Interview


Shermine Sawalha


Amman - 9 February 2016

I suppose you didn’t know about Jordan’s underground music scene? Well, that’s about to change thanks to Shermine Sawalha, an entrepreneur in Jordan’s music industry who works relentlessly to put Amman on the international music map. Along the way, she founded innovative Malahi Entertainment Inc.. Natacha Rohmer, our correspondent in Amman, caught up with Shermine for an in-depth interview in her home, the day after the Word is Yours festival, a street art festival she created, was over.

How and why did you start MALAHI?

I had an idea that I could help promote the work of a wide range of artists through an online network that would market, manage and allow a sort of cross-pollination of their varied content. I spent a few months researching different visual and performing artists in the region, hopping from country to another, building a better understanding of each artist’s needs. This helped me understand how to shape my own business model, and understand how best to develop the independent art scene in the region.

It turned out that much more was needed than I originally anticipated. They required booking agencies, proper management and production services, They needed access to entertainment lawyers, and greater opportunities to perform and exhibit.

Starting in Amman, I created a series of shows and concerts to host regional artists and musicians. I developed concepts to produce new content, book them in other countries, and create a relationship that bridges their work to that of other artists.

Malahi Entertainment Inc. is the culmination all of these different activities.

A lot of people know Malahi for its former music platform, The TBA Collective, a place where art and music was made in the name of having a good time, using entertainment to provide a cultural education. I booked local, regional, and international artists to perform in Jordan and throughout the region, while also producing different festivals and shows in response to what audiences craved.

In 2015, Malahi coproduced with Mektoub The Word Is Yours Festival, the first regional urban arts festival, revolving around ideas of education and exposition of urban cultures [hip- hop, graffiti, skateboarding, breakdance] from our region.

Another Malahi production is Kazdara, The Jabal Al Weibdeh Art Walk, which involves artists, producers, venues, and businesses related to arts and culture. Kazdara offers them a chance to exhibit their work and invite audiences to learn about their skills.

Malahi produces the annual The TBA Collective festival, FESTBAL, a day-to-night event that takes place poolside, showcasing live music, dance, and art, hosting many regional and international acts.

We also set up venues, reviving and rebranding older ones and creating new hotspots too. Next we develop a dedicated fan base around each space by organizing special events, attracting media and sponsors. This raises the venues’ stature in the local arts and culture scene, which is necessary in order to develop a sustainable industry.

Our goal is to assist in building art and culture through fun, to encourage learning by participation, by inciting audiences to be part of the experience. It is much more than throwing parties; it’s about tapping into the region’s independent music industry, discovering a new artist, linking with other artists to design promotional materials, and still others to complement his performance with their own work. Malahi builds creative bridges.

Can you give me a few names of contemporary music industry artists?

Locally I work with Autostrad, El Morabba3, Jadal, Za’ed Na’es, 47Soul, and many more. This past year, Jadal and Malahi ventured into a music video contest, and we invited people from around the world to compete by creating music videos for the band’s last album. We had over 60 submissions! The first-prize winner was from Egypt, and the fan pick for most votes was from Tunisia. Jadal has over 50 music videos online, and they hired the first-prize winner to create the video for a new single from their upcoming album.

Malahi hosted Lebanese blues rock bank The Wanton Bishops, and last year we produced an Arabic blues-infused track with them. We work with Who Killed Bruce Lee, a great Lebanese indie-electro-dance band with a very bright future ahead of them, and the very talented Syrian Hello Psychaleppo! who are composing some of today’s newest sounds and fusions. We feature an amazing roster of international talents; Dam Funk from Stone Throw records, Daddy G from Massive Attack, Grammy winner Sharam from Deep Dish, Nickodemus, Captain Planet and many more, building a platform for our growing fan-base to enjoy.

We are talking about the music industry, but you talked earlier about video and filming as well?

