Zahed Al Sultan
Zahed Al Sultan Image Credit: Supplied

Kuwait City: Spending an immense amount of time in his London apartment, due to the COVID-19 lockdown, artist Zahed Al Sultan began to re-explore Arab culture and traditions through multimedia and music.

Drawing inspiration from his Kuwaiti-Indian heritage, Al Sultan began experimenting with old iconic songs by adding new sounds, like strings and deep synths, to create a bridge between familiar songs of the past and new tunes.

Although as a multimedia artist, Al Sultan has been creating cultural and musical pieces for a while, his latest music release ‘Layl’ is a combination of an homage to the 70s disco song ‘Do You Love Me’ by Lebanese group The Bendaly Family as well as a glimpse into the new direction he is taking: imaginating old pieces with a new perspective.

“For our culture to pass through time and resonate with people of different generations, it needs to be rethought, reimagined and replaced,” Al Sultan told Gulf News.

While the song is a tribute to the famous Lebanese band, Al Sultan only used a portion of the song, and by taking a darker and more sombre path, the song took on a deeper meaning of love and loss.

Al Sultan explained how ‘Layl’ was released a few weeks after the tragic Beirut blast and that he was “moved by the coincidence” as the song resembled the current reality of Lebanon.

Culture reimagined

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Walking down a new path, Al Sultan is looking to release music more frequently that explores classic cultural works and reintroduce them in a new light.

“My approach is to first explore and understand the piece before reimagining it so it does not seem superficial and one-dimensional. The whole point of recreating old pieces is to celebrate our heritage in a new manner,” Al Sultan pointed out.

This process and way of thinking is not new to Al Sultan, as he created a methodology, while working on his past project Hiwar, that looks at heritage with a new mindset.

Since 2016, Al Sultan has been working on Hiwar, a performance piece that explores Bahri music, otherwise known as pearl diving music, in a modern way.

“Although pearly diving was an important part of our history, I felt that I didn’t have a deep connection with it and there was a false sense of nostalgia. So I thought to myself, how can I rethink Bahri music so it can resonate with today’s generation,” Al Sultan said.

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Dating back to over 100 years, pearl diving was the main economic factor of Kuwait, as well as the larger Arabian Peninsula. Men would go out to sea for about four to six months, thus creating a sense of uncertainty and longing for both the pearl diver and their families.

While pearl diving is an important chapter in Kuwait’s culture, it has been romanticised in a way that glorifies suffrage but forgets the music that came out of it. The long days at sea created a new form of music that was used as a coping mechanism, as well as a way for the pearl divers to organise their work rhythmically.

“There is a lot of pain behind pearl diving, but also a sense of brotherhood and a space for meditation. All of these factors are part of Bahri music, which unfortunately was lost as Khaleeji music became more commercial,” Al Sultan explained.

Performing across the world and the UAE, Al Sultan was able to develop Hiwar into a cross generational story that shed light on modernity vs heritage.

Importance of culture

One of the challenges Al Sultan faces is that, “there is a sense of ‘purity’ mentality when we think about culture, where we think culture is pure and should not be changed.”

Al Sultan is trying to change that mentality, emphasising the importance of reimagining culture in a new light but in a manner that celebrates it rather than exploits it.

In addition, his upcoming work will also have a social context, where he brings up social issues happening around the world.

“During the pandemic, there has been a lot of rhetoric about how art and music are crucial to our mental well being and how creating and exploring are important to overcome trauma,” Al Sultan explained.