City of Djinn: the interview

They listen, the fire burns, someone adds more wood, the flames’ renewed warmth quickens thought, awakens the imagination. The spinning of tales is almost unimaginable without a fire crackling somewhere nearby, or without the darkness of a house illuminated by an oil lamp or a candle. The fire’s light attracts, unites, galvanizes attentions. The flame and community. The flame and history. The flame and memory.

from Travels with Herodotus, by Ryszard Kapuscinski (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)
Band photo of The City of Djinn (Micah Bezold and Marwan Kamel).
City of Djinn (Micah Bezold and Marwan Kamel, photo courtesy of Somnimage Corporation, used by permission)

So, I received all of the press materials from your label, Somnimage Corporation, but there’s not a lot of history there. Your debut record, “City of Djinn,” is amazing, a Palace favorite. Who are you as a band? How did this whole thing start?

Marwan Kamel:
Yeah, it’s kind of a long history. When we actually started playing together — we had another band. A punk band called Al-Thawra. It was hardcore, experimental stuff. I started to mix the Middle Eastern sounds into it. But it was still very based in punk. I was adding this stuff on top of it. We toured a lot with that band.

But we were trying to invert the process where we took structures that were non-Western structures and instead reversed it where we imposed rock textures onto structures that are based on, like, Arabic music. There were all of these other influences.

Anyway, Micah [Bezold] and I lived together for a while. There was a Sufi Baba who lived with us here in Chicago. That was also part of it. [Laughs] A Sufi Baba is basically a spiritual teacher. It was kind a weird place where we lived. It was on the West Side, like, in Garfield Park. If you don’t know the neighborhoods it doesn’t matter that much. [Laughs]

There was, like, this slumlord who was renting out to us and we got an apartment that used be a storefront church. We lived there, and that Sufi Baba guy ended up living with us and kind of influenced us. But the reason I got into incorporating all my family history — my family, on my dad’s side, is from Syria — was when the war started — I kind of got burned out on punk bands a little bit.

If your energy — if you can’t be, like, external and aggressive outwardly, sometimes it turns internal, you know. And that’s kind of like the beginning of the City of Djinn sound, for me anyway.

GP:
What’s interesting to me about your record is how it feels so fully formed, for a first record.

MK:
It was kind of like we were toying with ideas, but we weren’t really sure how to do it. It’s funny, because we recorded the record in three days at our friend’s studio. It was like, “Dude, we got free days and you gotta come down and, like, record!

And we rushed into it a little bit. The record just kept dragging out. We recorded all the tracks, the music for them, in three days, and then the engineering took us, like four years! [Laughs] Yeah. What’s funny is, yeah, we recorded it in May 2015. But there was always some factor that would come up, you know. We couldn’t do something because the engineer had to record some other band — then we couldn’t do it because we were somewhere else. You know what I mean? It felt almost like the record was cursed, you know. [Laughs] This record is never going to come out!

GP:
I guess you guys will be a band forever because if you can do that for four years, to make one record, you guys will probably be just fine! [Laughs]

MK:
[Laughs] There’s only two people, so if somebody quits it’s over! [Laughs] Or, if somebody gets replaced it’s a different band, you know.

Graffiti wall

The vibe of your band feels like you and Micah have been doing this for a while. Are you and Micah friends from way back?

MK:
We’ve been friends for, let’s see, since 2007. I had just gotten off a tour — I was working on this other project, just bored recording things, then I went on tour. When I got back, I didn’t have any money, so I started working at this Tunisian restaurant that was also a hookah bar.

Micah was there and played every day. They would have jam sessions after hours. We’d shut down and there’d be all these Tunisian and North African musicians who would come jam. That’s how we ended up meeting. I was playing a drum, and Micah was like, “Hey, that’s my drum.” That’s how we met. [Laughs]

GP:
Your record is both powerful and feels… sad. Maybe the best way to ask this is… let’s see, your record feels very political. This is a pretty shitty time in our country. We’re polarized as fuck. There’s an edge to your record. Do you guys consider yourself a political band? Or is this just how you make music?

MK:
I hate to revert to — this is like the old “Maximum Rocknroll” trope, of like the personal is the political — I feel like that political, like my identity is under the gun, or under the microscope is probably a better term for it. Where my starting point of just existing is already political. It’s inherently built into it. So, I think, somehow, I had no choice. My hand was forced to say things. [Laughs]

The first song, for example, “Hakawati,” is based on the story of when I lost contact with my cousin. He ended up going to Norway. It’s a long story, because he was getting his Ph.D. In order to go to Norway, he crossed the Arctic Circle because he was afraid he would get sent back to Syria. I wanted to use his story as a vehicle to tell a more universal story of people being displaced — having to tell their own stories — and using the metaphor of a storyteller to do that. Like a traditional-style storyteller.

