What is contemporaneity? The question is of easy resolution for painters and the fine arts in general. A certain periodization, albeit erratic, exists in order to separate modern from contemporary art. In the history of sound, because of its uncollectable nature, never subject to the changes of visual cultures, the entire repertoire of sounds is always available. That is not to say that there is no history of music, but sound (just like the schism between the history of art and the history of images) exists in a somewhat timeless chamber in which it could be said, contemporary music is simply everything that is going on now in music. The conflation of art and entertainment (and later also advertising) that has fueled film and music also augments the loss of scope when attempting to arrive at the contemporary.
While this is true for Western music—in spite of loud calls for globalization coming from artists and critics alike—it is all the more so for music practices in other latitudes. The case of Bahrain is particular and also little known. The small island on the shores of the Gulf can be said to have a long history—and cultural memory—of exchanges across cultures, but the foundations for the contemporary have not been particularly strong, although not entirely absent. A first generation of painters in touch both with traditional iconography and European painting rose in the middle of the 20th century with names still remembered: Abdul Aziz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, Nasser Al Yousif or Abdulla Al Muharraqi, among others. The fate of sounds from Bahrain has been less fortunate. How is the transition effected between indigenous sounds and elaborate compositional schemes?
It would be preposterous to speak of “tradition” and “modernity”, for the idea of “tradition” already implies a modern bias. There’s the vocal music of the nahham (pearl diver singers) known as “fidjeri,” accompanied by drums and a clay pot, forming the musical landscape of the Arabian Gulf; music that is largely forgotten and now in the domain of a handful of specialized ethnologists. The old master painter Nasser Al Yousif, nevertheless, documented in detail the different styles of music and dance in his linoleum prints, paradoxically executed during the last years of his life after he had lost his sight. The powerful documents (also for art history) of Al Yousif, albeit not sonic, retain the powerful grammar of an era half by-gone whose presence is now ghostly. The genesis of contemporary music in Bahrain is the result of both reflex and re-invention.
Without a solid ground to mediate between sound—traditionally conceived—and contemporary music, Bahraini artists began their journey with the possibilities of the contemporary (beyond Khaleeji music) in the 1980s with the appearance of progressive rock band Ossiris that has achieved some renown. This progressive rock does not really have a compositional scheme other than popular music structures and has incorporated elements from traditional Bahraini sounds into what could be called folk rock, similar in concept to the experiment of the Lebanese underground from the late 1990s but with largely different results. Surprisingly, there is also a large public for heavy metal and hard rock, with several bands performing in English. Best known bands would be Motör Militia, Smouldering In Forgotten, and Lunacyst.
Younger projects in this genre include Rain in Hell, Thee Project, M.U.S.T, Bloodshel or InsideOut (on the more progressive rock side) and perhaps the most interesting, Qafas, started in 2008 and also experimenting with folk and metal sounds, singing in rather melodious Arabic inflected by far more elaborate compositions bordering on the minimal music of the 1970s but carrying a burden that as in the case of fine arts, shows how contemporary art practices in the Middle East are in permanent conversation with historical events; sometimes unwillingly. Would it be appropriate to use the label Oriental or Arab here? The question is of impossible resolution and reflects more an inadequate apparatus to describe the paradigm shifts that occur in translation of contexts—a long unresolved debate in art history.
A number of new bands have appeared since 2011 and in September 2012 an independent label based in Bahrain, the Rabble Rouser Studios released one of the first metal music DVDs in the Middle East, "The Resurrection DVD: The Bahrain Underground Vol. 1." Classical music embedded in the use of traditional instruments but within a compositional framework is embodied in the work of Bahraini composer Mohammed Haddad, trained in Cairo. He has composed film scores for several Bahraini and Arab filmmakers, and has musicalized the works of various Arab poets, medieval and modern, into compositions. Among his creations are musical renditions of poets Qassim Haddad (his father), Ali Abdulla Khalifa and Tarafa Ibn Al Abd. Although it might seem eclectic for the Gulf, Haddad’s work is deeply anchored in the classical music of Egypt and the Levant.
Another independent label emerged in 2013 as an outgrowth from the arts collective Elham, started in 2006, as a collective of artists and platform for local artists. The new label, MuseLand, a brainchild of writer Ali Al Saeed and musician Faisal Amin, is meant to function on the grassroots level not just as a producer but also mentor of artists. Earlier in 2013 the two most established art galleries in Bahrain, Al-Riwaq Art Space and Albareh Art Gallery launched similar programs to make up for the lack of art schools in the country and provide a curated platform for artistic mentorship and development. The label builds on from previous projects of Al Saeed and Amin, including a number of musical compilations. The third volume of “MuseLand” was released in March and offered a representative sample from a younger generation of more or less self-taught musicians.
