Original article in Arabic by Ma’n Abou Taleb | 19/09/2017
The first time I waited for Nadah El-Shazly was in Norberg. I had arrived early at the festival, where she was slated to perform, and quickly realised that it was going to be a long wait — it was a camping festival and I’m not big on camping; the food was vegetarian and I’m not a vegetarian; the music was mainly ambient and acid; the town around the festival was desolate, with nothing but a discount supermarket. I had two days of this to look forward to before Nadah would arrive.
I couldn’t go back to Stockholm, nor did I really want to. I had come from London especially for Nadah’s performance. So many friends had urged me to see her and I was curious. They spoke of her with the enthusiasm of the oppressed at the first signs of their savior — the kind of faith and enthusiasm that I worried might be a cover-up for the “nice” phenomenon: you know so-and-so, he’s such a nice guy, you should write about him in Ma3azef — a suggestion I usually deeply resent (as if good-naturedness is what we’re looking for). But I had already met her, before I had heard she was talented or a musician at all. She struck me as serious, intelligent, curious, and quietly confident, like someone harboring a treasure they don’t really need to show you, because they know that its value is wholly independent of your recognition.
I also had some hope that things would get better and I would end up enjoying myself. This was after all a music festival; it was bound to have a few good shows. The main stage was closed, so I went to a tent where, according to the program, DJs were playing sets that lasted up to four hours each. It was 3 pm. There were four or five people dancing with too much enthusiasm, while the DJ seemed bored and embarrassed. Or maybe it was just my own boredom and embarrassment that I projected onto her. In any case, it was uncomfortable. I watched for a bit, trying to figure out if the dancers were on drugs, and was disappointed to determine they were sober.
I sat in a green field, surrounded by vegetarians, trying to enjoy a warm beer, and feeling out of place. I looked up towards the main stage and found the door was open and people were going in. I abandoned my beer and headed towards it. I had heard a lot about the Mimer building. On the way to Norberg I had seen it rise slowly in the distance as the car had climbed up the hill, surrounded by trees like a big lighthouse in the middle of a wild sea. It was an epic sight, full of the violence of industry. About seventy meters tall, the main building has a belt extension that was once used to carry the iron ore into the treatment plant inside. Now the tents of festival goers filled that space. The imposing structure looked both beautiful and sinister. It was the no-longer-beating heart of the town, a memorial to days before decay and unemployment.
The building imposed a solemnity on me as soon as I entered. I could hear the sound of my footsteps and the whispers of others, as if this were a cathedral. A few steps in, the main space opened up before me: high-ceilinged, dark and windowless, with huge hanging chains and tools reminiscent of fire and iron, it was like one of the lower pits of hell put on hold for the season. On the three levels that extended out of the far wall, audience members were sitting on the ledges, their legs dangling, with others standing behind them. They all looked fierce, as though the gentle beings drinking organic beer outside had become intoxicated by the ferocity of industry and mining. It felt like a scene out of Mad Max, skinheads raging all around me waiting for a violent ritual to begin.
Behind me, the stage was a platform at a height between the second and third levels across. In place of a warlord, there was a young man bent over his synthesizers, creating sounds no less epic than their surroundings: big, steady sounds, the note changing from sound to sound, but each sound returning to the same note. You experienced sound like powerful cylinders punching twenty-meter-diameter holes into the ground. These were not mechanical sounds like the factory we were in; they were digital ones, an offspring free of life. Norberg is a festival devoid of emotions and climaxes; one does not come here in search of beauty and pleasure, but in search of ideas and topographies. It was the rational, cold following of an industry. They weren’t here to listen to music, but to perform a pilgrimage around a Kaaba of circuits and knobs.
It took me a while to register that this young man, hiding behind a cloud of white smoke, the creator of the vertical, destructive sounds, was an acquaintance of mine from London. Like the others there, he too is a vegetarian. I did not expect anything like this from him, did not even know that he made music. His show ended and there was some polite clapping. It was a great show that had felt like it had been designed especially for the Mimer. I went up to the third floor on stairs that only slightly angled down from ninety degrees. Every step had a loud iron echo that lasted several seconds then died. People lay stretched out on the floor, or sat dangling their legs from the ledge, or leaned against the far wall. Many were in sleeping bags, lying on their stomachs, in what I imagined was a slumber transported by the sounds they were listening to. This was not the kind of festival where someone was going to spill beer on you, or where young men and women were going to stumble in the mud. At this festival calm prevailed; if someone bumped into you, they politely apologised in a hushed tone. This suited me well. Everyone here was acting like we were in a library.
