Damon Albarn’s Arabic Rapper of Choice is Set to Reprise a Link Founded in Syria
SOURCE: THE NATIONAL
BY: CHRIS NEWBOULD
It had been six years since we had heard a new album or live gigs from Damon Albarn and comic artist Jamie Hewlett’s animated supergroup Gorillaz, when fifth studio album Humanz dropped in April this year. Tomorrow, the Humanz Tour, which kicked off in Chicago in July, will drop anchor in Dubai for Fiesta de los Muertos.
Gorillaz have long been famous for their big-name collaborators, on stage and in the studio, from The Clash’s Paul Simonon and Mick Jones to late soul legend Bobby Womack and hip-hop giants such as Mos Def and D12. This weekend’s gig promises guest spots from De La Soul, Little Simz, Kilo Kish and Syrian singer Faia Younan. The night will also see a homecoming for a name with a distinctly local link. Syrian-Lebanese rapper Eslam Jawaad lived in Dubai for seven years until recently, and will be reprising a role he last took at Gorillaz’ ground-breaking 2010 concert at Damascus’s Citadel. The band were the biggest western act ever to play in Syria, and Jawaad took on rapping duties, performing a specially written Arabic version of the band’s hit Clint Eastwood. At the time, the rapper and the band both hoped the gig would be the catalyst for the start of many more western bands visiting Syria, and vice versa. History has proved tragically different, but Jawaad’s relationship with Albarn and co has continued, and goes back for some time before that night in Syria.
Jawaad first met Albarn during the 2006 recording of the latter’s previous supergroup The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s eponymous debut album. Albarn was looking for an Arabic rapper for a track on the album, and Jawaad’s name came up through a friend of a friend. “We had a meeting just to talk about it, and hit it off so well we basically went straight into a recording session,” Jawaad recalls. “With that song locked down, I went on tour with TGTB&TQ, and after that got involved with some other of Damon’s projects such as Africa Express.”
Noting the frontman’s love of Arabic music and culture, Jawaad initially brought his friend to Syria in 2009, where he recorded with members of the Syrian National Orchestra for Arab Music and conductor Issam Rafea, some of which would end up on the Gorillaz’ third album, Plastic Beach. This initial visit led to the 2010 concert, and also the formation of Africa Express Presents The Syrian Orchestra of Musicians, with whom Jawaad and Albarn toured European festivals this summer. Jawaad is even thanked on the Plastic Beach sleeve notes under his real name, Wissam Khodur.
Jawaad has also had a successful career as a rapper outside of his work with Gorillaz. He has toured with Wu-Tang Clan and Fun-Da-Mental, manages and executive produces acts and events, and was a founder member of the Arap collective, which also included the likes of Malikah and The Narcicyst.
His solo album, The Mammoth Tusk, came out in 2009 – the same year as his ongoing Syrian adventures with Albarn began. Has his friend been keeping him too busy to record new material? “Not at all. Actually, I have a new album all written, but it’s been delayed because the producer I really want to use, in Holland, is busy with movies at the moment,” he says.
Jawaad is now based in London, where he also works as an executive producer for ArtReach, who put on festivals and events across Europe. With his Dubai return imminent, does he have any plans to return on a longer-term basis? “There’s nothing in the pipeline,” he says. “I’m always interested in developing bridges professionally or creatively between the Mena region and West. I’ve always been involved in promoting artists across that bridge. It’s still a second home to me there. I lived there seven years and there are still lots of good people there that I know, so if something was happening that required my expertise in the region, I’d consider moving back. Until then, I’ve got plenty going on in London.”