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Beyond the scene: Ein Interview mit Khaled Yassine

Khaled Yassine
Khaled Yassine © GR-DR

Die zweite Musikresidenz brachte im Mai 2022 sieben Musiker*innen aus Europa und der arabischen Welt im Werkplaats Walter zusammen, um unter der Leitung des renommierten Schlagzeugers Khaled Yassine und in Zusammenarbeit mit dem Amman Jazz Festival gemeinsam zu musizieren. Der Schwerpunkt lag dabei auf ethnischer Musik und Volksmusik. Nach der Open Jam Session und dem Konzert im Bozar trafen wir Khaled Yassine, um mehr über seine Eindrücke von diesen fünf Tagen Austausch zu erfahren.

Von Dounya Hallaq

Dear Khaled, what was your role in this residency?
I felt that my job was to get them to share their experience, to collaborate in a certain direction, but without having a pre-determined order. To create a space to ask all the questions we encounter in our practice that we don't dare to ask seriously elsewhere. This meeting was an opportunity to do so. I see my role more as a “problem starter” than as a mentor. I quickly realised that all of us could play this role. The musicians present were all excellent. We knew that all of these problems were going to arise and that we were all going to try to find solutions. That was our common thread during those few days of work.

A “problem starter”?
Yes, artistic, conceptual and social problems. Our meeting was not only musical, it was also a meeting on a social, political and human level. These are dimensions that run through us as individuals because they are issues specific to the style of music we play and the geographical place we live in. When we play what we play, what meaning does it have? What is the social, political, human meaning of our music (which is aimed at a particular audience)? How does the band function? Does it need a hierarchy? Music is a rich experience and I think we managed to find a working method that everyone could relate to. So the game was to start from all the problems inherent in these dimensions. Start where it's hardest, not the other way around.

Are the problems you mention linked to the nature of traditional music and the fact that it is difficult to create space for improvisation?
In my opinion, we should rather start from the following question: what does it mean to be a traditional musician today? What can our relationship to the present be, as players of traditional music? Traditional music cannot express the condition of a modern human being, it is rather a reflection of a human, political and social situation defined in History. But when we start from this problem, the question of what it means here and now, becomes essential. The traditional musician defines himself as someone who carries the past with him, and so the question of his relationship to the present remains unanswered! How can we ensure that this music is part of the present? This is a question that I ask myself on a daily basis, because my musical instrument, the drum, is considered traditional.
We are looking for a present solution to a present problem. The aim is not to modernise, but to ask ourselves at every moment: "Is what I am doing valid? Does it reflect my present, today and now?” With traditional music, it is much more difficult. As soon as you take it out of its original framework, people often say that it “shouldn’t” be like this or like that. In fact, it was not like that. Its past was not “like that.” But we don't know its present. And we have to find an answer to that.
Today, from traditional music, we have created “world music,” or trends towards jazz. All those who come from traditional music are based on these trends. So, our question is: are there other methods that would open up a new horizon for this traditional music, or have we already covered all the bases? Can we propose other solutions based on our personal experience and thus open up other worlds while continuing to work on "traditional" music? Can we make it present, modern, without detracting from its complexity and bringing it into another framework?
So, my aim was that everyone would go home after these five days with all these questions in mind, with a process that would help perhaps us to find an answer.

So, it's a working method that starts with the problems and differences of each person.
Yes, there was a space where everyone could expose their own problems and thus engage with the group. There were musicians for whom it was difficult. We didn't force anything, but even these people’s positions evolved from day to day. The most important thing for me was to work on these issues and on the process, rather than the musical result.

In concrete terms, how did the meeting go, the fact of linking the musicians together?
It was very easy, there are so many links between Arab, Turkish and Iranian music. But we didn't want to do what we already know and stay within this already-known common style. Everyone has experienced the crisis caused by the issue we are concerned with. It is a practical question, rather than an abstract and philosophical one.
The idea was to accept to try everything, away from what we know, from the image we have of what we know and of our musical profile. This process was revealed during the residency. To open doors, we have to be comfortable with changing our attitude! We took turns proposing our solutions. Musicians coming from other backgrounds also proposed solutions.
I had prepared some exercises as a starting point, in order to get the musicians started and to establish a different balance in their relationships and in the group. We tried to answer a big question: what scares me the most? Because after confronting those fears, everything becomes much easier. I thought that this experience could accompany us for more than five days, and change something in our lives. It's a methodology I've used with other bands, but this was the first time I tried it with musicians I don't know. We managed to build a very strong bond between us.
My work was always collective with the whole band. Individually, it was side by side, during exchanges outside the moments of creation. We worked nine hours every day!

Did you record the songs you played during the rehearsals?
No, because the most important thing is what we carry from the musical experience, not what we hear from the direct results of the exercises. The experience is what we are living now. I wanted us to maintain this state of awareness that we had during the musical play and immediately afterwards to take a stance. This very rapid sequence allows us to find solutions immediately and to put things into perspective. Exercises do not produce good music directly. We try, we search, and we cannot have "acceptable" results immediately. If we record them, we will remain stuck on the fact that the music is not good. It's unfair because we've asked difficult questions, it's normal to be confused. If we record this confusion and listen to it again, we will judge ourselves harshly and want to justify ourselves. On the contrary, everything should be kept light and fly with the wind! 

How did you spend the last day before the concert?
We rehearsed together. We agreed that we would play without stopping, without applause. This requires a bit of preparation. Then we did the sound check. We were very well taken care of. Before we went on stage, I think I was the most worried I had been. All of a sudden, I felt the weight of responsibility. The roles were reversed, the others were now trying to reassure me! I decided at that moment that I would not speak on stage, so as not to create this power relationship, so as not to direct things, because it really was a collective work. Those who wanted to speak were able to do so, and that was a great initiative! This contributed to the impression that we are a real music group, and not just a few musicians who came out of a workshop. It all came about spontaneously.

What would you call what you presented on stage on the last night?
A presentation of a five-day meeting built around Middle Eastern music.

Interview by Dounya Hallaq

Biography Khaled Yassine:
A self taught musician, mostly known for his work with Anouar Brahem Quartet,  ALif,lekhfa and Tarek Yamani trio, Khaled Yassine’s unique approach to drums and percussion made him one of most sought-after musicians in the region.
He is also known for his collaborations with different art forms like contemporary dance/theatre productions, installation and documentary films.