Mundial Montréal | “Who Are We?” with Al-Qasar

Interview by Varun Swarup

Additional Information

When continents collide, they make a thunderous sound. Al-Qasar create the soundtrack to that fission. Arabian fuzz, they term it, a vision that’s brazenly electric and deeply connected to its roots. The band was started in the Barbès neighborhood of Paris by producer Thomas Attar Bellier, who brought together musicians from France, Lebanon, the USA, Morocco, Algeria, Armenia and Egypt. 

Al-Qasar play November 15th at Café Campus at 10:55pm. 

PAN M 360 : Hey Thomas, thanks for taking the time. Are you tuning in from Montreal then? 

Thomas Attar Bellier : Yeah, we just arrived a couple hours ago. I don’t know if you know it but I’m at Biftek Bar. 

PAN M 360 : Of course. Is it the band’s first time performing in Quebec?

Thomas : It is yeah, and even for me it’s my first time performing in Canada actually. Even though I lived in the US for so long, we’re very excited. 

PAN M 360 : And so are we. Al-Qasar is a really interesting project that you have. Did you always have this vision of making Arabian desert rock? 

Thomas : Well personally I come from the psychedelic scene. This is the scene I grew up in, this is the scene I started touring in when I was a kid. I grew up in France, moved to California at a pretty young age, and then I was immediately exposed to the whole stoner, psychedelic stuff. But at the same time, I did always have an interest in North African music. Growing up in Paris, I was exposed to a lot of, you know, really cool oud players, percussionists, singers,  and so on. So that was, you know, that was a bit of my bipolar musical upbringing.  

And there came a time where I was in LA, collaborating with a Jordanian poet. His name is Farid Al Madain and he came up with the idea, he said, man, why don’t I write some radical poetry in the style of Ahmed Fuadnag – the revolutionary Egyptian poet – and you can compose some really cool psychedelic tracks to go with it. We can do something completely new where we can have this psychedelic rock project with influences from North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, with radical lyrics where we use classical Arabic in a way that it’s rarely been used before.

That was the first version of the idea and then the idea grew to include even more influences because I was really into the Turkish psychedelic scene at the time, which is a scene which was already kind of accomplishing that fusion of old Turkish poetry and old Persian poetry, and mixing it with more like Western psych rock influences, you know?

So those were the early beginnings of the band and that was five years ago now, since then the project evolved a lot. But yeah, the first sessions were very, it was just organic. It was like Farid was just writing poetry and he would just translate it for me and it would just inspire the musical aspects and we would just go back and forth a bunch. But the thing is, Farid’s only a poet, he’s not really a singer. So I had to be really, you know, on top of the musical and melodic aspects.

PAN M 360 : Well your album really shines in those respects. Hobek Thawrat and Sham System especially are some bangers.

Thomas : Thanks, that’s really cool because actually on “Hobek Thawrat” the singer is Alsarah. And we’re actually performing with her here in Montreal. Because you know, at core this band is a collective and the idea is to always collaborate with different artists as much as possible, try to rotate the lineup, perhaps some guests and so on. And Alsarah is someone we’ve been working with a lot lately. We did six festivals with her last summer in Europe and Africa. And she’s back with us in Montreal for two gigs. So that’s really exciting. Because she’s Sudanese, but she lives in New York. So it made sense to invite her for these gigs. 

PAN M 360 : I saw that Lee Ranaldo played on Who are We?, that must have been really cool. How did that happen? 

Thomas : Yeah, the connection with Lee happened through a mutual friend of ours, the gonzo poet Ron Whitehead from Louisville, Kentucky. He’s a guy I have collaborated with over the years. He’s like the last of the beat poets, you know, he’s like this old school guy who’s like carrying the flame of Ginsburg and Kerouac. He used to hang with all those guys and so on. And when I sent him the demos for this new album we’re doing with Al-Qasar, he was like, man, you’ve got to get Thurston or Lee on this record. And I was like, man, I’m into that.

So he made the connection and Lee immediately said, yeah, I’m really digging this sound,

I’m in. That was really cool and he must have sent me like more than 20 guitar tracks. He recorded so much material for the track and it took me I think three days to sort through it and you know just like produce it. At the same time it was breaking my heart because I had to cut a lot of stuff so you know I got all these secret Lee Ranaldo tracks sitting in my hard drive. 

