Saturday, August 20, 2005

Mutamassik, Masri Mokkassar: Definitive Works (Sound-Ink Records)

If the world were more just, the public more discerning, the Italian-Egyptian-American producer/turntablist mutamassik (born, Giulia Loli) would be much more renowned. I first encountered her work on a cut called “Complicity M28 Mix,” from Arto Lindsay’s album “Mundo Civilizado - Remixes” (1997). It starts with a short refrain from an Arab orchestra, then proceeds to wreck, cut up, deconstruct and scratch to bits the original Lindsay cut, on occasion inserting more Arab fragments of voice and orchestra. (The only lyric you hear from Lindsay is, at one point, “silence.”) I found it amazingly inventive and loved the insidiously clever ways mutamassik injected the Arab material into Lindsay’s Brazilian-tinged mix. I’ve been trying to track down mutamassik’s material ever since, but it’s not always been easy to find. A friend sent me “KMT Babomb USA,” an e.p. with two cuts, “Immigrants On Course” and “Sa’aidi Hardcore.” For some reason it took me awhile to get it, but I’ve really come to appreciate how, on “Sa’aidi Hardcore” (the Sa’id is Upper [southern] Egypt, and Sa’idis are considered backward hicks by educated Cairenes), mutamassik manages to interweave rap, drum ‘n’ bass, Egyptian orchestra, and Sa’idi beats so effortlessly.

I particularly love mutamassik’s album “Bidoun (Stateless),” a live session recorded live in Brooklyn in 2002 for Bidoun, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (2003). (The fact that this was put out in the UAE indicates the existence of a cool club scene there that I knew--and still know--almost nothing about. I hope someone enlightens us. For a hint, go to On “Bidoun” mutamassik goes beyond Egyptian music and messes with music from all over the Arab world. On tracks one and two she uses and cuts up a folk song (from the Omani Revolutionary Army[!}), with female vocals and ‘ud and percussion, bleeding it cleverly into a US rap cut. (You have to have an incredible archival knowledge, and memory, to identify all the samples, and I just can’t do it. One of the amazing things about Mutamassik as a turntablist is her expert knowledge of both Arab and hip-hop tracks.) My favorite cut on Bidoun is track seven. Here she takes one of Cheb Khaled’s well-known numbers (“Habibti Madjatch,” with Chaba Zahouania) and just lets it run, but cuts it up & fragments the hell out of, slowing it down, repeating sections, ripping them up. I especially like how she makes the accordion-sounding keyboard instrumental prelude stutter and pause for the first 20 seconds or so. I’ve been listening to rai for years, and I find that mutamassik’s cut-up of Cheb Khaled makes me contemplate more deeply the various intricate elements that go into constructing this song.

Then there’s “Rough Americana,” recorded live with her husband Morgan Craft, a guitarist (or rather, “stunt guitarist”) who has played with the likes of Talib Kweli and Meshell N'degeocello. “Rough Americana” is much more experimental, less about the breaks and more about a sound assault/collage. Recorded in 2002, it’s a kind of avant-garde commentary on life and politics in the imperial US, post-9/11, an evocation of a state of emergency. (And mutamassik drags in sounds from all over, not focusing on Middle Eastern material.) I admire “Rough Americana” but I can only listen in small doses. It agitates me, it makes me nervous and edgy, and I suppose that is the point.

“Definitive Works” (released this June) gives us a bit of the feel of “Rough Americana” on the cut, “High Alert A'ala Teta (Interlude For Granma),” which with its helicopters and sirens and other ominous tones, suggests everyday realities in a neighborhood under occupation. Then a belly dance beat picks up, and vocals and Arab orchestra riffs and strange keyboard riffs, and we get a sense of resistant, urbanized, polyglot life. The rest of the cuts on “Definitive Works” are more upbeat than “High Alert.” They do an amazing job of giving us a complex understanding of the funkiness and deep bassness of belly dance and other Oriental rhythms, as these are cut up and reassembled and woven into and out of and supplemented by hip-hop and junglist rhythms. In some ways what mutammasik is doing here is coherent with the project of Natacha Atlas (and others like her): insinuating Middle Eastern music into the Western scene by incorporating it into recognizable frameworks (in the case of mutamassik, avant turntablism), thereby rendering Middle Eastern culture less “foreign” and more human and comprehensible. By fusing elements of Middle Eastern and Western (and in particular, African-American) musics to create a funky hybrid, the us/them, East/West dichotomies are broken down or at least brought into question. Inshallah, and assuming that audiences get it. There’s something more going on here as well, as mutamassik seems to have an additional project in mind: an effort to suggest the African roots of Egypt, to problematize its Arab identity. The belly-dance/hip-hop alignments point to an Afro-oriental as opposed to a purely Arab Egypt. I think this is part of what mutamassik is getting at in the title, Masri Mokkassar (broken Egyptian). She elaborates on these ideas in an article posted on the Rough Americana website (scroll down to “De-Nile”). This project makes sense given the fact that her mother is an Egyptian Copt whose family is originally from the Sa’id, Egypt’s hinterland. (To suggest that Egypt is “African” is controversial in Egypt, to say the least.)

I am sorry that “Rough Americana” and “Bidoun” are not represented here (and so I wonder how this collection then is “definitive”). On the other hand, most of the material here is from sources that I was not able to put my hands on previously, and it’s all, in its own way, great. Perhaps this is not the definitive mutamassik collection, but is in essential one.

Mutamassik and Morgan Craft--unfortunately for us--are now based in Italy, and I don’t know when we in the US will have the chance to see them perform here again.

postscript/APOLOGY: In my article “Islamic Hip-Hop versus Islamophobia,” in the volume Global Noise, edited by Tony Mitchell, I ended by noting that, in contrast to England and France, the US had not seen the emergence of an Islamic hip-hop scene. (I wrote this in ‘98, the book came out in 2001.) I suggest that mutamassik might portend the emergence of such a scene, out of the DJ scene. I know regret writing this, because mutamassik is not Muslim, and because the statement has now taken on a life of its own. Hesham Samy Abdel-Alim has published an article about global, and especially, US Islam and hip-hop in Al-Ahram Weekly (“Hip hop Islam,” 7-12 July 2005). In it he writes, “I am currently conducting research to uncover more of these Islamic nation-building activities within the hip hop nation. For example, what do we know about NYC's Egyptian female rapper Mutamassik (meaning "tenacious" in Arabic)? What are her personal struggles, and how has she contributed to [Islamic] nation-building activities through and beyond her music?” Since elsewhere Abdel-Alim cites my “Islamophobia” article, I assume I am the source of his questions about mutamassik (although I never called her a rapper). Unfortunately, I’ve also seen this article show up on other blogs (like Planet Grenada). Anyway, I feel it was wrong to bring mutamassik up in this context, without explaining carefully how as a Copt she might relate to the larger trend of Islamic hip hop.

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