The next show was boring. Broadly similar tracks, despite the pretence of experimentation. An obvious, predictable structure, like that of a thriller or a Beiruti novel. Sounds built up and got larger and larger, reaching a peak of harmonious cacophony, then scattered, returning to their initial form. The musicians at these shows all acted exactly the same, something I had noticed at Café OTO — a notable venue for experimental and electronic music— and at many ambient and acid music shows: the performer would act like s/he was playing alone in a bedroom at the family house, unaware of the presence of an audience. They would not raise their eyes from their keyboard or synth, would not acknowledge their audience with a word or a look. Another show of that type began, one I seemed to have witnessed about thirty times before, in London and Beirut and now in Norberg. I wasn’t in the mood.
But the space itself fascinated me: this huge mine tower that had been deserted by its workers and was now inhabited by vegetarians. The economy of the whole town must have been based on this iron ore mine before it closed down in the eighties, a decade marked by the decline of the working class in several European cities. There had been a plan to demolish the building, but in 1999 some artists had persuaded the authorities to allow them to use it instead. That’s when the festival had started. I highly doubt that it is attended by any locals, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Middle class, working class, aristocratic, and bourgeois: to each their pleasures. We weren’t about to save the world, though the dedication of many people there to save some forms of life from the eternal food chain was not lost on me.
I hopped between the three stages a few times and attended several performances, one of which was excellent. Eventually I gave up and left early, anxious about another day with nothing to do but wait for Nadah El-Shazly in a small desolate town to the north of Stockholm. It took me an hour to get to the hotel, through identical streets with residential developments that do not indicate happiness within. Norberg is a poor town in a rich country, with none of the charm of poor towns in poor countries.
The second time I waited for Nadah was at EMS Studios in Stockholm. I had been told that Nadah worked here daily from noon until 4pm, and since I didn’t have a phone, the only way to meet her was to find her here. I arrived at the studio a bit late and rang the bell, hoping she would appear. I told the person who let me in that I knew the place. I knocked at the door of the room where I had found Nadah the last time I had been here, but this time there was another woman. I apologised and closed the door. Total silence. Everything in its place, apart from Nadah. I went back to the ground floor where I didn’t find her either. I sat in the cafeteria browsing through Swedish newspapers and discovered that newspapers were an excellent way to learn a language. In a matter of minutes, I had learned the words ‘refugee,’ ‘drown,’ ‘elections,’ ‘bombing,’ ‘massacre,’ ‘harassment,’ ‘totalitarianism,’ and ‘discounts’. I pulled a book out of my bag and sat there for about an hour. I invented a few topics to think about. In the end I got bored and went back to look through the floor. This time I was more daring and went around opening closed doors. The third door brought me into a room with a pile of broken mixers, microphones, and keyboards, some to be repaired and some to be rebuilt as something else. To the left there was a big pane of glass overlooking a studio where Nadah and Maurice Louca were sitting, absorbed in front of a huge mixer.
I tapped on the glass, then drummed on it. I waved and called to them. Nothing worked. They were in another world. Or maybe I was a ghost who had just returned to the human world and didn’t understand that no one could see him. I went to the door and knocked, first calmly, then emphatically, then angrily. I returned to the room where they were still sitting in the same position with their backs to me, concerned with nothing in the world but what they were listening to and I wasn’t. I was jumping like a clown and they didn’t see me. That’s when I understood the advantage of my position. I sat down and watched my friends work.
