Listen in wonder and read research in awe, Nahma: A Gulf Polyphony/نهمة: تعدد الغناء الخليجي is an exceptional example of cultural exchange and is focused on celebrating the music and song of the pearl divers from the Arabian/Persian Gulf – it’s out now via the ever-evolving FLEE label.
The free-divers search for precious pearls, sharing their songs and passing down traditions and stories through generations. The centuries-old practice – among countries including Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – is accompanied by a deep musical culture, based around singing, clapping, hand drums and cymbals.
As ever, FLEE curators Olivier Duport and Alan Marzo have combined cutting-edge production talent, esoteric cultures and historical heritage – having previously explored (and musically reinterpreted) Italian rituals and Kenyan Benga. The label also hosts regular artist retreats as part of their Extra Muros sub-label.
The opener to the compilation – Dub Divers by Tomaga – demonstrates the expanse of the project perfectly, with ethereal chanting of the pearl divers expertly treated by Valentina Magaletti and her percussive mastery. It introduces the listener to 13 tracks of electrifying and edifying music of a little-known culture outside of the region.
“The pearls of the Gulf have stoked the imagination and desire of people around the world for centuries, their magnificence matched only by the courage of the divers who found them,” Olivier says.
The folklore that accompanies the FLEE projects are of huge inspiration to the artists involved, and once again the subject matter brings out the best in those enlisted by the label.
Contemporary and archive photography is provided with the luxurious package, with informative and enriching essays also – alongside the double vinyl release. The historical testimonies from pearl divers perfectly complement the archive recordings of music from the late 50s – beautifully mastered and presented by Jaakko Virtalähde – with jaw-dropping original new works by artists like Hieroglyphic Being, Joakim, Aya Metwalli and YPY.
Chicago based DJ and producer Jamal Moss (a.k.a Hieroglyphic Being), founder of Mathematics Recordings, turns in a characteristic composition of epic house music worship.
The mix of producers here makes this FLEE project the most star-studded. French legend Joakim turns in a percussive rework of pure marimba-esque bliss, utilising one of the most soulful chant harmonies on the comp’:
Alongside such production royalty, Ben Bertrand and Alan Strani’s reworks are slower productions, taking the divers’ chants and forming different directions. Strani’s slower sounds fit somewhere between contemporary psychedelia and mysterious outernational strains of early nineties hybridity. A key feature of the FLEE projects is the musical diversity between artists, who often range from very different performative spaces and bring a unique interpretation to the subject matter.
Bertand’s take is a more languid, ambient affair. A good portion of the compilation showcases the classical composition brilliance of artists, reworking the soul-stirring divers’ chanting into beautiful tonal realms and majestic meditations.
Lebanese-American Tarek Yamani is a pianist and virtuoso, born and raised in Beirut, who taught himself jazz at the age of 19. Since the release of his debut Ashur in 2012, he has been reinventing classical Arabic music within the framework of Black American music in a genre often dubbed “Afro-Tarab” and most evident in his second album Lisan Al Tarab: Jazz Conceptions in Classical Arabic.
Another highlight – although every rework is outstanding – comes from Conny Frischauf, who’s piece is also classically rooted, sparser and on the more minimal side of this diverse range of compositions. Aya Metwalli also provides a dreamy aesthetic.
YPY is an Osaka based experimentalist and is known for his mastery of analogue production, manipulation of cassettes, as well as his skill with vintage drum machines and synthesisers. The Japanese artists has also been involved in groups like Goat, Bonanzas and the Boredoms ensemble – and of course is a perfect fit for FLEE.
As well as the vinyl package, with a coprehensive book about the project, there is also a digital only exclusive track from Tomaga.
The 240 page book in English and Arabic book provides vital context to the pearl divers’ culture and music, with original contributions from experts and artists such as Monira Al Qadiri, Hasan Hujairi, Talin Hazbar, Charles Stang and Abdulla Suwaidi. With past FLEE projects, the documentation has been essential reading and elevates the experience of the music to new heights.
The ethnographic work into the history of the pearl divers in the region makes this project one of the most extensive and widely sources that the label has undertook – particularly in terms of academic research, as well as accompanying artistic endevaours associated with, and inspired by, the past and present pearl diver community.
The four 1950s recordings of pearl divers chanting – that were captured by the late composer and ethnomusicologist Poul Rovsing Olsen – are priceless.
World Treasures Music has covered past projects from FLEE. The label also hosts artist residencies, as part of the Extra Muros… sub-label. The next residency is in Switzerland. Inspired and innovative music is always the result:
FLEE’s Extra Muros launch was in 2019.