Sanabel al-Najjar sits with Moroccan musician Al-Khansaa Batma, who merges rock tunes with Arabic music and lyrics, to talk about her musical journey as well as the stereotype surrounding Arab female rockers.
The feminine voice has for a long time - in the Arab World - been associated with traditional folklore and feminine messages. Whether it’s a young Palestinian lady singing a poem wearing the traditional Palestinian dress, an Egyptian woman playing the oud singing for El Sheikh Imam, or another woman singing about the Alps of Lebanon in the heart of Beirut, Arab women’s voices have tended - until recently - to be associated with the ‘gentle’ articulation of certain social and historical issues related to the country.
However, what would be more satisfying than breaking that taboo with a bang? Moroccan Rock singer Al-Khansaa Batma does exactly that, beautifully fusing Arabic lyrics with invigorating Rock tunes while remaining true to messages relating to Arab culture and history. Stereotypes also shatter in the air during her concerts as she manages to rock away the conceptions about women in the Arab world and the music genres they are confined to by society. By managing to create an heavenly audial mix of so-called Western Rock music with Arabic lyrics with local as well as universal messages, Batma brushes away all preconceived conceptions not only about music in the Arab World, but those about women, freedom, and mobility in the field of music in the Arab world and the delicious adventure that is to break its rigid confinement.
To my thrill, I was able to sit a little and chat with Batma at one of the gorgeous little rooms at the D-CAF office in Downtown Cairo. Greeting me with a friendly smile, and agreeing to sit for the interview in a room with the most gorgeous couch I have ever seen, Batma and I sat for a very interesting chat about her novel musical inventions and Arab women singers on the scene. Remaining true to her own culture and her appreciation of it, Batma preferred to talk in Arabic, which was a decision I was thrilled about as I had always wanted to hear the Moroccan dialect.
Batma tells me that she embarked on her now life-long musical journey when she started singing at the age of 17. “I sang with all the energy I had,” she says, adding that despite being a guitarist, she has always felt it was a little limiting because it’s a Western musical instrument that does not always oblige to her Eastern maqaams which include Arabic and Kurdish ones.
When asked about why she didn’t just stick to Arabic music like do most musicians (especially female musicians) in the region tend to do, Al-Khansaa replies that, “I don’t think that a person chooses the music they want to follow and says ‘Oh I want to sing Rock or Pop or Eastern music.’ I think that what I produce is the essence of all the kinds of music that I love. For instance, I love Rock music, Moroccan music, as well as Arabic music, since I grew up listening to all these genres. So, whatever music I make and lyrics I write, emerge from this musical store and so it is not really a choice, but more like something that has affected you.”
Of all the music genres that Batma could have chosen to blend with her Arabic tunes, I had to ask her, why Rock? “I love Rock music because there are aspects to it that you can’t find elsewhere in music. Performing this genre gives the singer a kind of rare freedom, where the only rule that exists is singing from the heart and even screaming if you wanted to express yourself in such a way. This is one of the main reasons why I fell in love with Rock.”
Batma tells me that since she was a child, she would listen to 80s female Rock stars such as “Janis Joplin and Patti Smith, whose performance used to enchant me, especially because of their spontaneity. I would also pay attention to what they wore and the messages they would try to convey in their music and I would compare them to Moroccan singers who sang and performed differently from the rockers.”
That was what mostly drew her to the genre; “Rock music and the way it was performed gives space for viewing women from a different perspective. It makes you think that a woman can express herself in a different way.” Batma of course acknowledges the difficulties of breaking into the music sphere not only as a rocker but also as a female rocker. “Actually, given the different forms of patriarchy existing in various parts of the world, I’d say that singing Rock actually helped rather than hindered my musical career because people already hold the conception that female rockers have very strong characters and so can’t be held by the grip.”
Interested in the term ‘Afrobian’ that I picked up researching the musician, I asked her about what it meant. “Afrobian includes both Africana and Arabian music,” Batma answers me. “We have a Moroccan singer called Ahmad Sultan who sings Afrobian Soul, which includes African music from North African and Arabic maqaams and ahazeej blended with Rock and Soul music, all sung with African and Arabic instruments.”
In her song, Enta (you), Batma sings alongside French musician Unia, with the video clip showing a young man who appears as if he's about to blow up a park in a terrorist attack, but we find out at the end that he was only preparing to propose to his lover for marriage. I brought up the video and asked the songstress about destroying stereotypes through music. “I don’t think that music has only one aim, but many. The main aim, for me, is to soothe one’s soul. I also don’t think that certain kinds of music are superior to others; so, wedding music for instance is for weddings and that’s their aim. That is why I highly dislike the term ‘purposeful music’ (mosiqaa hadifa); as if there is some music that has a purpose and other music that is useless. So, in You, I tried to show a little about what I think concerning stereotypes.”
Batma believes that the Arab Spring and the political upheavals in the area have affected the kind of music emerging from the Middle East. “Before this period, media used to focus on only certain types of music and the message articulated through it. But now, there is a greater variety of music coming to light in the Arab World. I believe that struggles in communities and even friction, changes consciousness and awareness of surroundings, which inevitably drives change.”
I thanked the very friendly Batma who was very happy to be here again in Cairo to sing at D-CAF, feeling very lucky for having the opportunity to have such a genuine and interesting chat with a female musicians that is changing the face of not only music in the Middle East but the women working in the field as well.
Photo shoot by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photography by Osama Selim and Aly Bahr.