The Mississippi Delta blues took a detour to Kuwait in Ali Sleeq’s debut, “Gonna Die With The Blues”. Over ten tracks, that range from traditional root blues to contemporary funk, the album is a compilation of a Middle Eastern bluesman’s journey over the past two decades, an affirmation of the enduring power of the blues, and an homage to those who came before and looked to music to complete the joy in their lives.
Arab Times: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into music and what has your journey been so far?
Ali Sleeq: I started playing music in 2000 during my first semester of college in Beirut. I saw a band perform live for the first time and felt strongly that I should be doing that. I asked my dad for a bass guitar and I taught myself to play it. For two years, I stayed in my apartment in Lebanon, just practicing by myself. After that I joined the music club and played my first show with a band which was mostly a Pink Floyd cover band. Soon, I moved on to make my own blues band and we became regulars at several venues. I came back to Kuwait in 2005, joined a few bands and made a name for myself. At the end of 2014, I became a solo artiste. Since then I have played in Beirut, Dubai and Bahrain, and now my album has released.
AT: When did you first become acquainted with the blues?
AS: I remember it vividly. When you learn music, after all the basics of scales and chords, when you start to play real music, the blues is often the first because it is very easy to pick up although it is hard to master. After I had learnt to play the 12 bar blues and the structure, I stayed with the blues and decided to explore it further. I started listening to all the artistes and I got pulled in. I’ve stayed with the blues ever since, it has been 18 years now.
AT: Do you remember a song or an artiste that made that big impression?
AS: There was no particular song that I can remember but it was basically the rhythmic groove, the way the artiste would play the solos and the emotional side of it. My favourite artiste is Muddy Waters. I started buying CDs left and right and set out on an in-depth research of the genre, I think I have over 300 blues CDs. I didn’t just listen to the blues but I embodied it, I lived it. I went really deep into it. I joined the Blues Foundation and I’m a contributing member of the Blues Museum in Nashville. I don’t just like the genre, I’m obsessed with it. I maintain a blog about it as well called Speakin’ the Blues. I have been writing about the blues and recommending music on it for seven years now. Whenever I play live, I always give the audience a little history or some details about the song before I start my performance. I see myself as a messenger, not just a musician.
AT: Why do you think you had such a natural affinity to the blues?
AS: There are a lot of stereotypes in music across genres. Emos have to be depressed teenagers, those who like country music like to shoot guns and ride horses, and so on. With blues, the stereotype is that you are always having a hard time. Blues historically started off with the African American slaves. who brought their musical knowledge from West Africa. If you listen to West African music, you can hear a lot of underlying blues tones. So, they started singing and playing about their hard times as slaves in the plantations and in the fields. It evolved to a point where it became a genre of music that most African Americans could relate to. What they were talking about was something that everyone could feel because of these hard times can easily be translated to anyone. Everyone is going through hard times. Unfortunately for me, I’ve had a long streak of bad luck on many fronts from money problems to work. So for me it feels like I am not just performing the blues but living it, due to these unfortunate set of events that I am still going through today, and makes it more authentic when I talk and sing about it.
AT: How would you define your brand of the blues?
AS: My brand of the blues is a continuation of the blues tradition. Historically, blues musicians through the years would borrow from those who preceded them. For example, the greatest Delta blues musician was Robert Johnson and people who followed him, like Muddy Waters, took what they learned from his music and records and built upon it. Songs that would be written by Robert Johnson would be re-written by someone else in the same rhythm and spirit with a few changes in lyrics and made their own. The next person would evolve and do the same. You can observe this in many traditional blues songs, that they all share a common theme, from their rhythms and lyrics. If there is a certain song that I really like, I will take that rhythm and play around with the words, add a few other elements in there. When you hear my music, you will definitely hear the traditional blues. I do have a couple of songs on the album that are a little bit off of that, they are a little bit funky and more contemporary, some minor sounding blues which is another subgenre. I tried not to repeat myself throughout the album but the underlying basis is traditional music. When people tell me that they hear Mississippi music when I play, it makes me feel really good because that’s what I am trying to express. I am not trying to save the blues, I’m just continuing the legacy. It’s what I enjoy. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, just adding my little take on something that already exists.
AT: This is your debut album. What are your expectations from it?
AS: In the current music market, we know that no one buys albums anymore. Even the biggest artistes have trouble selling their albums in the era of low cost streaming. For me, this album is a stepping stone to something bigger. After all my years of performing, I had reached a point where I had to climb higher. If I don’t make an album, I won’t evolve as an artiste and just stay where I am — playing a couple of times a month and just known as this guy who plays the blues. I made this album to be taken a little more seriously and so that hopefully someone somewhere in the world can hear what I have to say as someone from the Middle East performing traditional American music. So I have high expectations from this album in that regard but not from a sales point of view as the genre is very niche.
AT: Is there an active blues scene in the Middle East?
AS: As someone who researches this field quite extensively, I have found that there have not been many blues bands out of the region. The most you will find is in Lebanon but most of them have either stopped playing entirely because it is just not economically feasible or it is just a couple of fans playing in a few places that have always been there. There used to be someone else out of Lebanon, Sergio Behazi, who released a blues album or two about ten years ago. Currently in the Middle East region, I am not aware of any blues band or blues musician doing what I do. So it is a very small limited market but I feel that I have carved out a niche for myself.
AT: Let’s talk about your album, ‘Gonna Die With The Blues’. How did it come about?
