words ona abelis | images khyam allami
It would only be half true to say that the founder of Nawa Recordings is a musician. The other half is that Khyam Allami is a composer, a teacher, an Oud player, a serial collaborator, and quite attached to his suitcase (which always contains a pair of Tunisian slippers and bath towels that he takes on every trip). Why? Because the London-based, Iraqi artist—who was born in Syria—spends most of his time on the move between Cairo, Beirut, Tunisia, Rabat, Paris, and London.
"My history is fundamental to my being and my understanding of who I am and what I would like to do in and with my life," Allami tells me recently. His five-piece band, Alif, is on the eve of releasing its debut album, Aynama-Rtama, in a few weeks on Nawa Recordings. A tour across the Arab world and Europe is in the works, and Alif has already collected rave reviews from the likes of The Wire ("[A] coiled energy and rhythmic drive propel the pieces"), The National ("[A] rare, powerful moment of melody and dissent"), and The Double Negative ("[I]t was an education we’re glad to have been given").
With such a busy schedule, where does he manage to feel relaxed? "At cafes by the sea or in a cinema," Allami says. "For me, it helps me keep an open mind, to admire and respect that which is different, to be flexible and to have an innate ability to adapt to most environments and situations."
And, where will he be in the next five years? "Geographically, I have no idea," Allami admits. "Professionally, I would like to have a larger back catalogue of artistic creations and my record label running smoothly on its own two feet. Emotionally, a little more balanced. Financially, a little more stable." Wherever Allami ends up, he's sure to have a long-term musical home at Nawa, with a family of artists and fans stretching across the globe.
where do you live — Officially, in London. In reality, I live in/from my suitcase.
favorite neighborhood dinner — I don’t really have a favorite. But for some reason, when I think about restaurants that I enjoy being in, my mind brings up Le Poisson D’Argent and L’Ouisseau Blue in La Goulette in Tunis. They are not spectacular restaurants be any means, and their food isn’t great either, but I have a fondness for them that I can’t quite explain.
luggage — Usually, I have my Oud and a small backpack as carry-on luggage, and for the last few years a Samsonite Firelight. Nothing spectacular, but it keeps my equipment safe and its limited space stops me from overfilling it and traveling with too much. Four wheels are also a must.
gadgets — Airplane headphones adapter (two mono male mini-jacks to stereo female mini-jack), but that’s not really a gadget, more of an accessory.
favorite accessory — Aha! The airplane headphones adapter. Nothing is worse than watching bad airplane movies in a modified aspect ratio with terrible picture quality and horrendous sound. With this adapter, I can at the very least use my own headphones and appreciate the sound design, even in the worst of films.
favorite charity — Any charity that is honestly and transparently supporting those displaced by the bloodshed in Syria and Iraq. And all charities that help cancer patients and their families.
favorite hotel — Although I travel continuously, I don’t really stay in hotels very often. Usually, I prefer to stay with friends as much as possible. But a hotel that I enjoyed staying in recently was the Hotel de L’Amphiteatre in Arles, France. Once, I snuck into the 7-Star Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi with a couple of Iraqi filmmakers and a Latin teacher at the break of dawn. We had a swim in the pool and a barefoot wander around the hotel. That was fun.
favorite apps — Anything that makes traveling, working, communicating and listening to music easier. Currently those are: Gmail, iCal, Google Docs, Google Maps, iMessage, Facetime and Deezer. From a work/music making perspective, Touch OSC is revolutionary, and Cleartune is indispensable for getting one’s Oud in Pythagorean Just Intonation just right. I also enjoy using Korg’s iMS-20 to practice subtractive synthesis “on the go.”
favorite airport — Any airport with a smoking area and decent coffee, preferably a smoking cafe. Not an easy combination. In fact, Beirut airport is the only one I can think of.
favorite airline — Any airline whose staff don’t give me a headache about taking my Oud on board as carry-on luggage.
home is…Wherever I am at any particular point in time. It sounds metaphysical, but really is quite literal.
where would you like to live — The million dollar question. Unfortunately, I only have a utopian dream of an answer: a culturally vibrant city with a warm climate by the Mediterranean sea, less than 20 minutes from a well-connected airport. In a humble house with a humble recording studio, an office to run my label, a decent kitchen and an extra double bedroom for guests. I dream of being a gracious host, to make up for being a guest for so many years. And while we’re here dreaming, it would preferably be in an Arabic speaking country where my friends don’t need a visa, with political stability and where religion and politics are not intertwined. Ah… the beauty of reverie.
where & when were you happiest — That’s not an easy question to answer because there have been many fleeting moments that I experienced which gave me an ineffable positive energy to focus and not stray from my path. But if I had to specifically define a place and a period of time, then it would be when I lived alone in a one bedroom flat in Shepherd’s Bush, London between 15 March and 15 October 2011.
what do you consider to be your greatest achievement — My attempt to follow my true will and try to live a “modern” life as a creative individual with artistic integrity and love for those around me. Attempt being the key word.
what is your current state of mind — A proverbial mess of intuition and reason.
how many trips do you take a year — I really have no idea, but for the last four years I haven’t been in one place for longer than six weeks without traveling. I also perform internationally, so it varies from year to year. Maybe a minimum of 10-15 a year?
how many of those are vacations — Zero. There’s always work involved in some shape or form.
without traveling, you relax by — For me relaxing, as most people would define it, is pretty rare. I also have an incessantly active mind. But I guess the closest would be watching films, particularly by going to the cinema.
won’t board the plane before/without — Having an espresso and smoking a minimum of one cigarette per hour of the upcoming flight. Maximum of four depending on how early I get to the airport and through all the procedures.
indispensable in your carry-on — Laptop, hard drives, headphones (Sennheiser HD-25 mk II) + adapter, notebook.
take-off routine — The take-off is the only moment in a flight where I might be able to fall asleep. I guess it has to do with the hum of the engines and the motion. So I always try to sleep, but I usually fail or I’m woken up by a flight attendant giving me bad earphones or a pointless snack and I spend the rest of the flight in that weird, “I didn’t wake up in the right point of my sleep cycle” mood. Then I try to work or watch a movie, depending on my mood. Listening to music isn’t really pleasurable because of the changing pressure, ears, etc… but sometimes I do it anyway.
first thing you do after landing — Take a deep breath and try to be patient and understanding towards the rest of the passengers, the passport control queues, any other security check-points, airport staff and taxi drivers. I like to be out of an airport as soon as possible, but that’s not always easy. The only way to deal with the whole process is patience, acceptance and not rushing.
travel is…work and life, for now.