Even though MuseLand v. III features international artists, such as the Lebanese band Lazzy Lung with their nostalgic rock, Kuwaiti artist +Aziz with the only Arabic track in the album, the melodious Australian artist Sui Zhen or Dubai-based songwriter Tim Hassall, the album showcases a certain stylistic evolution in the music scene, less experimental or worried about heritage and finding more accurate ways to express the daily concerns of a new generation somewhat privileged and sharing the same anxieties of their peers elsewhere: The reality of digital space, a constrained public sphere and the search for one’s identity in a dislocated world. One wouldn’t be sure to call this rock traditional, as it borders on Indie and Pop music but relies highly on improvisation. Perhaps the musical style is not wholly formed and some of these artists should be watched closely.
The Relocators is young band formed in 2012 with a fresh take on rock and blues, charged with guitar and bass and that resembles styles popularized in the 1990s and then lost to electronic music. Their cut “Love’s Never Running Away” is one of the best singles and definitely a great opener; the band has just finished a new album that is also to be released by MuseLand. Abdulla Mahmood’s “Happy Pill” brings the pop ingredient with distinctive character, and psychedelic rock band Moonshine’s cut, “Why,” plays with funk and reggae sounds. Hani Malik, a young doctor slash musician, is perhaps one of the most developed concepts in the compilation with a simple but consistent ensemble and solid vocals. His music is expressive and energetic; he also released recently a solo album, “No Remorse,” including the cut “One More Pleasure (With You)” from the compilation.
“Useless Old Palm Tree For Sale”, an instrumental piece by Bahraini artist and musicologist Hasan Hujairi, gives the compilation an experimental take, nevertheless Hujairi is not simply a musician. One of the most interesting practicing artists in Bahrain—and perhaps one of the very few serious sound-installation artists in the Middle East—he is also a researcher whose work concerns the idea of “Oriental” music in general and practically, he is at the forefront of experiments with sound and instruments in the Gulf, for example in his 2009’s “Manama and Other Spices” which is a sonic survey of the Old Souk in Manama. A sound-sculpture by Hujairi will be shown together with the works of photographers Ghada Khonji and Camille Zakharia in an exhibition of contemporary art from Bahrain at Edge of Arabia (London) during Shubbak Festival, curated by Latifa Al Khalifa.
Hujairi has been one among few to speak about the challenges of being a sound artist in Bahrain: “Fleeting, temporary sound is hardly something that seems to fit the mold of what the more traditional art collectors are after.” He speaks about the crucible of being found too “abstract” or “intellectually challenging” for Bahrain. Recently, a curator from the Ministry of Culture, reported to the author in an interview: “As you know, being an artist in Bahrain is not easy. There is no fine art school, no tradition of critique and pushing boundaries.” While she was referring to fine arts, the situation is hardly different for contemporary musicians who continuously struggle with the foundations of their music and on the performance level, with the receptivity of audiences and a rather limited interest in art forms that are not so obviously visual, such as performance and music.
With a number of festivals and privately-sponsored platforms for performing music (sometimes also including art galleries) the prospects for Bahrain’s music scene are encouraging and although remaining unknown and buried under thick fog of political clichés, the success of the arts in Bahrain has always been a combination of local talent and wide exposure to the outer world. Will these artists succeed in rooting a secure foundation for music both local and global? Perhaps it is too early to tell but this depends not only on the will of the musicians. There are also aesthetic considerations that have come hand in hand with globalization and with the standardization of “taste”: The homogenization of consumer culture has entirely dislocated the national and ethnic identity of art and produced a constant anxiety out of the dissolution of authenticity.
But there is more than meets the eye. Music, not being subject to the constraints of the history of images and the optical transformations of culture, moves in a space far more fluid and free, liberated from the ideology of history, and circulates unambiguously between the local and the global, the indigenous and the avant garde, the minimal and the elaborate. It will be interesting to see the music that will come out of this very singular island in the near future, especially as physical and cultural changes become aesthetically manifest and internalized in the practice of artists and not simply events forming reflections. The imminent conurbation of the island for example will greatly alter its sonic landscape and musicians will not be immune to this new and perplexing stage in urban history. In the meantime, the soundscapes of Bahrain will continue to shape and re-shape what it means to be contemporary, in unexpected ways.
Follow Arie on Twitter @Dilmunite
Bahrain, Middle East