Rami

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and like how you got into music or what you do for your day job. 

 

I’m Palestinian by origin, born and raised in what I like to call the Hejaz, which is Saudi Arabia, and lived there for 10 years of my life, moved to Lebanon for a few years, then to Canada and I've been here for 15 years now.

 

Music has been in my life all my life. I was 14 when I started playing the drums, then I started learning the guitar and bass, and all that. Playing a lot of western music, you know, indie music, rock music. Earlier, metal, that kind of ‘teenage angst’. I spent pretty much most of my life playing that kind of music and then eventually doing recordings in my own home studio, that sort of thing. But then in the last three years, actually before that I was getting more into world music.

 

Music from any part of the world that isn’t from here, you know European or American or Canadian. Yeah, so I did a lot of that. Sumatra, Indian, whatever it is, anything that wasn’t from the west was super fascinating.

 

And then over the last four years or so, I’ve been getting more into Arabic music, primarily the music from the South of the peninsula. A lot of people generally associate Arabic music with what they hear from the North because that’s the most prevalent and most accessible, I suppose, the most understood. Whereas, the South is kind of often cast aside as being tribal, not as sophisticated, whatever it is, for whatever reasons but I've always had a connection with it, having grown up there.

 

What sparked you to go back to that sort of music?

 

I guess because I was listening to all this world music and so I was like, why am I not listening to my own music? Also the sense of not wanting to be culturally appropriative. It’s just at some point, with everybody this sort of thing happens, where they grow up listening to music and kind of get bored of it, because that's what you grew up with, then once you get old enough you're like “hey that was actually pretty cool”.

 

That's what happened. At the same time, when I started listening to more Arabic music that's where I picked up the Oud. So yeah, I started learning songs more from the Hejaz, which is the west coast of so called Saudi Arabia.

 

I was playing that kind of music and at the same time, the war was happening in Yemen and I was very concerned and always like follow up on this. I’m an activist in many respects, things like indigenous struggles here, struggles in Palestine and the Yemeni one.

 

I was like, okay, I'll learn some Khaliji music, in solidarity with Yemen.

 

I learned some songs from the Hejaz area. I didn't really know much about music besides what I grew up with. And when I came to visit the only Yemeni restaurant in town, which had recently open two years earlier, I talked to the owner and I'm like “hey I'm playing, and learning these songs. Would you be interested in having someone perform? or do a fundraiser?” He was like “Yes that sounds cool, but this music you're learning is not from Yemen and it has nothing to do with Yemen.”

 

So he really set me straight. I said ok, I'm gonna focus on specifically Yemeni music. When I opened that door, it hasn’t stopped since then, it's just been going deeper and deeper and deeper. 

 

Do you know a lot about the history behind Yemeni music?

 

I have been slowly learning. It's been like peeling an onion. It’s very difficult to find whatever's needed to be found. But I've been finding things and now I’m in contact with some people who are really traditionalist from Yemen, and they know a lot about musicians and music from there and that's what they play.

 

I had not found a Yemeni musician who’s truly dedicated until a few weeks ago. He's based in

Egypt. He’s a really cool dude. We're actually doing business together. He's going to send me send me some Ouds and I'm going to try to sell them. He's talking about making collaborations and stuff like that because he, even him, doesn’t find many musicians playing this sort of music. When we find each other it's like “woah”

 

It feels like a dying art form and you're sort of bringing it back to life.

 

It is. There are so many things with Yemen right now that that is the case because, I mean, I could talk about the history, there's a lot of stuff to talk about but generally in the context of war and even before the war a lot of what we associated with Arabic music, which is music I’m sorry to say is associated with the rich Gulf countries. The style, the maqams, the rhythms, most of them actually originated from Yemen. They rarely acknowledge this. A lot of Yemeni are left feeling resentful, because they've gotten the short end of the stick for decades.

 

Them having been a country with an interesting colonial history. An interesting communist history as well. One of the most advanced, I would say, communist governments in the Arab world. So, I think they get a lot of hate from the other countries that bowed down to Colonial influence, and are essentially puppet governments like Saudi Arabia.

