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Aswat bridges generations through music – ‘Culture best alternative to radicalism’

Photo shows Malik Berki (extreme right, standing) with LAPA dancers during a rehearsal for their upcoming performance.
Photo shows Malik Berki (extreme right, standing) with LAPA dancers during a rehearsal for their upcoming performance.

ASWAT, a music and dance performance that mixes traditional Arab styles with contemporary rhythms, has become one of the most awaited events put up by the LoYAC Academy of Performing Arts. In its past two shows, it has not only enraptured the audience but has nurtured the talent of performing artists in Kuwait through the collaborative interactions it facilitates with more established artists. As the musicians and dancers gear up for the third installment of Aswat, to be held this coming November, Malik Berki reveals what to expect from the performance, as well as his experience of and ambitions for the creative endeavour.

Question: Can you tell us about how Aswat came about?

Answer: The momentum for Aswat was brought about by a project I started working on in 2008 that was presented for the first time in 2009. I worked with traditional musicians and several dancers in Yemen.  Although I primarily compose music  for performing artists, I also pursue projects involving dance and music. So the origins of Aswat can be traced back to 2009 with this project, Rysha Coda,  where we recorded an album and played a show involving dances in Yemen and also brought it to France and developed it there. It had a very successful run  in France but since the genre was a mix between traditional, hip hop and contemporary music it was hard to define and so for the French labels, it was very hard to promote our CD. So we decided to send it to Arabic speaking countries for feedback.

We received very positive feedback from Kuwait and they asked us to come and play. As we wanted to make an adventure of it, we proposed that we could just come, play and go back home or better still, we could maybe share the stuff and get involved with musicians and dancers from here. The French Institute and LoYAC were very interested in collaborating together so we came here for the first time in 2012 and created Aswat.

We started with traditional musicians from Yemen and it was a blend of many nationalities and cultures. We had three musicians from Yemen, one violinist from the classical conservatory of Brussels, one rapper from Gaza, myself from France. So we gathered everyone together and because music and dance are universal languages we could make something happen.

Q: What piqued your interest towards such a collaborative endeavour?

A: I have been doing this job for more than 15 years now and from my point of view, success in the media or TV doesn’t matter to me. I am not saying that simply because I haven’t attained that type of success, I have played on TV. My point is that I want to learn every day from everyone,  that is my aim. Music and dance, in itself, is not the main purpose. The purpose is the meeting of new people and sharing our art. You can do the same with cooking, or any other medium to share experiences, create new languages and bridges between our cultures and generations. Our aim was that from the beginning which is why I made the proposition to develop something with people here.

Q: What was the experience of Aswat I ?

A: It was brutal in a way because it is very hard to begin something. We had more than 30 people on stage and to manage that was tough. I didn’t have an assistant, I was all by myself. It was a bit too crazy for me. But it was very successful here, we had over 800 people in the Al Gharnata theatre. It was very intense because we did everything in two weeks. It was very stressful but the performance was a big release. When you constantly build something with all your focus and you finally release the weight of it, you are on a stage. So you have to go with your heart and everything you have, at the end you are dry but that is the purpose. That is how the first Aswat happened.

Q: How has the idea expanded since then?

A: At the time of its inception in Yemen, we focussed on the music. Of course, we had dancers every time we performed with choreographers brought in especially for that. But the main focus was music because we had a lot to do bridging traditional, contemporary and electronic music.  Since we came to Kuwait, the spectrum moved and is now more focussed on the dance. Of course I have done similar projects previously. I think we are at the beginning of entering into another dimension with the Kuwaiti dancers and musicians from Aswat 3.

Q: What is this new dimension?

A: We started working with musicians and dancers from here in 2012 and came back last year to make an Aswat 2 and now we are preparing for Aswat 3 and each time, we have focussed on different things. The first show featured Yemeni musicians with others, the second one focussed on a show I wrote involving a comedian explaining a story, and we built a story together. For the upcoming show in November, we have been working since August and this time have more days of work.  We are building something different and will recruit a short team of dancers. We are going to build a professional show that we can bring to France to perform. The aim is not just to perform but to build something. We want to get people here involved in developing themselves. We are not here to provide them with the ‘what to do’ but rather the ‘how to do’, and from that they are going to be on their own to develop themselves. That is the meaning and point for us because we do not want to be cultural colonisers, we want them to develop with their own energy and what they have inside; all we can bring are tools.

Q: What is the level of input from the students at LoYAC in this collaboration?

A: This year, we started with a short story written by a student of LoYAC. They were initially supposed to build a performance for the universal expo in Milan but after visiting the pavilion, we found that it is not fit for this kind of a performance. So we preferred not to do it and so only musicians from LoYAC performed there. For that, two people from LoYAC wrote about the issue of water in Kuwait.

So we worked on the essence of their story and developed it in a universal way because we are not just making a twenty minute performance but a full performance of at least fifty minutes. So we rewrote it involving the same students, building on it step by step.