There’s a café in Damascus called Al-Nofara, which means “The Fountain.” The branch of the Barada River dried up in the 1700-1800s. It’s been open for a long time. You hear stories that go way back. And what happens is people just go there because there are very few of them left, the storytellers.

I guess my point was to say that these are the new stories we should be telling. We don’t have to tell these legendary stories because now we have our own legends, you know. I think these experiences are ways to learn not only about being politicized or marginalized, or something, but also a way to tell universal stories about fighting with yourself. It’s like we all have a little fire living inside of us, too. [Laughs]

GP:
It’s sad, because when you look at the old stories of suffering and people being displaced, we want to think that’s over, that kind of ancient brutality is over. And yet, you go up to Human Rights Watch, places like that, and we’re as brutal today as we were in the past. Probably more brutal. We’re certainly not more civilized.

MK:
Yeah, definitely. You can look at Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage,” and we’re all actors. It’s kind of the same thing. History is a wheel. One day you’re up, the next day you’re down. The people change, like the actors, like the cast changes, but the story still continues. When one person has it, they do it to the next person. It sucks! We don’t learn, ever.

Alligator street art

There’s definitely a narrative arc to your album. A bigger story set in a big history. But as you say, it also took a long time for you to put this record together.

MK:
A lot of the songs in the story arc of the album, basically, is that — we wanted to arrange it in a particular way, but I kind of fucked up when I put it together. This is what happens when you have ADD I guess. [Laughs] Basically, I was writing an article in the middle of when I was trying to put the record together. Everybody was checking with me to make sure the songs were in the right order. Two of them actually got swapped. There are two songs that are supposed to flow together but I ended up putting them in the wrong order because I was writing the article and I was like, “Whatever, it’s fine!” [Laughs]

GP:
Is that why one of the tracks just stops? I think it’s the second track, “Haqq,” that just…breaks off like it should keep going or something, and it kind of crashes into “Mirrorman.” [Laughs]

MK:
Yeah. It’s this little mystery. Everybody’s like, “What? Why is this doing this?”

And also, when we were recording it — I was writing another article, I write for a history magazine sometimes, and it’s like, for some reason all of these things we were doing happened in the middle of a deadline. So, the next day I’m trying to source images for my article, or captions, or something, and I was like, “Fuck it, good enough.” Yeah. [Laughs] Sometimes it becomes an endurance game, you know what I mean?

It’s like if you have a weird deadline, there are parts you leave until the last minute, and then it’s like, “OK, I’ve got to do this!” It’s gonna suck, so I’m just gonna do it all in one sitting. [Laughs]

GP:
I think you and I are in the same universe! But you know, I also think you can keep developing something forever and never finish, you know? And never get it done. You have to draw a line.

MK:
There’s a kind of temptation, I think, to keep constantly going back. But then at the end, you’re like recording the sounds of coyotes in the wild and you think, “Let’s overdub that over our entire album!” Like, it doesn’t make any sense, but for some reason your artistic voice is telling you to do this weird thing. You have to say, “No, let’s save it for something else.” [Laughs]

It’s kind of like when you’re drinking. Another drink doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Because you’re not, like, being rational. [Laughs]

Grafitti under a freeway overpass

You refer to your version of Tarab music as “post-Tarab.” Can you help me understand that a bit more? Because when you look at a musical form that’s so ancient, it must have changed many times, it’s difficult for me to understand where the “post” part comes in.

MK:
I think that term just came kind of spontaneously, kind of as a joke from one of our friends who was talking about it. He’s from Aleppo but lives in Tunisia now. Aleppo has a really long history with Tarab music because in 1492 the Reconquista happened in Spain. A lot of people were exiled from there, and one of the areas they went to was Aleppo.

And that musical style kind of kept evolving over time and continuing that tradition, where they were doing that style of music. The poetry from Spain. Later, a lot of Ottoman influences, too. So, our friend kind of jokingly said, “You guys are taking this classical Arabic style and kind of doing what post-rock or post-punk is,” you know — where you take the elements of something and kind of strip them down and restructure them into something that’s new. I think that’s kind of what’s meant by that “post-Tarab” term.

And in some ways, that is my structure. The one thing about Tarab — what it actually means — it’s a state of ecstasy caused by music. They have the word “Duende” in Spain, which kind of means the same thing. It’s like the feeling you get when you listen to music and you feel ecstasy — like “a drunk in the sun” music.

So, I think with those modal systems, one of the things that happens is because they’re subtle, it’s neither major or minor, there’s a lot of emotional subtlety in it. If you know what you’re doing, obviously, you’re kind of speaking with your soul a little bit. It’s an interaction between you and the listener where you’re pulling them along emotionally. It’s like a negotiation, you know. It’s kind of how the moon can only reflect the light of the sun.

