Mohammed Hashem is a star back in his native Saudi Arabia, singing and playing the lute. In Paris this week, he shares anecdotes revolving around his instrument’s history, and the origins of traditional folk music.
This week, Mohammed Hashem is in Paris to enchant audiences at UNESCO with a lute performance, accompanied by other Saudi artists, during the Incense Route exhibition by the MiSK Art Institute.
While he applauds contemporary music today for bringing together sonic and cultural elements from different countries, he adds, “But I am against music losing its true identity.
I consider that music, long ago, used to have an identity, and was a national emblem to the people of a land”.
Mohammed comes from the Hejaz region, which includes cities like Jeddah, Mecca and Medina. In 2015, he performed at the celebrations of the 175th anniversary of the establishment of the French Consulate in Jeddah. He says, “Saudi Arabia is essentially a continent, and each region has its own legacy. On the whole, I would add that Saudi Arabia’s musical heritage as a country, is one of the world’s largest”.
Who are you? And what do you do?
Mohammed Hashem, a Saudi artist. I have had the honor to perform in many concerts worldwide, representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
I am honored to be one of the young men who were supported to participate outside the Kingdom as well.
Thankfully, I get to perform full of pride. I’m very proud of our huge musical legacy.
There’s a saying I have always loved, by [Arab historian] Al-Isfahani, which says: “Music is the language of people. So if you want to know a people’s culture, listen to its music.”
I, myself, have represented Saudi music, which is my greatest pride. And I hope to do it justice!
If you could describe Saudi music to a French audience, what would you say?
I would say that Saudi music is comparable to French music, or even surpasses it in terms of legacy. In terms of seniority too. Saudi Arabia is essentially a continent, and each region has its own legacy. I like to say Saudi Arabia is rich in the arts and in heritage. On the whole, I would add that Saudi Arabia’s musical heritage is one of the world’s largest.
What is the birthplace of Saudi Arabian music?
People always talk about the birthplace of this or that genre of music… However, when it comes to Saudi Arabian music, I don’t believe in singling out one birthplace – I disagree with the use of the term.
What I say is that each land has its art, its music. But what others say is that the cities of Mecca, Medina and Jeddah – mainly the Hejaz region – is one of the oldest regions in terms of musical legacy.
Can you give us some background about the lute?
The lute is a truly ancient instrument, which was played by many greats, the most famous being Ziryab (the nickname of the artist Abu l-Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi) who developed the instrument. The lute and flute, and other musical instruments, however, are so old that people often differ regarding which one came first. The tambour as well, some people claim it’s the oldest. There’s no specific date but in Al-Isfahani’s Book of Songs, he mentions that the lute was played first during the reign of Harun al-Rashid.
Tell us about your instrument, where did you buy your lute?
The majority of us generally buy the lute from Egypt, although they are also available in Saudi Arabia, where our skills are multiplying, thankfully. Saudi producers also craft the Qanun instrument. It’s like a meal, it can be enjoyed in different countries with its own special, local flavor.
Can you speak to us about contemporary music and traditional music?
Of course, there is a difference between contemporary and traditional music. I agree with the philosophy that contemporary music today brings together elements from different countries, and permits a degree of variety in music.
But I am against music losing its true identity. I consider that music, long ago, used to have an identity, and was a national emblem to the people of a land. I do believe this identity is lost today, in the contemporary music.
However, the artist does have the capacity to create a new identity. Not by inventing a new one, but but by drawing upon older patterns – from Saudi identity for example – and also by diversifying the melodic modes (or maqam), which is something the world of music permits.
Do you think there’s a place for the lute in current music?
Naturally, use of the lute has diminished greatly because of the number of foreign instruments that have entered Arabic music. The spread of contemporary songs too, has played a role in the lute becoming less apparent.
However some of the greats, such as Mohammed Abdu and Kathem al-Saher in the Arab world, do use it and feature the lute in solo interludes that they broadcast to their listeners.
Where would you like most to perform?
I love to perform everywhere! But one wish in particular that I had, for a long time, came true. And that was when I sang at the Cairo Opera House in Egypt. I’m very thankful to have performed at UNESCO as well. I consider these the two most opulent places to have given a performance. I also have dreams of performing in more festivals, which would give me great pleasure.
An artist you would like to collaborate with?
I am proud of the collaborations I have made, but my favorite artist remains Talal Maddah – may he rest in peace. I would have loved to sing with him.
Thankfully I had the honor of performing with Mohammed Abdu (nicknamed the Artist of the Arabs) on several several occasions, as well as with Abadi Al-Johar and the Lebanese star Walid Toufic. I still do wish to sing alongside the “Caesar” Kathem al-Saher, although I did sing before him, at The Voice. He was one of the people who turned their chair towards me. It’s a massive dream for me to perform alongside him. An artist that really inspires me and someone I really appreciate.
Art and music in Saudi Arabia and flourishing. What things to you look forward to in 2018 in this domain?
First, I’d like to send forth a big greeting to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and to our firm King Salman. Those men have supported the arts, youth and our artistic heritage. As part of the Saudi people, I say we are very positive about the changes underway. We are very hopeful about what’s happening. Myself, as an artist, am very happy to see things go in this direction, for the sake of art in general, and for the sake of Saudi art in particular. God willing, you’ll be hearing lots more from Saudi artists, thanks to the leadership of King Salman, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Did you attend any of the concerts this year in Riyadh?
I know the National Day celebrations took place in Jeddah, and everywhere in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Abha, Asir, in the South and the East. I was invited to one concert in fact, but I was not in Saudi Arabia because I was filming a music video for a new album that will be released toward the end of October. It was a shame to have missed that opportunity, to perform on the National Day, but I did collaborate with Saudi artists to record a song called “Saudi, and Proud”.