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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Man of the people: Aziz Maraka on connecting with fans and what to expect in his UAE debut

The Jordanian musician talks to us about choosing to sing in his own dialect and his commitment to going it alone as an independent artist
Jordanian singer Aziz Maraka will make his debut performance in the UAE on Friday. Courtesy Aziz Maraka

When the fans can’t come to your performance, you simply go to them.

That has been the principle Aziz Maraka has been following throughout his burgeoning career. The Jordanian musician has been turning regional music industry heads with his evocative songwriting and an empathy for fans that is not often seen from today’s leading artists.

Earlier this year, he paid his own way (and that of an accompanying percussionist) to travel to Syria to perform his first show in Damascus. Last year, he arrived in Cairo only for his concert to be cancelled at the last minute due to a venue permit being denied. Instead of heading back home, he put on a series of impromptu street shows across the Egyptian capital, announcing them on Instagram.

And speaking of social media, Maraka, 36, keeps it real. He says he is responsible for posting almost everything on his feeds and is known for engaging with fans online.

While this DIY approach to his career can seem strenuous and time-consuming, he says the success it has brought is “real and genuine”.

“I did the whole social media boosting before and it got to a stage where I wasn’t even aware of who was really following my work,” he says. “It can be a very lonely feeling when you’ve got hundreds of thousands or millions of followers and they are not engaging. You’re just alone in your page and that’s kind of a sad feeling.

“One day I was just trying to talk to the fans, I was away from home, and I was feeling a sense of loneliness and there was nobody there. Now, I do things the organic and genuine way because you know what’s happening. My relationship with my fans is superb and when I see them it’s like seeing good friends.”

Calling his own tune

His connection to fans in the UAE certainly appears to be strong, with tickets selling well for his debut performance in the country, at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation on Friday, September 20. Maraka will hit the capital with an impressive collection of lovingly composed folk songs and ballads that marry Levantine melodies with the classical music training he received as a child.

The fact Maraka’s fan base is predominately young (the student categories for the Abu Dhabi shows are all sold out) dispels some of the industry chatter that such an age group is not interested in Arabic pop music. Instead, Maraka’s success suggests that young people in the region are simply not interested in what the big stars have to say.

Maraka’s songs, comprising a series of standalone singles and last year’s self-titled album, keep it simple and direct in all the right ways. Tracks such as the tender piano ballad Ya Bay (Oh) and the latest singles, the ukulele-­led Mafi Mennik (There Is No One Like You) and the elegiac Konna Sghar (When We Were Young), are not lumbered with unnecessary orchestral touches, which has become a rather infuriating hallmark of today’s pop scene. Instead, there is a welcome sense that his compositions have been ruthlessly edited. None of the songs outstay their welcome, thus allowing the melodies to hit home.

When it comes to the lyrics, Maraka also works from a different rule book. The subject matter complements the often minimalist nature of his compositions. You won’t find him singing grand declarations of love, but instead – as is the case with Konna Sghar – he prefers to sketch vignettes and allow listeners to make up their own minds about their subjects. The song has resonated with a new and mature legion of fans.

Konna Sghar is actually from my personal experience,” he says. “When we’re young we make a lot of promises, so this song is about me promising someone that I’ll be there for ever, and that I am up to the challenge and the dream and all of that. As it turns out, I did not fulfil any of those promises. Funnily enough, I got a lot of older people calling me to say they really could relate to the song, while the younger listeners, who are the biggest segment of my following, were not so sure how to take it because it seems to me like they’re making these promises right now. Maybe 10 years from now they’ll understand what I was trying to say.”

Konna Sghar’s appeal also lies in the Jordanian dialect in which Maraka sings. It’s more in tune with classical Arabic than Egyptian or Lebanese. It also has a clipped and conversational style that keeps Maraka’s words breezy but poignant.

Singing in the Jordanian dialect

Singing in this way was something he fought for from the beginning of his career about a decade ago. Before becoming an independent artist, Maraka recalls that he spoke with production companies and labels that tried to dissuade him from using his native tongue.

“The shortcut back then was to sing in Lebanese or Egyptian,” he says.“But to me, the first thing that would come to mind is to speak as someone who has lived most of his life in Amman. Back then, I felt that Egyptians didn’t need more Egyptian songs, they had plenty.”

Maraka says the Jordanian dialect offers its own linguistic pearls to songwriters and poets. When it comes to Ya Bay, Maraka says the title is a term used by Jordanians to emphasise a particular point. For the song itself, it was to exemplify the tumultuous nature of a relationship.

“All Arab countries share the same common language, which is classical Arabic, but then every dialect has so much to propose as far as the logic and temper of the language is concerned,” he says. “In Jordan, [the term] ‘ya bay’ is handy as it gives the sentence more intensity. It helps a lot with expressions. By adding that word to that song, it made the chorus much more appealing.”

The dialect also provides various shades of meaning to other Arabic words. In the plaintive Bint Gaweyah (Strong Woman), for which Maraka is essentially accompanied only by a piano, the title means more than its direct English translation.

“In Jordan, and some other countries, when you call a woman ‘strong’, it actually means that she’s too daring and that she is rude,” he says. “And in the song I used this approach to the word to tell her to be that way, to be strong and so on, even if they call you rude. If you can borrow from your own understanding, your dialect and your culture, you can always deliver a message that is genuine.”

Independent and proud

Maraka is set to take that message internationally with European and debut North American tours on the cards this year. Despite his increasing stature as a musician, he is adamant that he will take the growing obligations and stresses in his stride as an independent artist. So far, he has rebuffed all offers to join major labels.

“Listen, I am doing this because I don’t want to have a typical job. I don’t want to work for a company. I am my own boss and that is such a privilege,” he says. “That’s the thing I don’t understand about joining a label. Sure, they can help you make it, but surely you want to enjoy the journey at the same time.”

Aziz Maraka performs at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation on Friday, September 20. Tickets start at Dh78. More information is available at www.culturalfoundation.ae

Updated: September 17, 2019 07:03 PM