“We did something really crazy,” smiles vocalist Rima Khcheich . “I’m an adwar specialist but I’ve never recorded a dawr because I work with Dutch musicians. ... And I’ve wanted to record this dawr since I was 12.
“Dawr is a very difficult form [of Arabic classical music]. It’s impossible to do with Western musicians, aside from playing the melody. The form also has a choral component.”
The tune in question, “Dawr Ibtissam al-Zahr,” combines the music and poetry of ‘Umar 'Arif al-Qadi' and Zakariyya Ahmad. It’s the final number of Khcheich’s latest album, “Hawa” (Air). The vocalist’s amused recollection of recording this song suggests some of the challenges confronting her approach to classically informed musical experimentation.
“After trying a few things, we decided they [should] play the interludes and the choral parts, in answer to [my vocals].”
Khcheich describes how the call-response pattern repeatedly stumbled because her musicians kept missing their cues. Ultimately the sound engineer told her to ignore them and keep singing. Then they started again, with the vocalist individually cuing each musician’s accompaniment. A little more than nine minutes long, the song took five hours to record.
“So I sing alone and they answer, a cappella, but with instrumental interludes and chorus. ... At some points, only the bass answers me. Sometimes only the clarinet answers. Then, for the last two bars of the song, the rhythm follows the vocals.
“In this, I think, we made a major change to the original. I’m curious about [what] the Arabic music fundamentalists will say about this.” Khcheich laughs as she mimics the outraged interrogation, “‘What did you do?’”
“Hawa” is a two-natured thing – a loving exploration of one form of the classical Arabic repertoire and a bold experiment to liberate it from the deadening conventions of contemporary musical practice.
Eleven of the CD’s 12 tracks are muwashahat – a form that combines witty poetry with playful vocal improvisation . Muwashahat were devised with the Arabic ensemble in mind – centred on qanun, nay, oud and percussion.
The music on “Hawa” follows Khcheich’s practice of framing the classical canon within jazz modalities. As with her 2008 album “Falak,” her core accompanists are Dutch – topflight session musicians clustered around her longtime collaborator, contrabassist Tony Overwater – punctuated by the riq (tambourine) of master percussionist Ali Khatib.
Khcheich feels particularly attached to muwashahat, a form that – putting aside “Min Sihr Oyounak,” her 2012 salute to the Lebanese vocalist Sabah  – she has recorded on all her albums. An entire album of muwashahat is an unusual thing, but the vocalist had her reasons for recording one.
“Muwashahat are the most fun of the classical Arabic forms,” she explains. “Usually they’re short, with rhythms that cut the poetry in interesting places. ... This is one reason.
“Secondly, I know a lot of them. When I was young I performed in an ensemble that did a lot of muwashahat. I memorized about 500 them.
“In the previous albums,” Khcheich continues – “Orient Express” (2002), “Ya Lalalli” (2006) and “Falak” (2008) – “the muwashahat are on a scale that can be played on saxophone and drums. ...
“For ‘Hawa,’ I exchanged saxophone for [Maarten Ornstein’s] clarinet, an instrument that could be more flexible. [That allowed me to] choose the muwashahat I want.
“I also wanted to record muwashahat that are not known. ... People always sing the same old songs. I made sure to choose old muwashahat that do not have great recordings, or a recording available for everyone. You may find recordings but ... you won’t find them in a music shop.”
“Hawa” was recorded live in Holland in a stressful two-day studio session. The freedom to perform a wider range of muwashahat came at the price of teaching the form to musicians who don’t understand Arabic – vital, as their cues are linked to the line breaks in the poetry.
Only Overwater knew quartertones – which don’t exist in Western music – self-taught over years playing maqamat with Khcheich. Otherwise she had to transcribe the tune’s rhythm and sing the melody along with the clarinettist (whose instrument most closely complements the voice), later correcting the quartertones.
Equally challenging is controlling the tempo, since a single muwashah can feature four different tempos.
The poetry of muwashahat is also challenging, she continues, making her preparations to record “Hawa” a bit of a research project.
“Even if you’re a great Arabic speaker, you can’t understand some of these lyrics,” she says. “I love Arabic. I’m good in Arabic. I’ve sung these songs since I was very young, but I never knew the meaning. So before recording I sat with an Arabic expert and we searched together for the meaning of the poetry.
“Usually I don’t put all the lyrics in my CD leaflets. [This time] I made sure to put everything, including the rhythm and the maqam. I sought out who wrote the poetry and the music. This is also very hard because we don’t have any books on the subject in Arabic, and most of the old recordings have nothing about the composers. Something like 70 percent [of this album’s lyricists and the composers] are unknown.”
Complementing the complexity, and occasional obscurity, of the muwashahat’s poetry is their weighty musical composition.
“Musically, if you have a rhythm of 24, it’s impossible to make it light. It’s a long rhythm, so it is heavy. It’s beautiful because it’s heavy, but I’m not sure everyone can take it. That’s why this album is difficult,” she laughs again, “more difficult than all my previous recordings combined.”
“I was honestly afraid that to perform it on stage [in its entirety] would be too heavy for the audience,” Khcheich says of her Beirut CD launch concert in April. “So I included a few of my old songs, to change the mood a little.”
The consolation of these many challenges is the performance. Khcheich’s object is to shake off the convention that has the orchestra echo the vocalist’s lyrics instrumentally.
“I was in the U.S. working with an Arabic ensemble recently,” she recalls, “I had to keep telling them, ‘Please, play the interludes, bas. Really, in the old recordings, they never played every single note. It’s bad taste.”
Maqamat aficionados will find many of Khcheich’s arrangements rather slower than those of contemporary convention. Her musicians abide by the forms and rhythms of each maqam, while using jazz techniques like syncopation to play around the rhythms.
“There is more room for improvisation and fewer instruments,” she says. Arabic musicians “always tell me, ‘You are alone on stage. Why don’t you bring an oud with you?’
“I really am alone,” she acknowledges. “It is difficult but I like it. Some of the songs, I swear to God, there is not a single note that tells me where I am, if I am right or not – especially the tunes with harmony, because I don’t know how to follow harmony. Honestly, I listen while I’m singing, and I search for a note to know that I am on the right track. Sometimes I never find this note.”
Then she laughs again.
Rima Kcheich and her sextet will perform tunes from “Hawa” at Jordan’s Jerash Festival  on July 4 at 8:30 p.m. “Hawa, Muwashahat” is released by Jazz in Motion Records and can be found in select Beirut record shops.
By Jim Quilty