People only experience the shows that they buy tickets to and actually see, but they’re unaware of all the work that happens behind the scenes. When I host an artist, we produce a show together, but also produce other things. Maybe we’ll record new audio content, create a film, or collaborate with local businesses in the industry. Last year, in collaboration with Versatile Records [France], we toured Jordan from north to south, recording sounds of native instruments and filming Jordanian landscapes to create content for a new album and A/V performance.

So it’s production, booking and management for the visual and performance arts, which is the easiest way of putting it into words. Who is your target market? Because the scene in Jordan is very eclectic.

Yes, that’s true. Audiences are quite broad, but separated into different sectors, so it’s hard to specifically say what my target market is. Some events that take place in spaces that serve alcohol host over-18-year-olds, sometimes even over-21. But I try to create events that also invite high school and university students, because they are the ones craving to learn. They also tend to be the biggest supporters of the art and music scene. Some events target all age groups, like Kazdara and The Word Is Yours, from kids and parents, adults and youth alike. We also set up workshops that target people in the industry, more corporate events.

The TBA Collective was one of the first to allow all kinds of people, all genders, all sexual backgrounds, from all levels of society (we even work with refugee camps) to be under one roof. We encouraged people to learn from each other, to know how to live together. It’s aimed to create spaces where everyone went to be free. Some people are put off by the diversity of our audiences because they’re not used to it; they’re so accustomed to their niche, they’re so used to being with “classy” types or other groups. The TBA Collective really worked to achieve secure venues that didn’t segregate people.

You’re like an urban mixer.

We try to be that… it’s just in the name of having a good time.

Malahi actually means an amusement park. But, more importantly, it’s about building a playground for underground culture to thrive in.

Do you feel the underground scene is really developing?

Yes, definitely. Three or four years ago, no one had proper labels – they’re still working on it, but it’s definitely improved. None of the bands were registered as formal businesses; increasingly they see the benefits of this and more are moving in that direction. Shows were random, one-off events. There was nothing sustainability about it.

Do you think Malahi either was the origin of the indie scene or helped catalyse it?

I wouldn’t say it was the origin because I don’t deserve all the credit. The bands themselves do a lot of the work, the fans too. Malahi does help organize things for sustainable future growth. I manage some of the bands; I produce content with them and for them. I book them regionally and internationally; and I create strong platforms where they’d have 600-700 people show up to a tiny venues.

Thanks to your advertisement and production.

But it’s not just me, you know. Fans follow my work and they also follow the bands. So when they see the two together, they get really excited because they know what kind of quality of work and what kind of spaces and activities will be taking place. But I can’t do it without them; they can’t do it without me. It comes hand-in-hand; it’s not just me, you know.

You’ve achieved quite a lot in four years’ time…

Well, I’ve been traveling a lot with different bands; I toured with different bands for different projects for over two years I toured with them. I was involved with 47SOUL – an amazing Jordanian project – from the beginning. We went on tour in UK, where the band built a great relationship with British fans, playing some of UK’s biggest festivals – Glastonbury, Secret Garden Party, WOMAD, Bestival, Wilderness Festival and many more. Malahi produced the band’s first live album, recorded at The TBA Collective series. I used that album to book and sell the band, up till they recorded their debut album earlier this year. There are different, subtle but powerful ways, to support the independent music industry, without resorting to usual advertising. But people can easily screw you when you are working behind the scenes! Some who didn’t assist take the credit and others that work much harder go unacknowledged. When we listen to a band or we look at an artist, we don’t know everyone who is associated with them. So it’s often a surprise when they go on stage after a successful show, emotional, crying, thanking people who “made it all happen”. The producers and people behind the scenes can make the difference between staying known on a local level and stardom.

What is the trend in Jordan in terms of music? You talked about fusion – would that be the best way to summarise it?

Yes, for independent music it’s about bringing sounds that fuse. As example, combine a bit of the Arabic sounds and scales, like Mijwiz and quarter note frequencies that come from our region, with western scales and rhythms. Instead of just sticking with a single genre, musicians are creating new sounds and fusions that represent the Middle Eastern scene and voice.

