The interview was conducted over a Skype call – Zahed Sultan in Kuwait City on one end and me in Beirut on the other – the video turned off to avoid the inevitable audio glitches that come with dodgy (internet) connections in Lebanon.
I had my notecards present, and I knew I was asking a somewhat loaded question: “Can it be said that you started a social movement in Kuwait?”
There’s a pause on the other end. “Truthfully, I feel hesitant to answer your question,” he says, “Because the field of civic development shouldn’t be about the individual – it should be about the collective. It isn’t and should never be about me.”
Sultan is a socially conscious entrepreneur who’s alter-ego – the electronic musician and multimedia artist – has garnered international acclaim within the house and ambient DJ cliques in Europe, the US and the Arab world.
Since the release of his debut LP Hi Fear, Lo Love in 2009, he’s produced a healthy catalog of edgy EDM tracks, joining a new generation of live electronic producers in the Middle East along the likes of Maurice Louca (Egypt), OkyDoky (Lebanon), Munma (Lebanon), Wetrobots <3 Bosaina (Egypt), Tarek Attoui (Lebanon), and the audio-visual group Tashweesh (Palestine).
I first met Sultan at the Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) Bass Camp in Dubai last September. He was one of 31 regional artists -producers, musicians, vocalists and songwriters – who participated in three days of worships, studio sessions and guided lectures with music heavyweights such as Kenny Dope (*Masters at Work), Gareth Jones (*produced Depeche Mode, Nick Cave), Just Blaze (*produced Jay-Z) and Derrick May (*godfather of Detroit techno).
I recount the first time I heard his music on the opening day of RBMA Bass Camp. He was among a select group of stand-out producers whose message seemed to resonate with everyone. No doubt part of the reason was that he made it very clear that his music was inextricably linked to his life as a “socially conscious actor” in the Arab world – Kuwait in particular.
The track he played was his single “Like this -ha ka tha,” from his second release The Reuse Me-EP (2012). It featured live doumbek samples that advanced over a range of electronic sounds. The entire track had a running synth loop, creating a melodic drone for Sultan’s modulated Fusha (*classical Arabic) diatribe. As he explains, “I’m calling for Arabs to stand in unity, against tyranny, and with a sense of civic pride.”
According to Sultan, the track was a testament to the social frustrations that plagued the Middle East and North Africa prior to the onset of the Arab revolutions in 2011.
Knowing all of this, I continue probing in our Skype interview. “What your social development organisation, ‘en.v’, does – helping to instill the idea that social responsibility is, as you say, ‘The shared responsibility and collective duty of all.’ I mean the effort to build a social movement is there – and your music bolsters the process, wouldn’t you admit?”
“It is a part of me,” he explains, “I feel that when I express myself through the different mediums – be it through social development or music – I kind of want to be ‘grounded’ in something that I can relate to as an individual and hopefully build a kind of network – you call it a movement. I call it a ‘network.’ Truth is there is a growing population that is so enamored by social media that they are absorbing pop culture all over the world because they’re receiving it at their fingertips or their phones. Why can’t we – as Arabs – be a part of that dialog?”
Sultan is a part of that dialog, utilizing an arsenal of digital tools to get his message out to the world. I was turned on to his music catalog through his online aggregator – Mouse Music (dot) org – that documents all of his artistic exploits. Mouse Music is a single webpage that is linked to nearly every online broadcast medium possible – YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, etcetera. It is a complete exercise in branding.
Indeed, Mouse Music and his social development org en.v are under the umbrella of the El Boutique Creative Group (EBCG), a “multidisciplinary organisation” he founded in 2006 to harness the power of creativity in civil society. It’s a holistic approach, he tells me, that marries civil society actors and social development projects with relevant cultural production.
But in Zahed Sultan’s cosmology, the social movements he is involved with and the music he is producing are in nascent stages of growth, and “need room to breathe,” he explains.
It’s a process he says started over a decade ago after graduating with a business degree from Boston University. Sultan knew he wanted to help facilitate positive changes in Arab society through social entrepreneurship. Equally important, however, was his desire to have music be a part of that process. So after business school, he took a one year sabbatical and got a degree from an audio-engineering school in London – without a real understanding of how the seemingly disparate worlds of music and social entrepreneurship were going to intersect.
