Palestinian artist Huda Asfour's music reflects determination
BY: Adrian Tafesh/Contributing Writer
Like many of D.C.’s finest artists, Huda Asfour has come from elsewhere. An Oud and Qanoun player, Asfour has lived in many different places, and she instills her music with that air of transience, the same that permeates the city she ended up studying in.
Born in Lebanon in 1982 during the Israeli invasion, Asfour and her parents moved from Lebanon to Syria, Tunisia, Gaza, and finally Ramallah in the West Bank, where she began her musical education. This was a couple of years prior to the second Intifada, and she remembers a prosperous time in the city. “That was a golden age in Ramallah, there were shows all week,” Asfour says. “The Ramallah music scene was sophisticated, vibrant.”
She credits the relative stability of the time for fostering optimism and diversity in the scene. In the years following, she says her parents ensured that she would pursue a more typical academic route. Asfour attended a university in Alexandria, Egypt where she began her scientific studies. She followed that up by pursuing further study in biomedical engineering at George Washington and Duke. As impressive and daunting as all of that is, Asfour has not missed a step musically. She records and tours regularly.
“I toured the Middle East in 2012. I got a lot of positive feedback, and also criticism from people who had been waiting for the album.” That tour included a sold out show back in Ramallah. The album in reference is her first release Mars, Back and Forth.
“Mars was written over seven years…it’s semi-autobiographical, speaking to the influence of Mars the god of war on my life.” It’s clear when you listen to her music that it is the sort of thing that is crafted with care overtime, rather than produced in bursts of inspiration as others choose to work. Steady and soulful, Mars’s blend of Arabic folk and contemporary aesthetic is an exercise in reserved boldness. “In general that is my approach, simple can be powerful,” Asfour says. “It’s interesting to see what kind of textures can develop.”
Indeed the landscape of sounds her music evokes shows a clear cut understanding of her original impetus for writing the music. She has spoken about her desire to evoke the feeling of a borderless place, and of defying the conflict that had found her in her youth. Likewise her music shifts in and out of haunting passages of meandering oud and distant vocals. All in all the effect is quite beautiful and gives the impression of one wandering through an alien desert-scape, but with determination rather than hopelessness.
Asfour’s musical journey has not been without its issues. At times western audiences seem to see her as music as being “exotic” and in doing so minimize it, and there are those back in the middle east who find it difficult to stomach the idea of a female Oud player. Its clear however that this of little consequence to Asfour, as she is quick to move on to what her next project will be. “One will involve traditional Iraqi and Tunisian music, it’ll have a very funky vibe. The other is more rock-flavored.” She is also a founding member of the DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival, which is held yearly in the spring.
It seems that there is little room for stagnation in Huda’s plans. Whether it is spending her days “studying the electrical properties of cardiac tissue” as she says on her website, or pushing her music into new realms of sound, the intent is to constantly learn and progress. It’s her life’s experience which enriches Huda’s work, and to her one thing is entirely clear, “the music has to reflect those emotions.”