Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Buena Vista Sufi Club

As I ready myself for our Skype interview, writes Nourhan Tewfik, I remember my first encounter with Mike Massy

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Mike Massy’s music is not only radically different from Arabic pop but also uniquely innovative. It is beautifully supplemented by a strong repertoire. The authenticity I met with as I explored his musical philosophy was comforting and, more importantly, something I could relate to. His vocal uniqueness and his almost inexplicable range of talents — as a song writer, a composer, an actor and dancer as well as a music producer — have allowed him to deservedly clamber up the steps of fame. He has done so with the help of a varied project that transcends not only the borders of Lebanon but the whole Middle East.

“I dedicate every single note to all the lone sufferers looking for someone who would hear their silent outcry whether in this world or on other shores,” Massy writes inside the cover of his most recent album, Naseej (which means both “weaving” and “textile”).

Born in 1982 in time for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Massy started to learn the piano at a young age. “It was difficult to overcome the obstacles dictated by being in a state of war, to learn music or do anything other than carrying out basic activities like eating and drinking. My parents are heroes for having taught me music despite these hindrances.”

Massy studied in a private school and in 1996 joined the National High Conservatory of Music to resume his classical piano studies before he chose to specialise in Arabic opera in 1999. In addition, he learned oriental as well as occidental singing, including the muwashahat. In 2001, he enrolled at the Faculty of Fine Arts to pursue a degree in drama, specialising in theatre acting and directing. Concurrently, he took jazz ballet dancing classes for ten years, which led him to join the famous Lebanese Arabesque dance troupe. “I believe that to achieve professionalism, one should acquire the skills that could enable one to rise as a real performer”, he tells me, explaining the motivation behind such wide-ranging formative experience.  

Like many Lebanese artists, Massy first discovered his vocation while performing hymns in church. “From here it all started,” he says. “I dreamt and dreamt. And despite everything, I did not give up because I do not think I had such choice. Today, I close my eyes and think for a moment, ‘What would have become of me had I not become the person that I am today?’ And I find no answer.”

Before too long he had moulded a tangible project out of this experience, producing an album of hymns, Ila Ssama Atba’ouka, in 2003. It was wholly unplanned, he says: “I’d be present in on some occasion and people would ask me to sing hymns and the songs would be recorded. People then told me they enjoyed listening to these hymns and so I was encouraged to pursue the project.” But it wasn’t until 2011 that he shared the musical reverie that would secure his fan base, Ya Zaman (or O Good Old Days), his official debut album.

Steeped in nostalgia, this is an amalgam of jazz, Arab melody and baroque harmony that took Beirut by storm and earned Massy the Innovation in Music Award at the Murex D’or in June 2012. With innovative lyrics and strong structure, it brims with emotion and rarefied experience, demonstrating a power and depth made possible no less by Massy’s expertise than the collaboration of 32 musicians, Lebanese and Belgian. Massy attributes the success of the album to how a candid rendition of his own personal narrative was seamlessly woven into the songs, allowing the audience to feel the music resembled them. This is especially evident in his portrayal the notion of Arabness: how it prompts both frustration and jubilation.

“This album is very personal and it articulates the stages that I went through in my life. It also expresses my own personality, which has so much nostalgia and is so Lebanese. I always feel I do not belong to Lebanon, feeling more like a stranger, just like any other Arab citizen who feels out of place. We have this frustrating schizophrenia. But at the same time we have a sense of attachment to our countries that is not always explainable.” And it is Massy’s attachment to his Lebanon, the myriad details of its culture, that he deciphers and scrutinises in Ya Zaman. The album shows how hard to give up is Arabness. “For example, if I lived in China, I wouldn’t be able to wake up and not drink Turkish coffee and listen to Fairouz. I just wouldn’t be.”

Performed in purely acoustic music, the songs, some of which are composed and written by Massy himself, are inimitable and authentic treatments of topics like the homeland, love and life. Two songs are dedicated to Beirut but each takes a completely different stance. The first, Beyrouth, is a poignant ode that carries the scent of the city. In it he speaks of the Lebanese capital as he discovered it for himself. It was neither the one familiar from the Rahbani Brothers’ songs nor the one his parents had experienced. “I tell about Beirut the legend, which we know  must have been beautiful. I was born in the war, and I only know the Beirut that had people hiding in shelters and suffering the pains associated with the war. But I feel there was one consolation for my family and the generation that raised us: they could remember and tell us about Beirut as it once was, the Pearl of the East as is propagated.”