How do you keep your creativity coming? How do you keep your ideas flowing?

The reason I left Canada was to prioritise myself as an artist. But I have a tendency to jump into things that I see need a bit of attention to make them work better. It’s just a habit in me. I see opportunities. Like when people say, “Oh, but there isn’t any live music scene,” or, “Oh, but there isn’t a place to dance”, for me that’s like a door opening wide to do something. People just see the negative of it not existing; instead, I see a chance to create it. And this is how it keeps coming and keeps multiplying.

The source of my inspiration is the people that surround me; everything that I see and do, and the people that are making these things happen. Without them, there would be no industry; without them, there would be nothing to follow or little to be inspired by.

Who are the people around you? What do you mean by that? Anybody you encounter?

The people I encounter every day. This is the thing; I’m like a sponge. Sometimes it’s not very good because I give so much that I forget about myself, which is the main problem behind why I don’t sleep enough. It also takes over my dreams. Work is 24/7. But I believe this is the time for it to happen.

In the past three years, because of my hard work, suddenly other people want to set up companies that do booking and management and label creation and all the things that no one paid attention to previously. If I had a bigger team, I would have grown so much more; but at the same time, I like this intimacy with the artists. I like to be the one who picks them up from the airport, takes care of them and becomes their liaison. And almost every project I’ve brought over has asked me to manage them or tour with them; they are super-inspired by what we’re doing in Amman. From a place that had nothing, you know, it’s starting to pick up regionally and even internationally. When we bring people from outside, they tell me, “We need to start talking about this place and putting it on the map.”

So this is the thing. What inspires me is to keep up the momentum. Stop talking about regional war and start highlighting other positive, creative things. As example, you say Bjork, you think Iceland; you say Bob Marley, it screams Jamaica. I want to hear something to do with Jordan that’s not just Petra is “the world wonder” and the Dead Sea is “the lowest point on earth”.

Music-wise, it’s not there yet. We need to build it, even if it starts with one special festival.

Something that is famous worldwide.

Something that will bring attention to Jordan and this region that will remove all these other constraints that we’re always surrounded by. And this is the main reason why we don’t grow as fast as I’d like. Sponsors cannot pay much, so we don’t get budgets comparable to other countries in the region. Red Bull has been one of the main supporters for culture, helping us to create change, and venture on to different things. But it’s very hard. It’s a teaching process, even to potential sponsors and to the locations where this can happen. Companies with money still don’t see the potential of doing large-scale projects. They can visualize their target market within it.

So the big difference is that Malahi really is trying to unite all the different kinds of population in Jordan, whoever they are.

Yes, while creating a variety of platforms for different scenes. For example, with dancers, we work to provide workshops, competitions, and master classes. We also book them to perform and choreograph music videos, and live shows, linking them with some of their favourite artists to give them a chance to collaborate. Every poster we create for our events uses visual artists, illustrators, and designers from the region. Their designs end up being reprinted in different cities, covering walls and appearing online. This artwork connects them to other markets and artists. Some of the designs created by The TBA Collective’s co-founders, as example Saeed Abu Jaber, have been displayed in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Dubai. They were also used as cover art for Corporeal (an album by UK artist Jon Kennedy) and so travelled the world. So it’s not just the music. It all builds off the music, because many other artists revolve around that.

Is it a profitable business?

I invest most of my profits back in production or in the artists. So it’s not just making money for myself. I never just keep it for myself. It goes right back into the industry, and my own monetary support is helping it become more alive.

If I’d just waited for the money to come to make it happen, it probably wouldn’t happen. Without sponsors, you can make things happen only if you invest in it, and you hopefully make the money back on another show. It’s just the way it is. Last year was a great year, a lot of the money I made from shows, I honestly poured right back into the artists and other productions of shows and new content.