Roughly fives years after graduating from audio-engineering school, and after en.v and El Boutique had grown to a point of relative sustainability, he began gearing his studio time toward the production of his first album. He tells me that in the four years prior to jumping into the studio to produce his album, and during the course of his work with en.v and El Boutique, he found himself getting away from his original intent of producing a new brand of electronic music.
“At that time,” Sultan explained, “I was dipping my hands into more corporate-related sound work. I had a division of El Boutique that was outfitting commercial spaces with sound systems, and the music I was producing in my studio used to go in them. And the work was kind of sucking the soul out of something I loved.”
Understanding that he didn’t want the artistic aspects that were tied into his social development work “corrupting” what he described as a sacred part of his own personal artistic experience, he began to rededicate his studio work towards his independent musical identity.
Sultan tells me he also believed in the idea of mentorship, and actively searched out people in the region and internationally who had achieved a certain degree of success in music production – people that he could “shadow” in order to push himself to that next level artistically.
Perhaps it was a bit naïve to think that artists would consent to this kind of teacher-student relationship. “I didn’t find those people,” he said, adding, “I’d looked for the same mentorship opportunities in my social development work.” In both cases, he found himself on his own, forging new paths without a blueprint for success.
When he finally did sit down to record his first album, he’d spent years conceiving of what he wanted to make musically, his ideas had become more complex, and he was finally able to embrace a new, more mature self in the studio.
In 2009, he released Hi Fear, Lo Love – an 11-track LP that showed a wide range of musical influences, and was made up of what he told me were “all the bits and pieces of music I was working on over the years.”
The album had an edgy pop-sensible electronic feel without being mainstream. It showcased musical and lyrical influences from his dual heritage – his father is Kuwaiti and his mother Indian – and was geared towards a generation of Arabs who had become indifferent to traditional forms of Arabic music because “it had become so formulaic and processed.”
“I thought – how could I create a sound that harmonises our experience being abroad and our experiences locally so that – like with a popular Spanish song – people would find it beautiful. Why aren’t people listening to an Arabic song and also finding it beautiful – worldwide – even if people don’t understand the lyrics?”
The albums first single “I Want Her But I Don’t Want her,” – “the most experimental song on my first album” – was picked up by Parisian Dj Stephane Pompougnac for his acclaimed compilation Hotel Costes. MTV Iggy singled out Sultan’s track “Walking Away” as the sign of an emerging global artist to be on the look-out for.
Sultan tells me that he learned some very valuable lessons during the making of the first album, namely embracing the process of creatively opening himself up to the public creatively without fearing the consequences. “To write music, I personally believe that you have to be vulnerable and you have to be open to being vulnerable and embracing vulnerability. And so what happened during my first album was I was forced to expose myself creatively,” and he says, “I stayed vulnerable from that point onwards.”
Now Sultan’s second as of yet unnamed full-length album is due to be released by early spring. Almost three years in the making, Sultan returned from a stint living and working in Los Angeles last summer with much of the material for the new album in the can. Upon his return from LA, he tells me that he decided on a criterion for whittling down 14 produced tracks to the eight that are now on the album.
According to Sultan, we can expect the same “ingrained electronic sound” that he’s been developing – especially through his live performances the last couple of years. Secondly, he’s intent on reproducing the “live-sound” experience on tape so that it lacks that almost perfect, almost sterile syncopation that occurs when using software-hardware interfaces like Ableton. (“I don’t want everything to be perfect when I produce.”)
Lastly, he wants to push the elements of creative mixing that will give listeners a feeling of immersion within each track, making it almost “experiential” by using dynamic panning processes. “We do have two ears,” he says, adding that the effect of the album will be different depending on the broadcast source – car, home stereo system, studio monitors.
Sultan is also introducing a new element to his live shows in 2014, with a gig in Kuwait City in April that will feature the work of a team of visual artists from India whom he is working with to projection map an entire theatre. He’ll be taking that “immersive” audio-video experience on tour with him, and throughout this process he explains, “The way it sounds live is going to evolve – the way I present it visually is going to evolve – and that’s when I think you have to kind of be open to change and being adaptable to the different types of contexts I’ll be in.”
In the end, whether its through his work as a social entrepreneur or a musician and multimedia artist – his main goal is to give himself a chance to connect with people.
“If I can give this body of work to someone who doesn’t know who I am –and in some form or manner it resonates with them, then I’ll feel like I will have done something important.”