The month that Nadah had spent in the studio was nearing its end. It was time to hear the result of her residency at the renowned studio that had selected her out of hundreds of applicants to complete work on her first album. She spent a whole month in Stockholm, going to the studio every day, mixing and re-recording vocal passages, refining what she had recorded in Canada with Maurice and Sam Shalabi. I had listened to the album before Nadah had started her EMS residency, and I was keen to see where she had taken it. My curiosity was selfish. Had she discarded that passage that had annoyed me; had she reinforced the colossal bass in the first track? Had she simplified the album or made it more complex? Had all the resources she had had access to here influenced her artistic choices?
Later, as we strolled through the city streets, she spoke to me about her passion for Mounira al-Mahdeya and Abdul-Latif al-Banna. Her passion was deep and contagious. She told me about the years she had spent collecting and studying their music, learning the details of the songs, studying maqams, Maqams refers to the Arabic musical modes (sing. maqam) and reading about the lives of that amazing generation. This obsession with the music of the Nahda (Arab Renaissance) had come after singing in the choir of the German school from which she had graduated, then singing and playing guitar in a punk rock band during her teenage years. After that she had turned to Nahda music and, with the help and mentorship of Kamilya Jubran, worked seriously on breaking into the world of maqam.
She was a good student. Hearing Nadah sing, you can see where all that work went. Within moments it becomes evident that you are in the presence of a unique talent. Her voice booms, sways, intensifies, her letters enunciated clearly and elegantly.
The third time I waited for Nadah I had a crowd with me. We were in the Mimer, after Nadah and Sarah El-Miniawy had finally arrived. We spent our time smoking and drinking coffee and alcohol. Time flew by and it was her turn to perform. I had hoped her show would be on this stage but I was also worried about it. I wanted her to have a successful performance, and I knew that the Mimer audience were not here for rhythms and melodies. Everything I had attended here had been atonal, focused on the texture of sound and the parts used to make it, not on the music per se. The shows were in monochrome, cold and mechanical, acoustic experiments in open laboratories. From what I knew of these people in London and Beirut, they would resent the presence of rhythmic patterns, melodies, or vocals.
But Nadah didn’t care. Her only concern was moving her oriental Yamaha keyboard —customized to play quarter tones —onto the stage and setting it up. I carried it and we moved to the stage. We hoisted it onto a table and I withdrew, leaving Nadah with the sound engineer, absorbed in her instruments and gadgets. I took my place next to Sarah in the audience, ready for the show to begin, but it didn’t. We watched anxiously as the number of attendees, grew then decreased — was it the Yamaha keyboard? There seemed to be some disagreement between Nadah and the sound engineer. It was time for her show and she still wasn’t ready. It was clear that there was a communication problem. Nothing to do with language; I had heard them speak to each other. Some people did leave. Sarah and I went up to the second floor.
When we got there Nadah was no longer on stage. More people were leaving. The sound engineer was speaking angrily into his phone. We were heading back towards the stage, taking slow steps down the steep stairs, when Nadah’s voice suddenly filled the space. The vocals were incongruous with the mood that had been established by a series of atonal performances. I thought I saw the pilgrims exchanging disapproving looks. The incongruity was only heightened when Nadah started playing her keyboard. The stage director probably sensed that, as he put on coloured lighting for the first time. Then Nadah sang, with her experienced, deep voice, its rich intonations and colours that are much older than her age. I became a believer. My friends were right. The show continued, each track with its own character and style; Nadah’s art was clearly her own without being predictable. There were flaws, some elements that felt forced, but there were also exquisite moments that could bring a statue to life.
Halfway through the show, Nadah El-Shazly had transformed this industrial Mecca into a garden teeming with life. I imagined that the audience had come face to face with what they had been intentionally avoiding , and they had failed to resist it. Between her laptop, synth, and Yamaha keyboard, Nadah sang, ignoring the role assigned to her. She dove into her music and released her voice. She danced between the vocal sections. She occupied the Mimer stage and, one song at a time, changed the established doctrine.
“I am Coming,” sang Nadah in her first song. Sarah and I looked at each other, our smiles widening. “Coming,” she calmly reassured us, to inject life into this abandoned mining facility, and hope into an impoverished music scene. Coming from the Nahda era armed with a synthesiser, with an album that some might say was late but which she would say just took its time. Coming, perhaps with some flaws and confusion, but coming nonetheless, and well worth waiting for.
Cover photo by Sidi Ben Omar.