Musiqa Mustaqilla’s ongoing series on „In Conversation With“ continues with a talk between Musiqa Mustaqilla’s editor and City of Djinn who are based in Chicago. City of Djinn is a duo consisting of Marwan Kamel and Micah Bezold.
MM: Why did you decide to call your project „City of Djinn“?
Micah Bezold: First of all, there is no specific city. We were playing in a band called Al Thawra which is a punk-metal kind of band with a kind of an ethnic influence. There is a point where we lived together. There was this great opportunity to play music but we didn’t know what to do with it. People came along, and we had this great space where we played music. There was this Bektashi Baba who moved in with us and there is this strange Sufi mystical influence that kept reoccurring in our lives continuing in the present day. That led us in some way to the name. Musical speaking, we see instruments around us. The guitars, keyboards, music on the radio everything is so strict, and mechanical. It is our way of taking those machines, the habitat of our environment to use it for us.
Marwan Kamal: It’s a place that exists in the ether part of this world. In a world that doesn’t exist and you can’t see. It’s not a real place essentially. We’re luring to a non-existing place because we are trying to get in touch with the world of folklore. We are drawing from the Maqam-Tradition and we want to explore it in a more serious way. When we were in Al Thawra the political stuff can only last for so long until it becomes unsustainable and eventually this energy has to turn inward. We went into the idea with the introspective. City of Djinn is a way for us not only to explore the Maqam Tradition more thoroughly but also a way to explore our own internal worlds. When this Bektashi baba lived with us, there were a lot of teaching stories that we were hearing. He would tell us these teaching stories and this idea of folklore were put in our minds, in this society that is so technology driven, it’s only a binary kind of thinking towards yes or no. Our emotional worlds in this great space in between that stuff. The human emotion is more complicated. The folklore is a way of telling stories, exploring your everyday life and be in touch with your life. We are making space for there to be emotional and spiritual ambiguity in our modern lives.
MM: How did you both meet? Does your family have a background in making music, or are you the first ones that do it professionally?
MK: We met at Carthage which was a Tunisian Cafe/Restaurant place where I was working. I had come back from the first tour of Al Thawra which was kind of a disaster. I was looking for a person who was interested in a lot of types of music. We were hanging out there all the time, I was interested in to Middle Eastern music. My family doesn’t have any background in music, I am the first one to do it. It can be a bit stigmatized. My dad wanted to play music and I remember that he told me a story: He brought an instrument back home in Syria, it was a Violin, he wanted to learn it but my grandfather told him, if you bring it home again, I am going to break it. My parents had a more open idea of me playing because of their own experience with being rejected. My dad is from Syria and my mum is from Poland. When I was young I was into this extreme music metal, I was listening to and played hardcore punk, and was inspired by it. I think that everything kind of changed when I was visiting Syria. I would listen to this music that was different what I was used to. There was this idea of mixing those things together, being a first generation immigrant and being caught between two worlds, my life is a constant negotiation between those influences. It was very natural to combine this because to an extension it was my identity. I think as I started to learn more about Maqam and the instruments, I realized that this tradition of music is the jewel of this civilization. Nowadays, the buildings are destroyed, but music stays with you and you can take it wherever you go and you can make it a new and take it further while maintain the tradition and take it where it hasn’t been before. Music is a creative endeavor.
MB: I used to play there a lot, bringing a few drums with me. I remember when I came in, I saw someone playing my drums, and I was like „hey, whats going on, what’s up“. When I really started to like music because of Industrial music, like Nitzer Ebb or NIN. This really drew me in, with headphones going around the city. It inspired me. I stayed in India for a while, brought some percussions back with me. I heard a sample here and there from a culture I didn’t know about, but in a way I did because I grew up in a neighborhood which was very multi-cultural. My father never made playing music, but the first thing he did when he graduated was buying the drum set. He learned to play but he didn’t teach me a thing about drums, but I just watched him. I grew up with him playing in the house. They played music to make themselves happy not for money. It had definitely an influence on me. This was my gateway drug into music. My parents are both white Americans from Chicago. My brother made music making tangible for me. They created something on their own. I am not going to learn an instrument that someone else plays it. I can’t play any song you ask me because it is not what music is.
MM: In what way would you describe your own music, you define it as „drone rock“ what do you mean by it? What kind of equipment do you use while you record songs?
