are being destroyed by the war in Ukraine. Have these events influenced the record?
Lahoud: Yes, absolutely. These events have forced us to examine the concept even more closely. The idea of "house and home" has a certain duality.
On one side you’ve got the historical process of human settlement. On the other, there’s the internal aspect: what does it really mean to feel at home?
What is normal for a lot of people is something that many, many people can no longer take for granted – home has become a privilege.
At the end of the title track, I sing over and over: "Don’t destroy houses, build houses!" You can see that as a metaphor as well.
"Hatdem" means destroy, and "dammara" means build. The Arabic language is very rhythmic at this point – it almost sounds like rap.
Of course, you can also feel at home in a language. On previous albums, you’ve sung in German as well. That isn’t the case on this one; most of the lyrics are in Arabic, and they’re longer than your earlier work. Do you still feel more at home in Arabic, despite your long absence from Lebanon?
Lahoud: I think so. But my own relationship with Arabic has changed. I feel more comfortable speaking it, so maybe I use more words. In my day-to-day life as a young man, it was the sound of the language that I found beautiful, not the meaning of words. Yet now the words are starting to acquire new meaning, new intensity for me, and I get the sense that I can allow that. It now sounds more like Rabih than simply like Arabic.
Where does the Arabic language stand today as an artistic medium?
Lahoud: My feeling is that Arabic has forfeited something through Ottoman and European influences. This influence was especially pronounced in Lebanon – the country is a true blend of languages today. On the one hand, that's wonderful, because humans adapt and are able to transform things for the sake of communication.
That's also a uniquely Lebanese characteristic: you abandon identities in order to remain in communication; it's about understanding one another. On the other, this means that the wonderful language of Arabic has lost a little of its heart, at times it maybe feels slightly inferior or old-fashioned. There are a lot of words in the modern world for which Arabic has no equivalent. In my opinion, Arabic needs artistic support. It mustn’t lose its ability to express beauty and tenderness and strength.
Has Arabic also been changed by the turmoil since the Arab Spring?
Lahoud: Absolutely. I feel a radical change, a turning point, an alteration in the consciousness of young people, especially the generation that is coming up now, post-Arab Spring. Language is being treated as something that needs to be reborn. I get the impression on social media that young people from across the Arab world are now using dialect expressions from various regions – it's creating a new standard language, a new power of expression. This will start to become visible in the structures of Arab society in the next ten to fifteen years.
Is it just the Arabic language you have gained a new attitude towards, or is it also the music of your first homeland?
Lahoud: I didn't use to work with Arabic scales; I kept them somewhat at arm's length. Now I've come to be fascinated by classical Arabic music and I'm researching it. I see now how valuable it is when we incorporate this treasure trove into the Masaa sound. So for example, one piece on Beit – dedicated to "Zeryab", who was a musician from 8th/9th century Cordoba – is written in the Nahawand mode. That's a scale related to the European minor key. But there are a lot of minor keys in Arab music: different micro-intervals mean that a minor sounds quite different in Aleppo to the way it does in Cairo. These subtle differences open up very different worlds.
There is a piece called "Nabad", that contains the lovely line, "Take away the weight of the ancestors". Is that a plea for us to relate to one another simply as humans, unburdened by the political legacies of the past?
Lahoud: Yes. We need to take a lighter approach towards those we choose to connect with, to realise a future that looks different to the present. But that also goes for outmoded thinking in musical styles. We have to liberate ourselves from the categorisation that has been going on for decades, which always says, "What’s jazz, and what’s world music?"
I personally find that a burden. When people label our band as "world music", it isn’t always done with bad intentions, but the term spawns an inherent question: "Where are you from?" In its original spirit, jazz asks, "Where are you going?" Let’s look at music that way: is it looking in a certain direction? Into the future? Does it bring hope? Does it move you to the core? And let's look for that and strengthen and promote it.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin
"Beit", distributed by Traumton/Indigo, is due for release on 28 April 2023.