For the Kuwait-born singer, beat competitions helped him hear something important in his own music.
[Updated] The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is being remembered in many predictable ways—concerts, speeches, parades, to name a few. Less likely is K10 on The Levee, a day of yoga and music that will take place at 500 Deslonde St. in the Lower Ninth Ward. Lauren McCabe organized the yoga, and +Aziz will provide the music for the 8 a.m. sunrise session and the 6:30 p.m. sunset session. The event is free, and all donations will go to Common Ground Relief.
The Kuwait-born artist known as +Aziz moved to New Orleans from New York last year. He moved from Kuwait from New York to start his music career, and there he got gigging and networking experience, crowdfunding his Soho Spirit EP, but after a while in New York, he decided, “That was fun. Now it’s time to move to a real music city.” He quickly found that New Orleans makes creative projects more possible. Even one as unlikely K10 on the Levee is easier to do here than in New York, although there would certainly be a market for it in both cities.
“Here it’s a little more nimble and people are willing to cut you some slack,” he says. “Permits are easier to get and rental spaces don’t cost as much. Musicians have a little bit more time. It’s been a great move.”
+Aziz meets me for coffee but watched while I had one. It was the end of Ramadan, so he was fasting. His story crosses cultures multiple times as he went back and forth between Kuwait and America at different ages. He learned english and got interested in American pop culture including MTV, VH-1 and Beavis and Butthead when the family moved to Connecticut. In 1994, he returned to Kuwait, where he would wake up at 3 a.m. to tape videos on MTV. “I still have 16 tapes of rock music videos that you can see anywhere online, but back then, that was like my playlist,” he says. He was big on Smashing Pumpkins, and when he was in Amsterdam and found a shop selling bootleg live shows, he binged on them. “I wanted to be as close to that band as possible,” he says.
He was also into The Cure, Korn, The Deftones, and Gorillaz. “Anything grunge was gravy for me,” he says. “Marilyn Manson as well. People who curated their visual identity.” Listening to music on videos stuck, and he has large YouTube and Vimeo folders of videos that he goes to to listen to music, more so that Soundcloud, iTunes or Spotify. “I always felt there was such an important marriage between the visual manifestation of the music and the music itself,” he says.
Being a western music fan in Kuwait required commitment. Getting music required going underground. Like drug dealers who offer up the first taste free, guys would make their own compilations of music and give them away. If people liked a song by one of the artists on the compilations, they could get more music by that artist, but that cost money. “There was a guy who could get you stuff,” he says, dropping into the vague language of almost all covert activities. “He managed to get me the record for At the Drive-In, which was hard to get because all you could get was pop stuff.
“Mail was censored over there, so you needed someone who could get you the real stuff,” +Aziz says, laughing. He admits that the buzz of being a young rebel buying contraband rock was part of the music’s appeal. He had friends in Los Angeles who told him about music he needed to know about, and he had to explain to his connection who or what it was that he needed him to get. “He would be able to find it in three to four weeks, but for that time there was a lot of anticipation. That was definitely part of the experience.”
Napster was an option at the time, but +Aziz wasn’t that into it because he was still attached to the physical object and the associated rituals. “I always liked the idea of putting stuff in my CD wallet and bringing that with me to the car,” he says. “We would have CD swaps with my friends. The associations are very rich.” That connection of the musical and conceptual past as manifested by the tangibility of objects interests him, and the local bands that inspire him are Hurray for the Riff Raff and Benjamin Booker—acts that are in active dialogues with music’s past and present, with New Orleans today and its past, and New Orleans and the country.
“That gives me context,” he says. “I’m very much at the beginning phases of what I’m doing.”
While in Kuwait, +Aziz knew he would return to the States. “I stayed in Kuwait for a year saving up my first 10K, then moved back to New York with ambition to kickstart my music career,” he says. While in Kuwait taping early morning MTV, he also got more into commercial pop than he expected or was comfortable with, and that shows up more obviously in his music than many of his more aggressive influences. Soho Spirit isn’t Boyzone or Mariah Carey—two pop acts he developed an affection for—but a pop sensibility filters through his songs, which are defined by a droning acoustic guitar and a Middle Eastern sense of melody and harmony. He sings in English, Arabic and a Kuwaiti dialect, but his songs are clearly shaped liked songs and hit the same beats that western pop songs hit.
When he moved to New Orleans, he quickly realized that the monolithic notion he had of the music scene was all wrong. He gravitated first toward the folk scene including Cajun music, then brass bands and parade music, then hip-hop. “I started going to these beats competitions,” +Aziz says. “The beat competitions were really interesting because you had people straight out of their bedrooms, getting up there and pressing ‘play.’” After seeing some, he recognized an R&B undercurrent in “RMDN” that he hadn’t consciously put there and that isn’t in other tracks on Soho Spirit. “The beat-centrism, the lushness, the analog instrumentation wrapped inside the ambiance and digital aura,” he says. “That is the sweet spot for me, and whatever I record after this should have that element in it. It made me feel like it was the best thing I’d ever put out there. Good songwriting with good production work.”
These days he’s working with drummers and beat producers to follow in that vein, playing with Khaleeji rhythms next to trip-hop and bounce. “It works out really nicely,” he says.
For K10 on The Levee, his lineup will be more expansive. +Aziz will have a drummer and synth player, but also a bassist, bass player, trombone, clarinet, and sax player.
“I’m going naturally to What do I hear when I’m on the streets? When I’m riding my bike?” he says. “Make decisions on the fly. I’ll take street style pictures, and if I see someone with style, I’ll stop them and ask if I can take a picture and post it to Instagram,” +Aziz says. “It’s not too different from what I do musically.”
Updated August 31, 11:34 a.m.
+Aziz returned to Kuwait and recorded videos in 1994, not 2008 as initially written. The text has been changed to reflect this correction.