PAN M 360 : Amazing. And It’s amazing too just how many moving parts there are in this project. It must be a logistical nightmare. 

Thomas :  Of course that’s what a lot of people say and I totally agree. But at the end of the day it’s so worth it. You know this project is so fulfilling, in terms of the musicianship we get ot exchange but also culturally, like I feel it was really important for me to do something that was a bit more representative of who we are today as a society you know, like how multicultural we all are. I’m not even talking philosophically, I’m talking like in our daily lives, you live in a big city today, you’re going to interact with people from all over the world. And their culture will permeate in the vibe of your neighbourhood, your city, and so on. And eventually, it’s gonna be part of your life too.

I think that Paris is a really good example for this. Paris has been a very Arab city for about a 100 years, you know, and it’s really a place where in every field, you know, from arts to food, to language, where Arab culture is really present, and I feel like the mainstream is trying to repress it. But at the same time in their daily lives, they totally still eat couscous. 

PAN M 360 : Well in Montreal we just had the Festival du Monde Arabe and it was nice to see a lot of people there. And after hearing a lot of traditional Arab styles it’s very cool to hear it in this rock context. It pushes things forward you know. I imagine people must really dig what you do on stage. What are the logistics of getting this band playing live?

Yeah so the band’s been touring a lot more this year, worldwide, so we’ve decided to simplify a bit the lineup with Sacha Vikan who’s a French Armenian drummer, Guillaume Théodin who’s a French bass player, and Sibel Durgut, who’s a Turkish singer, and she also plays percussion and kawala, traditional flute, and lead vocals, and myself on saz and guitar.  The band started with more musicians on stage, but it was really hard to make it happen and it wasn’t that viable financially. So we just had to simplify, but now it’s like the simplification doesn’t feel like we’re losing some quality or whatever. It’s actually the opposite because now it’s really solidified into a core lineup of people on stage. 

PAN M 360 : And in your live performance, do things kind of naturally get more kind of jammy and loose compared to the record, which is kind of relatively tight you know.

Thomas : Yeah man you’re absolutely right. That’s a bit my style of production in the studio. I like things to be super tight. You know every transition to be a slap in the face. But yeah you’re right in the sense that having this core lineup and having played with them a lot lately has made it a bit more like second nature to easier to introduce jams in the show. 

PAN M 360 :  And so what can we expect at the Montreal performance then?

Thomas : So it’s going to be Alsarah on vocals, as I mentioned earlier, so we’re definitely going to do this “Hobek Thawrat”  track from the last record for which she wrote the lyrics. And yeah, we’re going to do a set with her that we’ve been working on all summer. It’s going to be really good, it’s actually going to be all Al-Qasar songs except one, which will be one of her tunes. We love playing with her. Last time we played with her was in September, we played in Tunis, a really cool festival in the old Medina. And then before that we were on a European tour together and it’s, you know, like getting back on stage with her is just like, you know, the vibe is at 110%.

PAN M 360 : Do you notice a difference in the reaction from the crowds in North Africa versus Europe or the States?

Thomas : Oh, for sure. It’s really interesting because it’s pretty subtle sometimes. Some interesting shows we played were like Egypt and Tunisia, where obviously Secret Service was present in the audience. And it’s like, you know, you’re being watched, but also like audience members know they’re being watched, too. So you feel like people are trying to stay pretty composed and measured, but others just don’t care. And they just want to enjoy and have fun, you know.

But even, you know, through Europe, we so many different behaviours, depending on the country. What’s cool with the band is that we’ve been invited to seated jazz festivals, but we’ve also been invited to like electronic music festivals where we play at 3am. And I love that, you know, it keeps you on your toes.

PAN M 360 : I mean, if you’ve never played Montreal before you’re going to love it, because we love our music here. And you’ve got two live shows in fact. You must be tired!

Thomas : I mean touring is really hard and you get really tired. But the cool thing with this project is that we’re really just like a group of close friends. So the vibe is always super positive, you know. And it’s a privilege, actually, to be a touring artist. Whenever I want to complain, I just need to remind myself like, dude, look at the life you’re living. This is a privileged life guy, like, enjoy it to the max, enjoy it to the fullest.

PAN M 360 : Thanks Thomas, we know it’s going to be a really great show already. 

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