And in the same way, you have to have that kind of music in you in order to reflect it into somebody else. And that’s kind of what the structure of our stuff is. That’s why sometimes when you’re listening to it, I think you get lost in it a little bit. Because the melodies are pulling you along. And that’s when time moves faster, it’s like dilating time. I’m not saying it’s like a magical thing. I’m just trying to add different textures, or making it — redone — in a different way.

GP:
I can easily imagine the tracks on this record, played live, flowing out to be seven minutes long, ten minutes long, or longer, depending on how engaged you are with your audience. Tarab as a musical form almost doesn’t feel bound by linear, structural rules.

MK:
Yeah, exactly. But once you’re making a recording, you’re stuck. And we weren’t even facing each other, which is normally how we play. We’re sitting side-by-side, and we were like, “Alright, that seems good.” [Laughs]

Wall of graffiti art

Your work feels very global to me, especially when we talk about the Reconquista. You’ve mentioned friends and family in other parts of the world. Is the City of Djinn part of a music scene in Chicago?

MK:
We create a kind of temporal space for it where we have these weekly jams that we’ve been doing every week at the lake. Where people can just come if they want to learn how to play percussion, or like, if you want to learn how to play some riffs, you know. It’s a good place to do it because this musical system, it’s bigger than just Turkish. If you want to learn these styles you have to live it, to some degree. The easiest way to learn it is to participate in it, actively. You learn by doing, right.

So, we have these jams where a bunch of people will come to the lake. We’ll cook food and just hang out and play music there — at jam with a lot of people. For example, we have a friend from Egypt, and he does an electronic version of what we’re doing, essentially. So, we’re all kind of bouncing ideas off of each other, and collaborating on these jams. And new ideas come up.

Like I said, there was a percussionist who used to jam at the café, he has his own band. He was a student who did those jams at the Tunisian restaurant. So, he’s around, too. He’s extending his teacher’s reach into this new kind of tradition.

I think it’s something that’s very fluid. It’s not a scene — it doesn’t have a name — but there are a lot of people working on things where we’re kind of working towards a similar sound. In some ways negotiating the fuzzy boundaries of identity trying to come up with something new that represents how we are currently.

You can’t have two separate identities. One of the things about this type of music is you have a foot in both worlds. If you were to do just straight-forward traditional stuff you miss out on some of subtleties of it because you’re not there, you’re not living that music anymore. And if you’re doing the rock thing, you’re not completely into that, either. You’re having a foot in both worlds and it’s kind of dishonest with yourself, you know.

GP:
It’s being more honest. You can’t be who you’re not. You can’t fake it. So, given that, how is this record being received? You’re taking traditional forms and you’re bending the light to make things, to speak with your voice. Does that sit well with the communities that expect the traditional musical forms from you?

MK:
One of the interesting things was when we were playing in Turkey. I think that people just got it. We didn’t have to explain anything. [Laughs] Because they have a foot in both worlds all the time, too. They have this governmental system, or whatever, that’s been pushing them to be Western away from their culture wanting to continue to be Middle Eastern, so they’re used to it, you know what I mean. [Laughs] They have this dual identity all the time.

In some places we had to explain a lot about it, and in Turkey everybody just kind of got it. It was well received, I think. With the globalized world, everybody’s kind of in this boat now because we’re all so interconnected and being exposed to everything. I think it’s inevitable that hybrid forms, or new forms, have to exist. Because they reflect the new reality.

It’s not like Alan Lomax is going to go around today recording something that sounds like us. It’s not going to happen.

GP:
I dig what Alan Lomax did back in the day, but that’s a great point to end on. There used be huge barriers between music and cultures in the 1930s. Physical barriers. Intellectual barriers. There can’t be an Alan Lomax the same way today. He wouldn’t have a job!

MK:
Yeah, basically. [Laughs] Yeah, it’s cool because instead of having these isolated things where people just keep repeating the same things, chewing these same ideas over and over again, now you have new ideas that express more complex and subtle realities.

Painted wall with flowers

Like fire, [Herodotus] said, everything is in eternal motion, everything is extinguished only to flare up again. Everything flows, but in flowing, it undergoes transformation. So it is with memory. Some of its images die out, but new ones appear in their place. The new ones are not identical to those that came before — they are different. Just as one cannot step twice into the same river, so it is impossible for a new image to be exactly like an earlier one.

from Travels with Herodotus, by Ryszard Kapuscinski

photo credits (where not otherwise credited)

“big eyes” / Massimo Virgilio
“not really” / Social.Cut
“gator” / George Pagan III
“overpass” / David Hellman
“Lennon” / Melissa van Gogh
“flowers” / Brigitta Schneiter