MB: The drone thing could be tangible to raga, and maqam. They have both this tonic, returning pattern. Drone or „Trance“. One thing, apart from our music, is how we perform. I took the frets off of the guitar, and took extra frets to match it to Marwan’s, in order to harmonize them, so that we never sound like other bands. What I do is when I play the guitar is very minimal, I don’t play chords, I play octaves, I play sparsely and rhythmically but Marwan is free to dance around as long as there is the heartbeat. I play an acoustic electric guitar that I modified a lot, and effects through padels getting splintered into more identities and even more identities through different amps, and the percussion, and a snare. Marwan has simultaneously a highead. We are both responsible for the rhythm. As long as we are listening to each other we can control time. We are still figuring it a lot of it out. Anticipating that anything can happen, and to be able to improvise, and be it a part of the performance, I think that is kind of dictating how we make and play music.
MK: We have to act like it’s one of unit. It’s a different process than playing in a band where everybody has to keep with the drummer. In this project we put our entire body into it. We sing, play the drums and everything at the same time. A lot of times, there is a lot of intuitive like speaking through the music instead of playing the songs exactly.
MM: How do you incorporate the maqam tradition with your music, how difficult is it to combine different styles together?
MK: With our old band Al Thawra, we would start with a base – this punk rhythm and melody and then we would put like ideas grabbed from Arabic music and put it on top of it. This is very much an inverted process. We take the maqam stuff, and put the rock textures on top of it, instead the opposite way. With our writing process we will choose a maqam that we want to play in. I don’t think we have a difficulty to combine them. It is organic, it is us. We are playing us.
MB: We already know, that we don’t say that the song is in this chord progression etc. We establish the maqam first. We are keeping the texture, the same consistency of rock music. We are not trying to be the one or the other.
Photo taken by: Adam la Palio
MM: How is the process of making the album going? How will it sound like and how will it differ from your ep „ether and red sulphur“?
MK: When the war started, I got emotionally exhausted. It was very draining. As a natural progression, a lot of events came up in my own personal life, it influenced how I think about things. I started working and teaching Syrian refugees music, I took a lot of stories. We are using music to learn how to dream again. I think that is one thing that influences this new album. It has been a long process. Everything is torn apart now, personally too. We are exploring the idea that the whole album is a whole concept.
MB: We both gone through things. Marwan and I came to the conclusion that lyrically what the songs are about, it has to be true and honest. How we sing it, we are not singing love songs. We are not acting when we perform. Primal Horde is the first song that we wrote for the album. The cycle of life and death, and all that drama being in denial of the truth. This denial, that fear of the truth of moving on thats holding you back. Being pulled back into the world, you glimpse this truth. The new album is more conscience. It is definitely for people who feel and it is honest.
MK: I think we used a lot of this subject, philosophically, one of the last tracks is called Slashed and Burn. One of the Sufi stories addresses like that one day things are up, one day they are down. But it is a fresh beginning also. The album is taking a long of time because partially of the production. The new album is called City of Djinn and it is more put together, more structured and not as wandering as On Ether and Red Sulphur.
MM:How do you start working on a new song? Do you both equally are working together on a song – or do you have both specific tasks?
MK: It is coming a lot from playing and jamming together. We have been working together for a long time together. It is more of a conversation. We record it and we listen to it. We take the best, and shape it and work on them. Usually, we start like that I really like this Maqam, or Micah is into this rhythm that he heard and start with the base, and with having the concept of the song in the background.
MB: If Marwan starts playing something, I know exactly what to play. We are complementing each other. Marwan studied the Maqam more though.
MM: how did you come up with the idea of the artwork?
MK: In the new album we gave it to a collage artist in Damascus. It is like stock imagery and has a lot of everyday life images from Syria. We asked him and he was really into it. He takes a lot of concepts from sci-fi, other worldly stuff which is really surreal. This new work is an impression of our music and how it’s kind of sound like.
MB: When we saw one of his images, we thought, that this looks like how we sound. He just played with some colors. He is a good artist but he can’t move, he is stuck there. The other thing is that we came up with kind of a logo, I think we will make some shirts with it and use it for the cover. Marwan created the new logo though.
MK: I really wanted something, that will not stay as a brand logo but that was sticking in your brain. I was influenced of an astrolabe, combined it also with the idea of the hand or eye. With the logo I was trying to draw from a lot of symbology in a sort of way that influenced our music but was memorable.