‘If you are new to the marshlands you can easily get lost in them and lose your way back.’ Nadah El Shazley, explaining the meaning of Ahwar, her debut album for the Nawa Recordings in an interview with The Wire, translates the word as ‘marsh’ but makes clear what you are getting yourself into listening to this brilliant album. A collection of songs to lose yourself in.
Nadah El Shazley has crafted this material from two years of work, building the songs from their bare bones into compositions involving more than twenty musicians, including Sam Shalabi and Gen Heistek, along with others in the orbits of Montreal labels Constellation and Alien8 . Many of them players in Sam Shalabi’s Land of Kush ensemble. The recording of this album follows Nadah El Shazley’s time in a punk band covering Misfits songs and in the Cairo electronic music underground.
The music created by Nadah El Shazley on Ahwar is a world away from punk covers, the launching of a fascinating artist, distinct even among such a large group of collaborators as has been assembled for this album, the majority of composition her own work, along with the vocals, saz, kalimba, electronics and programming. Marshalling the players into some semblance of the music she imagined must have been quite some undertaking. Take the second track Barzakh (Limen) as an example: flutes, oud clumps of sharp twang and deft spidery tapping sweeps, violins weaving and scraping, multiple saxophones buzzing up a haze. Electronic additions to this mix: clicks and hiss, clean and crisp, swirling echo, the listener pushed off a boat and into opaque, strangely coloured waters. The three-movement structure shifts between the acoustic instruments in part 1, to a second section of electronic processing, to the final movement of throaty ‘ahhhs’ in ensemble singing, the voices sawing and swaying to a close mirroring accompaniment of bowed double-bass. Shazly’s voice sitting atop, wobbling and soaring, like a flitting, swooping, diving bird. It is a wonderful piece of music.
The songs elsewhere, are equally interesting. Traditional instruments, tweaked with contemporary electronics into beautifully augmented shapes. Koala combines another multitude of elements: unhurried, locomotive drums; curling horns, describing out-of-phase spirals; strings, drum pads; a beat pattern becoming steadily more complex; a condensing sound-field, a warm sunrise of a song. The closing track, Mahmiya (Protectorate) plays Ahwar out in fine style. Its bent guitar chords and thin strums initially the only backing to the vocals, the production smearing and psychedelic, all linearity is disrupted by the song become runny, thick segments of its structure glooping off into separate pools. The album ending in a dispersal of sound, a drifting, swooning reverie. And everywhere, sitting high in the mix, Nadah El Shazley’s voice, as winding and extensive as the marshes of this great album’s title.