This song allows Massy to speak of that bygone Beirut, which he did not witness and was told about, but through other particulars: the peculiar qualities the city still hoards, the old items found in the souks, the smell of the sea. In Khalasna Ba’a (or Enough is Enough), by contrast, Beirut emerges as a city of endless contradiction, whose materialist excesses he satirises with wry humour, describing it as a Sois belle et tais-toi (or a be-pretty-and-shut-up society).

“Unfortunately, the highest percentage of plastic surgeries in the world take place in Brazil and Lebanon. But we need to see humans as well, not just plastic structures. So I wanted to discuss this superficial sense of purpose adopted by Lebanese society and also across the Arab world. I am sure we all relate to this. I feel that people get swamped in their appearances...”

In addition to its authenticity and its interest in speaking to identity, Massy’s work stands out for undertaking its aim through a fusion of eastern and western music, the success of which he attributes to a solid grounding in both traditions: “I was taught western music at a young age and then I was introduced to eastern music. So I feel in balance when I am swinging between both bodies of music.”

There is a more purposeful side to it, however: Massy wants to prove that Arabic language and culture are not dead or irrelevant, they can even be effective in the west: “I want my music to cross Arab borders and to reach the west. And the proof is that I performed a number of concerts in Europe and the US and there was a huge western audience. I also gave lectures at western universities, one of which was  Stanford, in which I discussed this musical combination.” He tells me he was happy to receive fan mail in English. “They had lost touch with this body of music, it was permeated with worn-out clichés and they had never thought it would be that appealing to listen to.”

Collaborations with other artists have underpinned Massy fame. He composed the music for Tanya Nasr’s documentary Itsy Bitsy Spider in 2008 and wrote and composed the soundtrack of Lebanese director Joe Bou Eid’s feature film debut Tanoura Maxi in 2012. For these collaborations, Massy tells me, he employed his own knowledge of acting as he created the music. “It is a very challenging process, because your musical project must serve the dramatic element of the film, but I believe that my studies in the theatre and cinema fields contributed to my ability to do it.”

Improvisation too has its place. This is evident in his oriental improvisation on the renowned jazz song Nature Boy, in a live studio recording, together with the qanun player Ossama Abdulrasol. Waking up one day in Belgium with the idea churning in his mind, Massy tells me he immediately showed up at his friend’s studio to record it. “I began singing and Osama started improvising on the qanun. We actually had it in one-take and were amazed. There were mistakes, of course; small technical details that had yet to be perfected. But I dislike perfection anyway, because I feel it harms the work of art instead of benefitting it. I felt that my emotions came through. You see, sometimes the simplest undertakings come out  the most beautiful.”

Released in August 2014, and produced by the Zouk Mikael Festival, Naseej — a copious blend of Anadalusi, jazz with oriental rhythms — demonstrates an even greater ability to combine genres, and indulging unbridled passion. “I was interested in working on a musical project that was eloquent. And honestly, I find in classical Arabic an eloquence and rhythm that cannot be found in colloquial Arabic.”

Massy tells me the idea came to him after a concert in Lebanon in which he performed with cellist Sary Khalife. “I really liked his playing, and I suggested we work on a new project as a duo and perform a number of concerts together. Then Sary suggested we should also include his brother Ayad, a pianist, and then I told him that about this musical project that I’d already been dreaming of. That’s how it all began.”

The Khalife brothers and Massy worked together as composers and performers on this album. They trained for a year until they were able to finalise it. “We really enjoyed the process. It was very similar to being part of a workshop. For me, I needed this specific undertaking to further educate myself.” And it is this process that suggested the name whole they were brainstorming, naseej being not only the act of weaving but also the fabric, its colour and texture: “We believe each of us represents one of those elements.”

The album includes revisits to Lebanese folklore in such numbers as Lawhet Al Urs (The Wedding Portrait), with folk-inspired opening lyrics by Camille Salemeh: “Ewiha (May You Be Blessed)/ when you go to the vineyard to reap the grapes/Ewiha (May You Be Blessed)/And when your groom is overwhelmed with fatigue/Ewiha (May You Be Blessed)/Bring along a handful of sand/Ewiha (May You Be Blessed)/Maybe when you emigrate it will turn to gold...”