 

Their culture has been stolen and now it’s being destroyed, not only lives and buildings and schools and hospitals and whatever but as well, the music. The musician I’m in contact with who’s based in Egypt was telling me about an even more traditional instrument that belongs to Yemen and that is an older form of the Oud, called the Yemeni Oud or the Qanbus.

 

This is an instrument that is extremely rare nowadays in Yemen. Variations of it exists in other parts of the world but, in Yemen there's only one Qanbus maker in all of Yemen. I'm in contact with him and some of his friends who are enthusiasts and they’re trying to revive that music

 

From what I’ve heard, one of the best Qanbus players around stopped playing for religious reasons, or maybe because of trauma. His son was killed in the war as well so that’s just one example of how war affects music. There are so few Qanbus players and the one guy, who’s one of the best, if not the best player and singer, stopped because of war and trauma.

 

In so many ways the culture is being bombarded. Sometimes it's even self inflicted. People not wanting to associate with their own culture for reasons like feeling as if it's not important, it's not sophisticated enough. So, part of why I do this is, okay yeah, raising awareness for what's happening in Yemen, but also to show that this is not music that people can just scoff at and just be like “oh well it's not as sophisticated as music of the North”. It has its own rich tradition and has extremely amazing poetry that I can't even translate. For so many reasons, I could talk forever.

 

So you’re of Palestinian origin. What has been the reaction to a Palestinian playing Yemeni music? Is it quite positive?

 

So usually the question is “Why do you want to play Yemeni music?” because everybody else, if they play arabic music they play the music of the North. Nobody would question it, but if it's the other way around, they find it strange. Again it comes down to the fact that they think it's more inferior, as a type of music. But generally speaking Yemeni people really like that I play their music, although I find that I'm always extremely cautious about appropriation. I’ve encountered some musicians who are like, you know, essentially the vibe I get is, “you should do it better” to present it better.

 

If you play something that’s supposed to be super super nice and you don't do it justice, you might not be putting out a good image for this genre of music. This generally comes from musicians who are of a higher caliber they really know the ornamentation, the little details, of the sound. They can tell you “okay, it’s got to be more refined” you can't just like play it like that. I appreciate this and I'm cautious not to be appropriative. That's why whenever I do shows I’m not doing it for profit. It's not for personal gain or anything, it's music for the sake of music and to help to raise awareness for Yemen.

 

What are your thoughts on the situation in Yemen at the moment?

 

I'll answer that in the most candid way I can because I'm born and raised in Saudi and that's where all my family is. I'm in a position where I can't say much. It is an extremely totalitarian regime that if you say too much and you get famous and word gets out they can do some terrible things to me or my family. And so I have to play this really stupid game, that I'd rather not play, which is to be very careful about what I’m saying.

 

So I can’t say, “Oh, the Saudi regime this or that”, I have to always use the passive tense. “This happened and it’s really terrible that it is happening” you know. There’s a flood now, or, there’s a famine. Things like that. So, it's really terrible what's happening. Even if I were to say why it's happening I would focus on the big picture of colonialism, imperialism, which is the West. Canada, US, Europe, Australia. Generally there are these forces that stand together, defend each other, Israel as well, and governments they’ve installed in the countries they've colonised. They all live in one corner, doing a lot of damage. Then in the other corner you have the resistance, which, I understand that they need to resist because you're resisting the most corrupt, evil, superpower in the world, and rightfully so, whether their intentions are better, I think so. Generally I don't think you can get more evil than what's going on. Are they the most pure, I’m not going to say yes. Everybody's got their faults. I’m not going to comment on how effective the resistance is and whether they’re ideal or not, it’s not my place. All I know is that there needs to be some form of resistance to such terrible, cancerous, powers. Not even pointing the finger at specifically Saudi Arabia or the UAE or whatever, it's just the whole conglomerate of forces that will sacrifice children, for the sake of profits or whatever it is. 

 

So that's my point of view, just an anti imperialist anti colonial, pro.. If I say the word communist people misunderstand that so, it's more for the people, I'm with the people, you know, nobody wishes ill upon their own family or neighbours, or their friends or their village. People are just good people and it’s the small minority who don't care about people that do the damage.

The funds raised from each poster will go directly to Médecins Sans Frontières' work in Yemen.

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