There’s an old mantra from the heyday of the Surrealists: take two elements that we’re taught don’t work together and combine them. If you’ve truly committed, the results won’t only work, they’ll be profound.
This is probably the best way to describe the music of Excentrik. His songs use plenty of samples and break-beats, and have the occasional rapped verse, but none of them could be called hip hop. Middle Eastern instrumentation, including oud and doumbek, feature prominently on several tracks, but the oblique, mushy category of “world music” falls short too. Fuzzed-out keyboards and distorted guitars aren’t enough to make his music punk, though the spirit is certainly there.
“Loungy,” the opening track on his latest album Now Here Nowhere, released this past fall, seems an excellent example. It’s entirely instrumental, but somehow the combination of the oud’s lilting twang and a familiar rock drum-kit beat conveys a sense of the mysterious emerging into plain sight. For Western listeners, daily-fed spoonfuls of Orientalist thought, taught that the Arab world is one of mystical irrationality, this experience can be a prescient one.
Reflection of struggle
Born Tarik Kazaleh, Excentrik is Palestinian-American. Though both of his parents were born in the US, his grandparents, aunts and uncles were born in Palestine. Kazaleh tells me in an interview that much of his life has been characterized by a search for where exactly the American ends and the Palestinian begins, or vice versa.
“The name Now Here Nowhere is a reflection of that struggle — either in Palestine or the States I’ve felt a strange duality of identity, personally and musically,” Kazaleh says. As he was recording the album, even he was sometimes struck by how seamlessly the music of the West blended with Middle Eastern and Arab sounds.
“When the record was being cut, there was many a moment when all that was being pointed out by people who’d be like ‘dude that shit sounds hella Arabic’ and I’d be thinking it was hella Western. But that’s been my deal for quite a while — even when I was primarily just rapping, there was always a Palestinian voice within it all.”
That Palestinian voice isn’t always integrated so subtly, such as when he samples British MP George Galloway telling off a belligerent interviewer: “You don’t even know about the Palestinian families! You don’t even know that they exist!” Other tracks bring the story back stateside. The message communicated in the hard-edged, manic title track is rather unmistakable: greedy politicians and mortgage-lenders get their comeuppance.
Obvious as these moments are, they hardly seem out of place. In fact, given the eclectic, unpredictable musical context, their gravity is only enhanced. Moreover, these upfront moments themselves lend graceful meaning back to the sonic collision that Excentrik has coalesced.
Thinking about it in terms of pure logic, Spanish guitar and wavy pyschedelics wouldn’t work on the same track, and yet on “Dheisheh,” they do. Same for “Somebody At My Door.” One second, it’s delicate strings caressing your ear (including The Electronic Intifada’s own Nora Barrows-Friedman on cello), then the menace of heavily-distorted vocal samples and delicate female singing running side-by-side.
“There’s somebody at my door,” the female voice sings, “and I’m not sure it’s you.” Who is she talking to? A jilted lover? An angry landlord? Immigration authorities, their deportation warrant in hand? We have no idea, but throughout, the feeling of the old and new, concrete and tangible, dangerous and familiar, East and West, global South and global North, are meeting somewhere in between.
“I really want people to get a sense of uniqueness,” Kazaleh tells me, “be it within the messages and especially the musicality. I didn’t want to ‘anthemize’ the music. I also didn’t want to be so general that it’s on some ‘fuck this, fuck that’ amateur shit.”
As an MC, Excentrik’s flow is often as smooth as it is spiky. And yet there’s something almost deadpan about his delivery. It doesn’t lack emotion — there’s plenty of that — but he seems perfectly comfortable relating stories that, if one thinks about it, are absurd, almost macabre.
One thing about the absurd, though: it has a habit of becoming reality, and Excentrik’s ability to communicate that in the subtlest way is his greatest strength. Take, for example, this snippet from “Go Down Standing”:
But bygones ain’t bygones
When my home’s been cluster-bombed
And I hold these memories of smoke and twisted pylons
Whose piece of the pie gone
Yet they wonder what our mind’s on
Fuck that peacefulness, I’m on some freedom shit
Let’s get this fight on!
Blunt? Yes, but deceptively so. The notion that obliteration of one’s home can be a “bygone” is completely messed up in itself, but it’s also the basic line of so many who keep the status quo running — whether their house has been physically destroyed or simply taken by the bank.
A contradiction to revel in
The same might be said for juxtaposing peace and freedom. How often do we hear from oppressive rulers that those who oppose them hate peace or freedom? How many times have both been snatched away in their own name by these very same rulers? And how many times have those at the short end of the stick been forced to remind the world that words mean nothing unless they have humanity at the center of their meaning? Contradictory though it all might seem, it’s all too undeniably real.
If one is really honest with themselves, then it’s not hard to see this kind of strangeness as a daily feature, and the fact that it’s so often justified by this or that leader or mouthpiece makes it all the weirder. Starvation in the midst of plenty, whole sections of the planet cordoned off in the name of freedom. It will certainly be no news to any regular visitor to this publication that these are the daily experiences of Tarik Kazaleh’s distant relatives in Palestine.
Not that they are necessarily alone in this. In fact, the weirdest part of these daily contradictions is how accustomed so many of us have become to their occurrence in our own backyard. And so while Excentrik’s music plumbs these dualities, this own comfort in relating them is both familiar and disconcerting on a rather primal level. It’s a contradiction that he revels in.
Good thing, too, because in so doing, while dodging the pitfalls of easy categorization, he reminds the listener that all of us — including Kazeleh himself — share in a world that is truly topsy-turvy. In a way, it’s the emotional stuff of solidarity, communicated in a manner that is gracefully unbent. Sometimes merely relating this truth is the most radical act an artist can commit.
Excentrik’s album, Now Here Nowhere, is available for purchase on iTunes.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and solidarity activist living in Chicago, and runs the website Rebel Frequencies (www.rebelfrequencies.net). His first book, Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance, will be available in the fall. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies [AT] gmail [DOT] com.