Sarāb 2019

  • This brilliant new experimental festival connects artists from across the Arab world.
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  • There's a special kind of silence in Wadi Rum. It descended slowly as we drove through southern Jordan, passing stark grey mountains and camels chewing the remains of a watermelon harvest. Then, suddenly, orange, pink and red rock rose all around. Finally, Wadi Rum yawned out before us, a desert as stunningly alien as Mars, chosen for the filming of movies like Star Wars and The Martian. Bedouins have lived here nomadically for centuries. Lawrence Of Arabia passed through. It was home to the Nabateans, who built the ancient wonder of Petra nearby. Long before that, it was an ocean. It has always been silent. Wadi Rum was the setting for Sarāb, a new experimental music festival organised and curated by Interim Projects (Nora Akawi and Eduardo Rega), Khyam Allami and Ayed Fadel that aims to connect local artists, hosting performers from six Arab countries. Jordan is the easiest country for Arab passport-holders to enter without the hassle of visas and permissions, so it offers an ideal home. Around 150 people made the trip for the first edition, with strong showings from scenes in Jordan and Palestine, plus a handful of westerners. In the desert the music was overheard by nobody, but its concept and classy execution deserve to echo across the region.
    Sarāb means "mirage" in Arabic, a gesture to the transience of a music festival in the wilderness. The site overlooked a rust-coloured plain, with a dance floor of sand strewn with Bedouin-style carpets. The desert infused every act with its ancient aura, but some of the best performers actively used the land in their live sets. First was Nicolas Jaar, who sat on the ground and live-looped the sound of dancer Stéphanie Janaina raking stones across the sand. He used that scrape and metallic thud as a percussive backdrop for half the set, adding eerie washes of melody that rose like a ghostly choir. Janaina flexed as if fighting paralysis, and at one point Jaar winced—perhaps overcome by the harsh tones he was conjuring, or maybe because sand was flying in his face. The festival co-curator Khyam Allami also made use of the earth in one of his three performances. Silhouetted by the sunset, he played silvery runs on the oud while collaborator Yalda Younes danced in quick, austere movements on boards that were mic'ed up, her footsteps turned to percussion. Their show was full of surprises: Allami elicited feedback from tiny speakers atop metallic flowers placed on the desert floor, and elsewhere he played live drums and dropped in a techno beat. At one point, Younes grabbed a mic and started to scream. I was particularly struck when Younes flipped over, limbs in the air like a dead beetle, utterly still, while Allami uncannily replayed the sound of her feet dancing. It was thoughtful and poignant: a sonic mirage, a desert ghost.
    The crowd listened to the experimental sets with remarkable attention. Highlights included the diverse selections and acrobatic dance moves of Mayss, a scintillating electro-acoustic performance from the Lebanese duo Two Or The Dragon and an atmospheric turn from Errorist and Shams, whose drone matched the desert in its timeless quality. A personal favourite was the live set from the influential Palestinian hip-hop producer Muqata'a, whose grimy, futurist aesthetic is one of the most distinctive around. With wild glitches and syncopations, he probed the boundaries of hip-hop, showing how far he could fragment his rhythms without losing grip on his subterranean funk. The later sets were geared towards dancing. The Palestinian artist Raymond Haddad played twilit techno on a modular setup I couldn't believe he had brought into the desert, while Jordanian Etcher's silky set of techno and electro brought the first evening to a flawless peak. I especially loved the late set from the Palestinian hip-hop artist Dakn, who exploded the dance floor with a furious selection of drum & bass, jungle and high-velocity madness. Everyone was excited to see Deena Abdelwahed, who played her debut album, Khonnar, to an Arab audience for the first time. Her oppressive sound design and severe rhythms seemed amplified by the immense emptiness all around. While the days were too hot to do much, there was always easy company in the friendly and engaged audience. It must be a logistical nightmare to set up a festival so far from civilisation, but there were no queues or complaints about food, drinks or toilets. One small complication was the accommodation in nearby tents, which left some wandering blindly into the pitch-black desert if they didn't want to stay at the festival until the end. Crucially, though, the sound quality was excellent. In terms of curation, not every performance was brilliant—some felt overlong, and most of the best were unevenly piled onto the second day—but the range of artists showed the amazing diversity and vitality of music coming out of the region.
    In my time covering electronic music from North Africa and the Middle East, I've noticed that many local artists set their professional sights on Europe. They see it as the only place where they can make a living from their work. At home, their listeners might be limited to a rarefied niche and their ambitions misunderstood by governments and cultural institutions. There are uncomfortable colonial echoes in the fact that Arab artists must look to Europe, so it's thrilling to see this shifting. Where nascent scenes in Arab countries were once isolated from one another, now collectives are beginning to join the dots, particularly in Egypt and the Levant with groups like Kairo Is Koming in Egypt, Jazar Crew in Palestine, Assembli in Jordan and hotly-tipped clubs like The Ballroom Blitz in Lebanon. Many locals I've met believe music is one of the best ways to connect young people across the Arab world, a region long divided by national borders originally created to serve the interests of colonial powers. There's a palpable feeling of excitement about what's brewing in the region, and Sarāb is another important stepping stone on the path to a freer, more united artistic future. Just as importantly, it was also a fantastic party. When I stepped away for a moment to look at the stars, glittering beyond the clear arc of the Milky Way, I bumped into the festival cofounder Ayed Fadel. I asked him how it was going. He was ecstatic. "It's a seed," he told me, staring briefly towards the black mountains out west. Even in this most barren of deserts, it feels like this seed can only grow. Photo credit / Mohammed Zakaria