May 09--BEIRUT -- On the face of it, Zeid Hamdan and 25-year-old Egyptian singer-songwriter Maii Waleed seem an unlikely pairing.
Waleed is a largely unknown talent, in Lebanon in any case. Hamdan has been a veteran of Beirut's growing underground and indie music scene since the late '90s when Soap Kills, his collaboration with Yasmine Hamdan, blazed the trail in Arabic-language trip-hop.
The two musicians stumbled across each other serendipitously two years ago, while Hamdan was on a short trip to Alexandria. "We met in a room in a hotel," says Hamdan. "A friend of mine ... told me 'You have to hear this girl sing, she really has a nice voice.' When I heard the texture of her voice I really loved it."
"He was leaving," Waleed adds, "and he said: 'OK, we have to record your stuff so I can see how I can work on it.' So I went home to my parents' and then ran back to the hotel with my guitar."
"She recorded 10 songs straight, guitar and voice, with a metronome," says Hamdan, resuming the thread of a conversation that oscillates between the pair with musical regularity. "I saw she had good tempo, which is really useful for an artist. A sense of rhythm is an essential aspect, and then her voice and her style of playing really gave you a vibe of the orientation of the songs. ... It inspired me."
Two years on, this spontaneous recording session has borne fruit in the form of "Moga" (Wave), a collaborative album featuring 10 tracks, written and sung by Waleed, produced, recorded and mixed by Hamdan. Although Waleed plays guitar, drums and keyboard, Hamdan is the instrumentalist on all but three of the CD's tracks. The remainder are played and produced by Sharif Megarbaneh.
Waleed's mellifluous voice navigates the delicate, mournful waters of the album's ambient title track as well as the rawer, rock-inspired foot-tapping refrain of "Mesh Moufeed" (Unnecessary) and the jazzy, syncopated swing of "El Amar El Gedeed" (The New Moon) with equal dexterity and apparent ease.
The singer explains that she writes the lyrics and music of her songs in conjunction, playing a chord and then seeing where her voice takes her.
"The songs are mainly like diaries," she explains, "so not [every] song has a specific topic or focused perspective. I think it's more of a natural flow of thoughts or stream of consciousness.
"They're probably mostly love songs," she continues, "but there are also songs expressing how I see myself, how I place myself in the society where I live. ... By nature I'm a very emotional person and I think this is reflected in the lyrics -- I tried to express that as transparently as I could."
The album meanders through a vast range of styles and moods, exhibiting traces of British indie pop -- an intriguing proposition when juxtaposed with Waleed's lyrics sung in Egyptian dialect -- as well as tracks inspired by ambient, electronic, jazz, rock and blues music.
The title track is a slow, dreamy number. Waleed's voice, swelling with sadness as she sings about being engulfed by a dark wave, is offset perfectly by Hamdan's choice of backing music. The delicate, metallic sound of a glockenspiel in the intro, the soft plucking of an acoustic guitar and the electronic sigh of a synth combine to create a hypnotic, electronic sound reminiscent of Goldfrapp's early, slower numbers.
"In Arabic I say it's a dark wave," Waleed explains. "It's about the darkness of seeing an upcoming phase which you might fear."
"You can drown in the wave or you can surf the wave," Hamdan interrupts. Waleed nods enthusiastically.
Hamdan looked to the singer's lead for his instrumentation, trying to fit it around her original guitar compositions. "Take 'Hassafer Baeed,'" he says. "She's strumming in a very rocking way -- it can be bluegrass, it can be blues -- just the way she strums it suggests those arrangements, so it was not a complicated mix to create. It was just adding material.
"Sometimes I took the choice of killing rhythm and making it more ambient," he adds. "What I felt in 'Moga' is ... an emotion that submerges you and you are drowning it in, so I wanted to create that -- dark bass coming in and out, and waves of sound coming in and out."
The varied style and mood of the album's 10 tracks are united by the consistency of Waleed's smooth, melodious tones and catchy hooks that will have listeners unconsciously humming along. In spite of this, "Moga" is far removed from mainstream Arabic pop.
Although Hamdan admits they were unable to find a promoter for the album until it was finished, both musicians believe the demand for alternative music is growing regionally.
"In the past two years ... the media have shed some light on the underground scene," says Waleed, "so it's actually becoming a trend in Egypt. It has a good side to it and it has a negative side to it as well."
"I think that the revolution has brought curiosity to a wider type of people," Hamdan adds. "Before you had really institutional music. Arabic pop was the only dominant style and today there is this explosion of expressions."
In spite of the difference in age and background between the two musicians, they are clearly close. Waleed credits Hamdan with convincing her to take her own work seriously, while Hamdan sees Waleed as a fresh source of ideas.
"From the moment I recorded those 10 tracks in that hotel, Maii drowned me in her wave -- she totally inspired me," he says.
"That's what I look for in my collaborations. ... When you produce five or six albums of your own you always need new blood and new inspiration."
"For me what kept it going was a real base of friendship," Waleed explains. "He has been very supportive on a very personal level."
"Music is totally before anything the pleasure," Hamdan sums up. "You have to enjoy doing it and you have to enjoy meeting with the person you're doing it with. ... The success or the failure of the project is secondary. The first thing is the encounter, the moment, and the baby that comes out of it."
Maii Waleed and Zeid Hamdan's "Moga" is available for download on iTunes. For more information or to order a CD call 03-856-387.
(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
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