AS: I had the honour and privilege to work with Nawaf Al Gheraibah, a very respected musician, composer and teacher in Kuwait. He offered to record an album for me in his studio and label, Ajna Records. I took the opportunity because it is otherwise very expensive to record an album professionally, and this was the main reason I had put off recording all this time. The process took a very short time. Blues music intrinsically is very simple to start and record because it is very reliant on improvisation. Once the lyrics are down, you could record the song in a matter of minutes without taking any retakes or having to start over. We’d record the basic track which is the drums, bass, and guitar, and then I would add my vocals later on. Several musicians from outside of Kuwait are featured on this album, notably Roly Platt on the harmonica, Fouad Faraj on the piano and Buddy Ayache on the guitar. We sent them the base track and they recorded and sent me their track and we would put it all together. The very talented local musicians who contributed were Hashim Al-Nasser, Mohammmad Alowaisi and Aziz Othman. Compared to other albums, this was a very quick album to make because I already had all my ideas and lyrics completed. All my tracks were recorded in one take. Even with my vocals, I didn’t do too many retakes. I have this philosophy that you lose the fundamental energy for the song in repetition. So it has that raw and gritty sound. There might be a few mistimed shots in there, or a missed note, but for me that gives it a little flavour. It is not overly processed, although I like perfection when it comes to sound. I don’t mind a few slip ups here and there, because it gives it a more live feel.
AT: Tell us a bit about the songs on your album.
AS: There are ten tracks along multiple styles of the blues. The first track, ‘Dbayeh Highway Blues’, is an instrumental track named after a highway in Lebanon that is always congested because it links Beirut to other areas from the north and the mountain side. It is a very hectic track that makes you feel like you are actually on the highway, feeling the concomitant frustration. It is a high energy track that gets you in that zone in order to try and release the tension. The lead song, ‘Gonna Die with the Blues’, is basically the story of how I started and my journey. When I first started playing in a band, I was still wet behind the ears. I’ve had people heckle me and tell me that I didn’t know what I was doing, that I sounded very bad and didn’t know how to sing. I heard all these criticisms and I pulled through. I did my part and no matter what happens, I’m going to die with the blues. When I’m a hundred years old, I’m still going to be playing and listening to the blues. Another song, ‘Mind that Funk’, is a call back to the ’60s and ’70s style of funk. The album has a song called ‘Back to the Chicken Shack’ which is a rearrangement of Mississippi style country blues in a drone rhythm. There’s also an acoustic track, ‘Mississippi Born’ which is my dedication and tribute to Muddy Waters.
AT: How would you describe the music scene in Kuwait today?
AS: Kuwait goes through ups and downs when it comes to music. At certain times it is very active and really short while later, it is as if nothing is going on and people disappear, gigs disappear, and a drop in frequency of performance. Then some catalyst will cause another surge. So, Kuwait goes through a lot of dips and rises. There are a lot of capable new musicians but they don’t have the space or the venue to perform. Since Kuwait is so small, if a certain band gets popular, the odds of them getting the next big gig is less because people have already seen them and are bored easily. The singers and musicians who are performing today are the same people I knew many years back. There are a couple of newer bands that have been making hits in the scene but these are mostly comprised of well-known musicians from the scene. Not Necessarily Famous (NNF) is a new talent agency that have already made a huge name for themselves in a few short months that they’ve been active. There are many attempts but the opportunities are still not ripe. We are already in a season of musical recession that will stretch through Ramadan and the summer months. There are new public agencies that have opened that are big push for art and culture in Kuwait. We now have more international musicians coming here. There seems to be a State interest in promoting culture but there are limitations to how much they can do. But overall, there definitely is a movement trying to push art and music.
AT: What are the barriers to entry for new musicians?
AS: The lack of venues and contacts; if you don’t have anyone within the existing scene to help you out, then you are probably not going to have a chance. It helps to know at least a couple of people within the scene who can promote you. It also helps if you have something recorded so that people can hear you. If they see you have some potential, and some talent, then it will be easier later on. AT: What are the biggest challenges you face today? AS: The biggest challenge is to remain relevant and to get performances and concerts that give the music its proper weight. I don’t perform in restaurants and cafes because I feel that the music I play doesn’t get represented correctly in that avenue. We are hoping for bigger events, we need to get opportunities to perform. If musicians can’t express themselves and give people their message, they get very disgruntled and discouraged. I always tell people to not get discouraged, to do what they are passionate about, and to not cater to what the audience needs but what they want to say.
AT: What is the future of the blues?
AS: In the last 60 years, there has been a debate of whether the blues is dead, will it survive, is it relevant, and so on. The blues will never die even though it may be at the very bottom in terms of popularity. There will always be somebody who carries the legacy forward. There are a lot of people playing the traditional style just to keep it alive and there are others who have evolved the genre, adding many elements to it from other styles. It is always evolving forward, just like jazz. The music will always have its fans, especially in the West. In the Middle East, you don’t see that many people listening to the blues. So while there is a fear of who will carry on the tradition, if you look through new releases on a monthly basis, you will find that blues is still alive and well. It is a pillar of music and even if the future might not be as vibrant, it will still carry on because of how important it is in the world.
AT: What is your hope for the future?
AS: I hope that I can generate a lot of interest with this album and that I can start performing outside the Middle East. I feel that I have what it takes to reach that level and take the music further and represent the Middle East as its most passionate blues player. If that doesn’t work out, I will still be playing music. I have been through a lot of ups and downs in life but I have never put music aside. So I will continue, if I make it big or not. I’m gonna die with the blues.
By Cinatra Fernandes
Arab Times Staff