This is very inspiring. It sounds like you’re levelling things…

It’s very important. Otherwise, I have to rely on the sponsorship from future ticket buyers before producing each show which means I’m just going to make a tiny little show and barely be able to pay the artist fee. And I can’t do that. I’m not interested in that. So that’s why people keep calling from different places saying, “We want to bring this band out, we would like you… we’ve heard very good things and we want you to work on it.” And I tell them, literally, “This works, this doesn’t work, this is how much we can afford, this is what we can’t afford…” We have to break down every project and see how to make it work best.

How do you step back from everything you’re doing here? How do you find time to think about something different or do something different?

Every morning I do yoga: it’s the closest thing to dancing and suits my early mornings. I studied Contemporary Dance in university, and performed for a few years before experiencing a couple of bad injuries. So the minute I wake up, I head to an amazing group class and practice.

Honestly, I’ve lost many friends because I don’t prioritise time spent with them. That’s not a good thing. Malahi took over my life; my work is my life and I have to learn balance. This is my own challenge. I realise this the minute the crazy rush ends. Like just this week, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The past three days…

Yes, the Word is Yours is over now.

…I’ve been sleeping. I hadn’t slept in days, but now I’ve been taking afternoon naps, which is something I never do. I am starved for sleep. But then at night I’m like, “What do I do?” And I remember, “Oh my God! I forgot about this TV show from nine months ago – let’s see what happened,” or it’s, “Oh my God! What happened to this friend? She had a baby and I totally forgot about it!” So it’s a bit terrible.

I used to do a lot of things for myself. I used to make jewellery, I used to dance for hours, I used to write and make things myself, and I haven’t done any of that lately. So I want to try to get back to that, to give myself time to do that. Because if I can’t take care of myself, how can I take care of others?

Shermine Sawalha

You’ve always travelled a lot. What is your attitude when travelling? Do you adopt a “flâneur” attitude when you walk around the city? Are your eyes searching for new things? What do you look for when you’re walking around?

Everything. Everything is inspiring. This is a habit that I inherited from my parents, actually. It’s not something I came up with.

My dad is Akram Sawalha, an architect and inventor, and my mother, Rawsan Naber, is an amazing, incredibly strong woman who works on many projects for the mentally handicapped, women’s rights and – well – her own family. My brother, Bashar Sawalha, is an animator, comic book artist and inventor; we both have crazy artistic careers. We grew up in a family where every trip we took was aimed at our learning, having new experiences, and gaining new skills. We were encouraged to find inspiration all around us in our everyday lives, and to use all these new tools in everything we did.

We were lucky to have parents that put us in the back of a car and drove around Europe to see things and experience them for themselves, but also to give us the chance to explore. And at a very early age, even though this kind of sounds crazy, my mum and my dad used to tell us directions, set us out to explore and meet back in a location at certain hour. My brother and I became a tiny team of explorers ready to take on the world!

We were very young, and in hindsight it’s amazing. That’s probably why we developed very strong characters; I do think this is where these things came from. We’re very strong, yet we’re very good with people, we know how to talk to people. We can put ourselves in any situation and fill these shoes. Throw us anywhere and we will figure it out.

So, honestly, all this comes from our parents. And as we grew older, we continued to travel. I spent years traveling on my own; my brother did the same. And we started our own ventures along the way. We’re both entrepreneurs; we almost never worked for someone else. We create jobs for people, create things that inspire people and encourage them to come on board. So it comes from that background, actually. That tells you a lot about how to raise your kids. Giving children a little freedom can have magical results.

In conclusion, how do you see the future of Malahi? Where do you see it going?

I have no idea. Malahi is unpredictable; it goes wherever I take it, wherever anything that inspires me leads.

I am currently working on a project with AptART [Awareness and Prevention Through Art], an organization of activists and artists that work on projects in areas of distress where they meet with the community, discuss certain topics, and collaborate to create murals that address these topics. Here in Jordan, we are about to start painting 8 large-scale murals that focus on topics revolving around youth and gender-based issues with different communities from the North and the South of Jordan. I find this super exciting!