A while back I connected with musician PlusAziz, a musician of Kuwaiti origin based in New Orleans. I listened to some of his band, KUWAISIANA’s music – and let me tell you before we get any further that I am not a music buff by any means. But even I can tell when a song is cool.
The interesting thing about KUWAISIANA is that it is envisioned as a mashup of jazz and blues music and Khaleeji (Arab Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, etc.) dialect singing. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I lived in the Gulf region for a decent chunk of time as a kid, and when I was there in the early 2000s, Khaleeji music was pretty much all there was to listen to on the radio. You didn’t get a lot of Egyptian or Lebanese songs until maybe 2004 or 2005.
As a result, Khaleeji music has a special place in my heart. The thing, though, is that it has a very specific, traditional beat to it. There’s an underlying drum rhythm that lends itself to traditional Khaleeji dance that exists in pretty much all my favorite Khaleeji songs, and it’s really not something you can recreate in blues music.
Naturally, therefore, I was interested in getting PlusAziz’s input on his band and why he does what he does.
What’s behind the name “KUWAISiANA”? (Is it Kuwait-Louisiana?)
Yes! It is Kuwait-meets-Louisiana.
KUWAISIANA, as a name or title, comes from the recognition of cultural parallels between Louisiana and my hometown of Kuwait. When it comes to music, both of their musical traditions evolved out of exchanges with foreign cultures coming together and forming something cohesive. The collective nature of a New Orleanian “2nd line” is, from an anthropological point-of-view, similar to the Kuwaiti “samri” or a Bahraini “jalsa.”
Both are also crippled by high obesity rates, poor infrastructure. These linkages are very subtle at the moment because the band is not even a year old, but this is the cultural trajectory I would like KUWAISIANA to work within.
New Orleans emerged as the turnkey solution for me when I was considering a next step after New York, where I recorded a debut EP as a solo artist titled SoHo Sprit (2014). I wanted to move to a “music city” in the American South because it’s a region I romanticized since I was a teenager. Oddly enough, the band was supposed to be a simple rock trio with me singing in Arabic. But the makeup of the band took a life of its own and I was suddenly dealing with seven other musicians who augment the sound and bring in different varieties of world music grooves. Luckily, I’m still rocking out in Arabic but the sound palette has undergone a poignant evolution.
What made you decide to start an indie rock band?
The short answer to that is music videos. Growing up in Kuwait, I would wake up around 3-4am to watch and record music videos on VCR. 16 tapes later, I was sold on the dream of forming a rock band. In particular, Smashing Pumpkins’ music videos were very compelling (visually and lyrically). After that, I would fall in love with a few other bands like Sigur Ros, The Mars Volta, Gorillaz, and Deftones.
My musical intention in moving to New Orleans is to address the problem that Khaleeji music has virtually no presence in “world music” (a catchall genre which captures all non-Western music). The most prominent musical heritages in world music hail from North Africa, the Levant, Turkey, Iran, and India. Basically everywhere across the Middle East minus the Arabian Peninsula. These regions have set a standard that independent Khaleeji musical artists have yet to meet in my opinion.
I initially wanted to do a stripped-down alternative rock trio where I sang in my Kuwaiti dialect. In typical New Orleans fashion, I kept the door open for other musicians to join and now I have commitments from eight people, all of whom bring their own influences. My goal now is to try and sustain KUWAISIANA’s big band sound and tour around the US in summer 2017.
How exactly do you combine the style of indie rock with Arabic music? Who do you look to when you’re composing and writing?
I’m less interested in Arabic music and much more interested in the Arabic language. When I work, for example, I may be watching Arabic content on YouTube. From Khaleeji TV shows and indie comedy shows to lectures and poetry recitations. This is what feeds me themes to think and sing about.
In terms of the tone of my music, I feel akin to other Kuwaiti creative acts, which have a cold sarcasm and dark humor about Khaleeji identity. You can find good examples if you look into the Youtube comedy series like Shino Ya3ni or the art exhibits of GCC Collective.
I use to have more control over my music when I worked alone, but now there are numerous influences at play in the band. My drummer plays a huge role in shaping grooves and we work as a team to identify what the song is asking for. It may be a Brazilian samba, afro-beat or any number of other ethnic influence. I hope that the band will evolve into a more democratic KUWAISIANA where I am not the only one driving decisions and shaping our songs.