Songs of The Sea

Kuwaiti multimedia artist Zahed Sultan has mixed traditional pearl diving music with the sounds of Jamaican dub, and the results are hauntingly impressive

Early last year, the Kuwaiti multimedia artist Zahed Sultan converted an old heritage house in Sharjah into a recording studio. An adjacent courtyard was also converted, this time into an outdoor space inspired by a traditional majlis. Both would essentially act as his home for the next two weeks.

He was there at the request of The Heart Of Sharjah association as an artist-in-residence, working on a project called Hiwar (Arabic for dialogue), which explored the “nostalgic propaganda” of the region’s traditional pearl diving music. What would eventually emerge would be a re-imagining of that music through the lens of Jamaican dub and a collection of live improvisations.

“We spent the majority of our time in Sharjah during the two-week residency exploring neighbourhoods, filming, rehearsing and recording improvised sessions,” explains Sultan, who worked in collaboration with a local pearl-diving troupe called the Ali Al Ishr Band. “It was an intense experience but a worthwhile one as Hiwar has evolved into a significant venture of mine.”

Sultan’s Hiwar is an investigation into the links between traditional pearl diving music (traditionally known as fidjeri) and modern artistic trends. Although primarily focussed on music, it also incorporates elements of film and performance.

Hiwar is an evolving project,” admits Sultan. “From an output perspective, it has culminated in the release of a short film, an EP, and an audio-visual dance performance. The idea is to activate a connection with fidjeri music. By appropriating its culture and reimagining its forms, I aspire for people, myself included, to develop an intrinsic relationship with our past instead of erring upon hand-me-down nostalgia.”

The Sharjah residency concluded with a live, 16-piece audio-visual performance featuring both the Ali Al Ishr Band and a number of contemporary musicians from across the UAE. But it wasn’t until the autumn of that year that Sultan shared some of the recordings with producers in Kingston, Ramallah, Beirut and Mumbai, with the idea of reinterpreting pearl diving musical culture.

Those producers included Ade Robinson in Jamaica, Palestinian producer Muqata’a, Lebanon’s Etyen and India’s Rohan Ramanna. The end result is an uptempo, atmospheric and sometimes haunting dub reggae, particularly Da’ab Al Salam (Ro’s Bombay Dub).

The idea of rethinking fidjeri through a dub lens originally came from Dubai-based DJ and music producer Shadi Megallaa, owner of The Flip Side record store in Alserkal Avenue. Both he and Sultan had just completed recording a series of improvisations with artists in Sharjah when the thought struck.

Now, a year down the line, the Hiwar Sessions EP is out, with Sultan also performing the project on the opening night of the Red Bull Music Academy Weekender in April.

Fidjeri is the blues music of our region, as someone indicated to me recently,” says Sultan, who is half-Indian, half-Kuwaiti. “It is rich in texture and form. It is free spirited yet structured and its themes reside in a melancholic, dark space – harrowing almost. It is minimal in nature, with clapping, percussion and voice forming the crux of a song.

“Dub, meanwhile, uses a subtractive production methodology whereby drum elements and bass form the crux of a song. There is a strong emphasis on repetition in both genres – presumably to induce a trance-like state. Both of their origins can be traced back to Africa.”

Sultan once told Red Bull that traditional fidjeri music focussed on togetherness, belonging, separation and loss. A nahham, the equivalent of a conductor, would call out to his crew and they in turn would respond in a classic call-and-response interaction. The songs had mechanical functions, but were also designed to lift spirits and keep crews alive.

“This music developed organically based on different functions – tasks that used to happen through the course of what would be a journey out to sea,” said Sultan. “The first and foremost task is building a ship, so songs emerged from how you would keep in harmony when you build the hull of a ship. Then you had songs that were based around pushing a ship out to sea. Imagine you have to align everyone to exert their energy to push this ship out to sea – song and structure emerged from that. Then you had songs that emerged from when you had to raise the sail on the ship.

“If you think about the function of trying to raise the sails in those days on those ships, it took quite a significant amount of people to be in harmony to conduct those functions. Songs emerged for those as well. They actually had a song that was related to the diver actually diving into the ocean to search for the oysters. All of these were timed, obviously. These songs were a lot shorter, around the two-and-a-half-minute range, then they just sort of loop and go as long as they want them to. Lyrically, there’s not much to them. They start the song when the diver used to jump into the sea, and if they finished the song and the diver had not ascended, that means that he was drowning, and they have to send in a search party to rescue him.”

Sultan has been involved in the region’s music scene since his teens. He began DJing in Kuwait at the age of 14 and released his first album in 2011, the second single from which was featured in a Hotel Costes compilation. His second album, eyeamsound, was released in 2015.

It is for live audio-visual performances, however, that he is perhaps best known. His first live performance was at Dubai’s Tiger Translate in 2013, and he has also performed at the Red Bull Music Academy Bass Camp and Meet d3 in Dubai Design District.

“All in all, the Hiwar Sessions EP took about one year to complete, on and off,” says Sultan. “During my time in Sharjah I also recorded a collection of live improvisations with various artists, which I eventually pieced together into a 40-minute meditative track entitled Irtijal, which became the fifth track on the EP.”

“Embarking on a career in music (and the arts) wasn’t a choice really,” adds Sultan. “The will to create, for me, comes from an illusive place. Creativity, in all of its forms, channels through me frequently as I tend to borrow significantly from human experience – both the good and the bad. Remaining an artist, in a professional sense, is primarily driven by ideas that I aspire to translate into media in order to share them with others. If for some reason the inspiration or will to translate stops, so would my ability to create.”