By Sharifah Alhinai
When I first came across +Aziz’s profile, in which he describes himself as a ‘Khaleeji rocker’, I was instantly intrigued. I followed the link to his band Kuwaisiana’s website and found myself eagerly going through ‘Chapter 1: Al-Baab Al-Awwal’, their eclectic debut album, for the next half hour.
+Aziz, a 34-year-old Kuwaiti native, was born and raised in the emirate, but his fire to make music led him to move to the United States in 2009. After doing some solo work in New York, he relocated south to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he eventually formed his 7-piece indie rock band, a melting pot of American, Turkish and Kuwaiti heritage, two years ago.
The musicians’ Western and Middle Eastern backgrounds vividly translate into their music and are instantly clear to the listener. ‘Vintage’, the first song on the album, is a catchy blend of Kuwaiti Arabic lyrics and Louisiana’s native zydeco music, and revolves around a man whose relationship with a girl from a younger generation makes him feel like an old item being sold in the Friday Market (a secondhand market in Kuwait).
With English lyrics, ‘Say Yea’ expresses the hurdles suitors have to face to win their beloveds’ families’ approvals to get married. Sung in formal Arabic, ‘Murra’ (Arabic for ‘bitter’) is a reflection of the bitter sweetness of life a cup of black coffee brings out from the singer.
It is the universal themes that Kuwaisiana explores through different languages and mixed musical genres that give it its cross-cultural appeal and got me revisiting the album time and again.
In June, I contacted +Aziz, Kuwaisiana’s leader and singer-songwriter, to find out more about this unique band. In my interview with him, we discuss what ignited his passion for music making, how Kuwaisiana is building bridges between diverse communities in the current climate in America, and he unveils the story behind the ‘+’ ahead of his name. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When did your love of music begin?
I fell in love with music videos first. It must’ve happened at some point when I was in the habit of binge-watching MTV. I remember a profound moment when I was walking around Sultan Center in Kuwait and came across Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at some retail promotion. I had been taking music lessons but I didn’t really start caring about music until I saw the raw emotion and lyrical brilliance of 90’s rock bands like Smashing Pumpkins and At the Drive-In.
I never really saw music as a hobby; it stuck out to me like I had found the meaning of my life or something. I just had to pursue it and let everything else in my life fall where it may. Even though rock is on the downswing trend-wise, I’ve just always been interested in hearing my native tongue on some wild indie rock track.
I’ve always exoticized the American South and in New Orleans, I’ve managed to secure the trust and commitment from some very talented musicians who believe in what I’m doing.
What does ‘Kuwaisiana’ mean?
Kuwait + Louisiana. Kuwaisiana began with the idea and desire to combine Louisiana’s musical heritage with my own Middle Eastern identity. I wanted a band name that conjured up a sense of place.
How did all of you come together as a band?
How would you describe Kuwaisiana’s sound?
Kuwaisiana is an indie rock band with a world music influence. There are a lot of other genre ideas. Khaleeji rock, World rock… etc. Our friends at Universal Music MENA refer to us as ‘Arabic Indie’ on their artist roster.
We have a big band sound that is very jazzy. I did my best to keep jazz out of the band, but being in New Orleans, jazz has a natural way of working itself into any music being made here. With Kuwaisiana, you will hear jazz primarily in our horn section.
Tell us about the process of making your album.
We started making the album two years ago, mostly in our old practice space, which had a leaking roof and countless other issues; I’m quite surprised we got the end-product we did to say the least!
We ended up releasing it on our own with digital distribution support from Universal Music MENA out of Dubai, who has been an amazingly collaborative partner.
How does music bridge cultures?
I think music builds cultural bridges because human bodies have an innate relationship to beats and thus rhythm. That’s what I understand when people call music a ‘universal language’. Much like a popular dish or a famous play, music offers not only a glimpse into a culture, but a particular interpretation of it. James Joyce’s novels interpret Irish culture for readers; this creates linkages and appreciations that go beyond stereotypes and what a government wants you to think about a culture. Similarly, Kuwaisiana is an interpretation of Kuwaiti culture for Americans as much as it is a reflection of Arab-American culture through a Khaleeji lens.
Music does this naturally and some bands do it better than others. When music is felt, it helps communicate something very deep and always holds the potential of transforming someone.
How are you building bridges through Kuwaisiana?
I expect Kuwaisiana could be an entity that helps raise awareness around refugee and immigration policy in the US, but also local policy. I also want to show all the dimensions of our diverse communities. I love to dig into topics touching Khaleeji consciousness and Arab or Muslim Americans’ as well.
I see our music as an expression of not only Khaleeji culture but also Arab-American culture. Although I truly am not representative of either community by any means, I relate to, oscillate between those identities, so our music is building bridges on a few levels.
Most people in the US either don’t know anything about Kuwait or will know a small fact about my home country. So Kuwaisiana is a channel through which Americans can experience the creativity of a Kuwaiti-led band. This is particularly critical as America’s xenophobia kicks into high gear. Mashrou’ Leila has done such a phenomenal job of touring America and Europe, so I really see them as paving the way for this type of work.
Kuwaisiana normalizes and even celebrates the Arabic language. The band also shows that Middle Easterners are hard working, entrepreneurial and creative.
As a songwriter, how do you decide which songs will be sung in English and which in Arabic?
A lot of the creative decision-making is intuitive and very subjective. I’ll usually have both languages on the paper and any number of things may happen after that point.
Previously, the Arabic side would quickly overtake the whole song. These days, it’s more of a balanced dance between the two languages, to the point where some of the new songs are mixing Kuwaiti with English.
The song and the flow is gives off usually makes the decision for me.
Why do you think bi/multilingual music is important today?
Bi/multilingual in songwriting is nothing new. Some of my favorite bands like The Mars Volta and Sigur Ros go beyond this by creating their own words and taking what could be referred to as a postmodern approach to language. They made that choice for reasons that are very different than mine.
For Arabic, bi/multilingual music is very important. While Islam might be the fastest spreading religion in the world, Arabic seems to be sliding backwards on at least two fronts.
Firstly, because natives living in the GCC are losing their ability to speak the language. This problem is worsening with each passing generation. The best bi/multilingual music demonstrates an ability to re-contextualize and breathe new life into a language.
Secondly, bi/multilingual music is important in facing the xenophobic environment actively being shaped in the Western world. Arabs and the Arabic language are being rooted out of their respective communities, so bi/multilingual music can breathe a new confidence into those communities who are experiencing direct and indirect fears taking shape.
Arabic is a great, versatile language and it benefits immensely from creative experimentation. Whether that work is being done by a street artist or a programmer, I think such initiatives should be supported and analyzed.
Primarily two places: my life experiences and I also draw inspiration from many digital discovery platforms like Youtube and StumbleUpon. Watching Arabic video content is particularly inspiring to me, being an expat in the US. From Khaleeji TV shows, local indie comedy shows, to lectures and poetry recitations. This is what feeds me themes to think and sing about.
The story behind the ‘+’ preceding your name.
It started in high school. I was in a class. I was doodling and messed around with ideas that would become my personal brand down the line.
Sharifah Alhinai is the co-founder and managing storyteller of Sekka.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees, and affiliates.