Naseej also includes ingenious treatments of old Arabic and Sufi poetry. In fact, Massy’s fondness of Sufi poetry and his brilliant articulation of it in this album is avant-garde.

“I relate to Sufi poetry and find in it this repetition that allows you to concentrate on the emotion translated by the song and focus on the music,” he explains, “more than having your mind turned on the texts. It also makes you delve into an range of emotions without intending to. In this way, Sufi poetry resembled all three of us and we found in it lyrics that could match the music we composed.”

In Ajibtou Minka Wa Minni (“I marvelled at you and me”), along with Lebanese singer Fadia Tomb El-Hage, Massy sings an extract from a poem by Al-Hallaj. The Sufi influence is apparent again in Rouhmak Ya Allah (“Oh Lord Have Mercy”), which is inspired by a melody of Velin Belev and has Massy’s repeating the title line.

The real chef-d’oeuvre of Naseej however was in the form of another of Al-Hallaj’s works that was previously adapted into many musical pieces, one by the celebrated Lebanese singer and oud master Marcel Khalife, Ya Naseem Al Reeh (“Oh, Breeze of the Wind”): “Oh, breeze of the wind, tell the fledgling/That drinking has left me thirstier./I have a loved one whose love filled my viscera./My cheek is his to walk on if he pleases./His soul is mine, my soul his, so/If he wills I will and if I will he wills.”

The song, Massy says, was a massive production — not least because he wanted to visit something already done (who also happens to the Khalifes’ uncle). “After the album was released,” however, “Marcel called me and congratulated me on the it. He jokingly told me that our version was his second favorite after his own. I’m a big fan of Khalife’ and his work. We also received a compliment from Dhaffer Youssef, who humbly sent me a message on Facebook.”

Other treatments of canonical Arabic poetry include Ibn Maatouq Al-Moussawi’s Gharabat Choumous Al Talaki (or The Suns of Encounter Have Set), with the introduction voiced by Camille Salameh. “This fusion between old Arabic poetry and rhythmic music is very difficult,” Massy says. “I also do not think a similar treatment of Arabic poetry has even been presented.” The intense synthesis between eastern lyrics and western melodies is also employed in the text excerpt from the renowned prayer titled Salat Taghour (or Tagore’s Prayer). “This is what coming out of the trap of cliche entails, this very idea of, say, dressing in a pair of jeans as you sing tarab, because who says you can’t be both?” The album also comprises a brilliant musical composition titled Safar (or Journey).

But in addition to working as a performer and composer in Naseej, Massy also assumed took on the stressful responsibility of being the album’s producer. “This profession isn’t really well-known in the Arab world. The music producer chooses the sound, studio, musicians, sounds, mixing, mastering, quality of recording, art direction of images, the messages to be communicated through the music, organises the times and venues of events, all of that. When you listen to most of my work, whether it’s Ya Zaman, Naseej or the other singles I worked on, you will notice that they all transmit the same sound even if the music is delivered in different styles.”

Still, Massy’s musical project, in its rich variety of fusions and experiments, obtains its legitimacy from the dream at its core: “I don’t believe that songs liberate nations, I feel that they liberate the human being and once the human being is unshackled, he can then free his country.”

For Massy, this freedom manifests itself when the artist can genuinely represent his society. “He needs to tackle head-on the existential questions the citizen might think about. He has to be in close contact with his surroundings for his music to portray, even if subtly, his environment. For example, once I listen to Masar Egbari, I feel that Egypt seeps into their music, I feel they are Egyptians. The same applies to the Rahbani Brothers. For example, when they talk about Bolees al-Baladiyya (or “The Local Police”), this is a local topic gleaned from everyday life even if it doesn’t directly discuss politics. People can and do relate to it.”

In addition to recording and finalising his new album and holding a number of  concerts, Massy is currently awaiting the release of a Latin-American film, scheduled for this year in the US, in which he sang two songs, one in Spanish and the other in Arabic. At the start 2015, Massy dreams of a cultural revolution in the Arab world. “I hope I will live to witness such a revolution,” he says, “different from all those steeped in violence.”


Mike’s official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/mikemassy.officialpage. Mike’s music on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/mikemassy/sets/tannoura-maxi; https://soundcloud.com/mikemassy/sets/ya-zaman; https://soundcloud.com/mikemassy/sets/naseej.

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