Again, the idea is not to build something for them but with them. We are not here to open it for them but give them the keys. They want to build stuff, but they are not fully ready yet to build a complete dramaturgy of performing arts. So I am steering them along.

The story talks about the water issue in Kuwait, how the country has no rivers, no lakes, and no underground water but there have always been people living in this region. The story looks through the history of how water was brought from abroad, and explores other issues like the impact of oil on pearl divers. The students interviewed old divers to get a sense of how things have changed.

We tried to bring all of these elements together and write a universal story. Looking at the water issue in Kuwait, we broaden the conversation to how man can adapt to his environment. We also consider the human and social environment of Kuwait, the fact that Kuwait is a country in which you have a majority of non-Kuwaiti population. Non-Kuwaitis who are born and brought up here, have to adapt to a new kind of society. It is a big mixture, you can make similar parallels of adapting to human environment.  That is a very interesting point to share. My father was born in Algeria and my mother is French. I am mixed, but I don’t feel that way, I feel human. This kind of story is universal, we can speak to any nationality.

Earlier in performing arts, when you perform through dance or theatre, you were explaining something. But today, in the arts, it is more about feeling something. We tried to make a story that anybody in the crowd could interpret in their own way.

Q: Since this is the third time, do you feel pressured to outclass the previous performances and meet expectations?

A: I try to renew myself every day and I am not a creature of habit. To be honest, in a recent personality test, I discovered that I register on an extreme of spontaneity. I dislike routine and I cannot do the same thing twice. I cannot just make a different recipe for the same stuff. So looking at Aswat 3, invariably, it will be different.  We also try to work in a different process each time because there isn’t just one way of doing things. I like to renew in all my patterns. I am working with choreographer Hafeed and we have worked together in many projects, but not exclusively. For this performance, we adapted to a very different way of work than we are used to, our approach is very different.

Q: Tell me about the music that will accompany the performance.

A: For this show, I came with ideas and built a base for the music. I worked with people from LoYAC last month when I met them in Milan. We talked about the show and what already happened there. They sent me links to old Kuwaiti music and I developed a new point of view from that. I made recordings with the Oud and Accordion in France by professional musicians. Since coming here I have engaged one LoYAC student in the process. I give him tools to work on software and we together build stuff. He assists me, and he learns from how I do things. He needs to develop his own way of making music.

I recorded some musicians before coming, I worked on different patterns based on traditional Kuwaiti themes and stuff with sailors music. I asked the Kuwaitis to build some traditional rhythms from fishers and sailors because I want them to learn. From that, I set up cues within the music to make it easy for the dancers to count. I worked with songs from metal water tank to get the imagination, the Oud and accordion. From that I built beats and used Synth. We have about 50 minutes of that set, it goes from hip hop to contemporary and traditional.

Q: What can you reveal about the choreography?

A: For now, we have a raw 25 minutes of dance. But we have to change intentions, directions etc. From that we will bring a new contemporary choreographer in November to build in his own way some of the stuff we have worked on,  just to get a new perspective. We are on a good track and we are very excited.

Q: How important is it to get the youth involved in performing arts and culture?

A: I think you can gauge the degree of civilisation of a society on three points — healthcare, scholarship and culture. A well balanced population has those three things. To perceive the world with an open mind and have an awareness of other cultures is the best way to get a balanced life. It does not oppose religious life, but completes it.  At LoYAC, they believe that  culture is the best alternative to radicalism. I don’t know if we can be more right than that. In France, an artist I know once told me that ‘Culture is like a swimming pool, it is not a need, but it is good’.

Q: What are the more challenging aspects of putting this together?

A: The most challenging part, to be honest, is to get them completely committed to what they want to do. We asked everyone of them if dancing or performing arts was something they wanted to do as a full time job, they all said yes. But they are not ready yet. The challenge is to make them aware of their potential and how to exploit it and even set the course for future generations. Once again, we are not here to colonise but give them tools to develop themselves. It is a challenging part to make them involved as full-time professionals because apart from LoYAC, there are few avenues for  performing arts in Kuwait. It is important for us to bring them in France because France needs to be aware of what is happening in Kuwait and Kuwait has to be aware of what is happening in the outside world.

We also have physical barriers. In France, when we have a big project, we can work 8-10 hours a day. Here, they are not ready yet. But that is normal because in France it is recognised as a job so you can be involved in it for hours. I don’t want you to take France as a model, but my experience comes from there. Sometimes it is hard to get them focussed for long periods of time. We work with them for 5 hours a day and that is hard. But it must be kept in mind that you cannot make a Formula One car from one day to another, it takes time. The important thing is to give them tools and the confidence to get involved and develop themselves in the future because we will not be here every day.

Q: What is your hope for the future of performing arts in Kuwait?

A: I just hope to one day see a Kuwaiti dance troupe or a theatre group playing in a random theatre in France. For that, they need to build the base of something that could have an echo worldwide.

Q: Can you sum up in one sentence why people in Kuwait should not miss Aswat 3?

A: It is the stepping up of a new generation of professional dancers of Kuwait, in Kuwait.

By Cinatra Fernandes

Arab Times Staff

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