Recently, we met up with Jordanian singer Macadi Nahhas. We spoke at length about music, Iraq and the trajectory for culture in the region. Listen to Macadi speak in Arabic about these and other topics. Alternatively, an English transcript of the interview is available below. No matter what language you speak, Macadi’s music is surely to invoke a sense of beauty in your world.
Hello my name is Macadi Nahhas, I am a singer from Jordan and the Arab world. I am interested in Arabic folklore. I sing songs with a purpose, songs that speak about people and their tribulations and their issues and how they feel about them. I try my hardest to get my voice out to everyone.
I started singing at a young age. But, I studied music at an older age because I just didn’t have the opportunity to do so when I was younger. I used to sing at school just like anyone else, but I also felt that it was my passion in life. As I grew up and began thinking about what I wanted to do in life, I always felt that there was something missing in my life until I finally decided that what I should do is sing, and only then did I feel that the pieces of the puzzle that make my life started coming together. Thankfully, I think I am on the right track.
But even before I came to that decision, singing was part of my life. I used to perform with a band called “Al Nagham Al Aseel”, Arabic for “The Authentic Tune,” in Jordan and I would perform sporadically as part of different functions, but it wasn’t full time. Maybe that was the case because I too young to take decisions about my life on my own, and also maybe because I still wasn’t certain that this is what I wanted to do with my life. However, when the decision was made that singing would be my career, and that I would be a singer, I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
I remember how I was mesmerized by my older sister’s voice, and as a kid I would also try and copy her and sing like her, and listen to the music that she was listening to at the time. She eventually went into economics, and not singing, but that was a big influence on me. As a younger student I was into singing so much that I would compose my lessons so I can memorize them, and it was from there that my path towards singing began. My parents tell me now that as a baby, if I ever heard music, I would jump and automatically start dancing before I even knew how to say my first word. I would use the movement of my body to express my joy at hearing music.
Looking back now, I feel that had my parent’s noticed my relationship with music at a younger age, they would have given me a real head start to my singing career, but that’s ok, I think I’m doing well. Growing up in a household where there was a real emphasis on culture and thinking helped me greatly decide on what it is that I want now from my singing. It taught me who to listen to, and who not to listen to, and why it was that I was making those decisions. At home we used to hear everything from very beautiful intonations of the Quran to traditional stanzas or “Muwasha7at” performed by different ensembles and to traditional music from throughout the Arab world. This sort of exposure allowed me to choose my path, and sing music with a purpose.
Just to clarify. When I say songs with a purpose, I don’t only mean songs that are linked to certain revolutionary struggles or political issues, because it might be the case that when these struggles end or change their identity, so will the songs that were attached to them. What I am referring to is that these songs are built on three uncompromised foundations: lyrics, melody and performance. The purpose then becomes to maintain quality and thought in the delivery of these three elements that make up a song. The decision to sing must be thought out. I am ask myself why I am singing, when should I sing, and how and where should I do it. Should I present myself in a way that is sleazy or in a way that is dignified? Should I present them with a song that speaks only to their most basic needs and instincts or something that reaches out to their humanity? Because I think that music and art have a purpose and that is to elevate humans. So if the art is dumbed down and basic, it will have that depressing impact on humans. And, just to note, I think that the best way for music to fulfill its purpose of elevating humans is for it be connected to issue and struggles that everyday people are dealing with. That doesn’t mean it has to be limited to a particular location or time period, because people everywhere are dealing with their own humanity. I want us to make music that talks about that, about what is happening on the street, about belonging, about our family and friends, and about love. But not in a stupid and cheap way because I don’t think of people that are going to be listening to my music as stupid and sleazy.
I think people don’t want to listen to nonsense. Even though I always hear people coming up to me and saying “Hey Macadi, when are we gonna see a music video or clip as it is called and hear a catchy tune?” I’m not morally opposed to these things but that was never the goal of what I wanted to do. I could have easily put together all the building blocks of a pop song and have it listened to by millions, and use the regular channels to fame. But that wasn’t my choice, and I know that my decision not to become just another pop artist was difficult and it would mean that I would have to work much harder, but I think it is worth it.
In the Arab world, unfortunately, there are no producers or organizations that support the kind of music that I am interested in. Maybe they are afraid of it. Maybe they don’t see any money in it. In their minds, it’s: “Yallah, let’s hurry and manufacture artists and yallah let’s put out music videos as fast as we can.” The result is music that all sounds the same. Copy paste. The same melody, the same singers with the same hair color. Everything is like everything else. At the end of the day, all the decision makers in the music recording sphere are nothing more than business men. They want profit, without having to worry either about the quality of the art, nor about the impact the music is having on its listeners.
The last thing music executives are concerned about is whether the people are being elevated through art and whether they are in tune with their culture. At the end of the day, all they want to do is fill their pockets. And business is good! There is no shortage of singers. Every five days, a new singer is popping up on to the scene. Despite this reality, there are many amazing singers in the Arab world. However, they are also forced to put out bland mainstream material just so they can stick around and get work.
But, I think that there is a solution to reverse this depressing state, and it needs a concerted effort, because one person can’t do it on their own. It needs to be a regional project that takes place across the Arab world. We need to start with schools, and work with kids at a young age. We need to insert music and the arts into the curriculum as core subjects. Students must be given the skills to differentiate between cheap and sleazy music and music with a meaning. They need to be able to say this is a good book, and this book is not, this is a play that is worth attending, and this play is not, or this is a commercial film and this one is not. Currently this ability is limited to a privileged few, and usually it is because their parents are nurturing this type of knowledge in them. The majority of people, however, think that the height of creativity and art is embodied in this or that celebrity. A celebrity that is imposed on people twenty four hours a day through TV, posters, on CDs, or on ads stuck to the sides of busses in the streets. People don’t have the right to choose. We need to teach our children at a young age that there are different types of art and creativity that are being made for different reasons, and that you must differentiate and choose.
