Amman's unique jazz festival improvises with virtual celebrations

Amman's unique jazz festival improvises with virtual celebrations
5 min read
06 November, 2020
This year's Amman Jazz Festival is forgoing international performers and showcasing local talent in a variety of genres, with festivities taking place on the streets and online.
Musiqa al-Daraj will show indie performances on the MMAG Foundation staircases of old Amman
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, online initiatives have been launched across the globe in a bid to compensate for the loss of physical events associated with arts and culture.

In Jordan, one such project has been the 9th annual Amman Jazz Festival (AJF), which for the first time will take place both digitally and locally from 5-10 November. 

Founded in 2012, the AJF aims to provide a platform and space for performers to express their musical artistry to the entire world, or at least this year, to Amman's locals and online viewers. Under normal circumstances, the AJF also aims to fuse talent from abroad with local performers.

"Throughout the years, inviting international performers to Amman has not only encouraged collaborative work, such as the initiation of new projects to be performed in the near future, but also gives Jordanian musicians a feeling of empowerment and connection with the rest of the world," Lama Hazboun, founder of AJF, told The New Arab.

With its literal translation being 'music on the stairs', Musiqa 3al Daraj's location is well suited to Amman's idiosyncratic landscape of hills and valleys

To ensure that AFJ's aims are met, workshops and masterclasses, usually organised via residency programs, are held. Adapting to the new world we are living in today, programmes are now being held online to help give musicians and local performers the opportunity to connect and learn both prior to and during the festival.

Alongside the 10 performances at AJF, part of the festival this year will be the ground-breaking "Musiqa 3al Daraj", a side concert co-organised by Orange Red and Goethe-Institut Jordanien. Taking place on the winding MMAG Foundation staircases of old Amman, the concert will spotlight eight performances exclusively focusing on Jordanian indie music.

Musiqa al-Daraj organisers set up a concert on
Amman's iconic staircases

With its literal translation being "music on the stairs", Musiqa 3al Daraj's location is well suited to Amman's idiosyncratic landscape of hills and valleys, as well as the cascading and climbing urban developments. Serving as both direction and destination, the stairways of Amman have become key attractions in navigating the history of the city, which are in perpetual dialogue with its fast-growing and increasingly diverse population.

Prior to the pandemic, this dialogue would have strengthened physical connections within neighbourhoods, and in the context of AFJ, allowed the audience as well as passers-by to embrace new and unfamiliar kinds of music. 

These experimental yet intimate performances not only bring the city's stairways to life, but also help forge a new identity for Amman, no longer the conservative capital it once was.

"Besides from creating an unforgettable experience for the audience and performers, this festival is unique in the sense that when we search for performers, we don't just feature talents who we think the Jordanian audience will love and accept," Hazboun told The New Arab.

"Even if the act is slightly out of the ordinary or shocking for some, we will accept and book them in, as long as their music is musically correct, of utmost quality, and has something to offer to the festival."

These experimental yet intimate performances not only bring the city's stairways to life, but also help forge a new identity for Amman

Although this year's festival will be a different experience for all parties involved, AJF's organisers have been incredibly adept at overcoming obstacles stemming from the pandemic. Following the easing of lockdown restrictions in Jordan, a major obstacle has been uncertainty around funding, particularly from partners financing the festival to support performing artists from European countries. 

Despite there being no international performers this year, the European Union, the European Union National Institute for Culture in Jordan and the Institut Francais have maintained their funding and in their own words, "expressed their joy and determination to support local musicians and the independent Jordanian music scene overall," said Hazboun. 

Instagram Post

Through the maintenance of funds, the AJF team have been able to welcome new opportunities, such as showcasing music not only focusing on jazz but other genre styles too, including jazz fusion, Latin, indie pop, alternative Arabic, classical Arabic, and electro. 

The inclusion of different genres at AJF is significant because Amman's jazz scene is relatively small and tends to revolve around music written by early jazz composers. According to Hazboun, there are only a few Jordanian artists who select jazz as a genre preference, with the reason being that Jordan does not have many specialist jazz schools or academies, as well as there being virtually no jazz postgraduate programmes to enrol in. 

The reality is that most Jordanian jazz artists are self-taught, with a very small handful having the opportunity to study their craft abroad in places like Boston's Berklee Global Jazz Institute.

While on the subject of music genres, this year's festival will be showcasing new and innovative projects, such as ALMAS, meaning "souls" in Spanish and Portuguese. Led by Jordanian guitarist Khaled Tawfiq, the ALMAS project will combine classical guitar with flamenco, and for the very first time, will welcome vocalist performances from Jordanian singer Ramz Sahuri, Chilean-Canadian singer Loreto Quidel, and Swedish singer Kristin Hagegard. 

In an attempt to enrich the variety of talent and sound in the project, the vocalists will also be accompanied by drummer Abed M Alfaqir, keyboardist Adnan Sorekh, bass guitarist Awss Marji, and percussionist Maher Hanhan. 

"Each artist's part of the project has their own style and background. The mixture of talents reminded me of different souls coming together to give off their energy and art. Naturally, the term 'almas' came into mind," said Tawfiq in response to the inspiration behind the project's name. 

In an additional twist, the AFJ will also be introducing a jazz talks project to complement this year's performances. Broadcasted online on a fortnightly basis over four months (November 2020-February 2021), it has been predicted that the interviews with performers from the Middle East and Asia will become an important historical record for jazz not only from these regions but globally as well.

The talks can be uploaded to jazz singer and AFJ consultant Michelle Rounds' YouTube channel. Performances from AFJ and Musiqa 3al Daraj, will be available to watch on the AFJ YouTube channel from next week onwards.

Zainab Mehdi is a freelance writer and Research Assistant at the LSE Middle East Centre.

Follow her on Twitter @zaiamehdi