People should be exposed to good music, so they can spot out bad music when they hear it. We need a regional project that aims to improve cultural production in the Arab world. Decision makers need to work hand in hand with writers, musicians and thinkers from the Arab world to build platforms for Arab culture to thrive. We are forced to live in societies that don’t appreciate our artists, and the result is that these people leave the Arab world. There are so many brilliant Arab artists that are forced to live in places like Europe, because when they were here, no one was paying them any attention, and they didn’t have any means of supporting themselves and their families.
During my studies at the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music in Beirut, I began performing at a small scale, and mostly I would sing songs from Iraqi folklore. Songs like “Ya 3ama,” “Khala Saku,” “Cha wayn ahalna?” “Che mali walee” and others. People liked them and started asking me if these songs were mine, and how was it possible for them to get their hands on them. So it occurred to me that I should record these songs. I tried to record the songs in Beirut, but there weren’t many Iraqi artists in the city at the time. So it was difficult to find someone that could play Iraqi percussion for the track, and bring that Iraqi spirit to the recordings. I decided at the time that I needed to travel to Baghdad and meet Iraqi musicians and seek help from Iraq to record Iraqi songs. I finally decided to work with Mohammed Ameen Izzat, who is a prominent musical composer and arranger. He helped in arranging the songs in coordination with a list of great artists from Iraq such as the prominent Oud player Khaled Mohammed Ali and the composer Hassan Faleh. We eventually recorded the tracks at the famous Hikmet Studio in Baghdad. And that is how I recorded these songs, and my first album.
There wasn’t a company interested in printing and distributing the CDs, so I went back to Beirut and made copies at my own expense. I just distributed amongst friends and people uploaded it to the internet, and when people from abroad would want the CD, I would personally package them and take them to the post office myself. And I would give out the CDs for free. I was still a student, and I just wanted my music to reach as many people as possible. It was a tremendously important project for me because through this CD, which I produced myself, people were exposed to my art and my abilities. In particular, people noted that I was not a native Iraqi speaker and that I was singing from Iraqi folklore. This was in the year 2001, and since then so many people have approached me and said you really started from the opposite end. Most artists would start out with their own compositions before releasing covers of well known pieces. But, I would always tell them that I want to start from the opposite end of mainstream and the norm, and that is why I did it.
I used to always feel that there was something in Iraqi music that I could relate to very closely. Maybe it was the sadness or the wealth of heritage that was found in the melodies and the words of these songs that I would listen to. The connection that was forged between me and Iraqi music was so personal and substantial that I knew I had to record these songs. And when the CD was finally released publicly or commercially, I decided to call it “Kan Ya Makan,” or “Once upon a time.” Baghdad had fallen to the American occupation of 2003, and Iraqi music had taken me to that city, and I thought it was a befitting name.
When Baghdad and I met, after driving for twelve hours across the desert from Amman, I was overcome with a very strange sensation that I had been there before. I felt like I knew the place, and I was even expecting Sindibad to come out from around the next corner. It was very emotional. I felt it was a very intimate city, and I knew that if it were not for the difficult conditions brought upon the city by war, that I would have certainly lived there.
And that is why when I recorded the songs, I was never afraid of the dialect, and whether I would be able to pronounce them correctly. I felt that the words were not difficult, and that they were very familiar. The entire experience was an adventure that I embarked on without any hesitation. I recorded the songs for my own pleasure, but people really responded positively to it because it was genuine and direct to the point. It was not contrived. I sang them in my voice and in a way that was true to my spirit. I hope that my interpretation and singing of these songs was up to standard because I recognize the risk in someone not Iraqi singing songs in an Iraqi dialect, and in particular, the specific dialect from Baghdad. But my passion for Iraqi music was what made the entire endeavor successful in one way or the other.
It is important to understand that all that is different between Iraq, Palestine or Jordan is the accent and not the language. We must never forget that there is an important element that is common amongst us and that is our language. We all speak Arabic. In Europe, they don’t all speak the same language. For many of us, we breathe the same air, drink the same water, and in many ways, eat the same food. We share a common tradition, and live under the same sky. For example, you will find a song in Iraq sang in Palestine, with the same melody, but with different lyrics.
I have hope that people are gradually gravitating towards art and culture that is alternative to the mainstream. Firstly, I think people are bored with the surplus of music that is currently dominant. Secondly, I think there is a new wave of art and music that actually wants to say something important, particularly about the times in which we are living. Artists are no longer quiet. They are examining important and relevant issues through their art. I can see how these artists enjoy tremendous followership on social media networks, and that gives them an outlet to connect with people, because unlike other mainstream singers, they aren’t on TV twenty four hours a day. More and more, shows are getting busier, packed with younger people. I know that the road ahead is difficult, because it always has been. But, I feel that things are heading in the right direction.
We need to work with young people on building a new generation that strives to protect and nourish Arab culture. As artists we should not just run after fame and money and other ways to satisfy our egos. As artists, we are part of society, and we have a responsibility to carry its pains and tribulations. Artists need to have purpose, and even if they don’t complete what they set out to do in their lifetimes, someone will inevitable come along and continue where that artist left off.