While on tour with Tank and the Bangas last spring, our crew had a few hours to break at Festival International and most of us peeled away to check out the artists playing before us. As we cut through an alleyway and across a parking lot repurposed into a seating area, a stage came into view on our left and the band getting ready to play was New Orleans’ own Kuwaisiana.
Up until that point, the only thing I knew about them was their curiously placed band stickers tacked up around town, the country, and even abroad. But as they began the first song, I stopped walking and watched. I saw a few familiar faces in the horn section but otherwise, the band, both its members and its musical concept, were brand new to me. I stayed until an urgent (most likely coffee-related) matter drew me back to work. As soon as our tour ended, I attended a Kuwaisiana show again (this time in a real club). I was blown away by how big, loud, and rocking the energy was while still being incredibly unique in its bilingual lyricism and musical parallels to the ska, rock ‘n’ roll, and world dance music of generations past.
I sat down with the man who started the band and its lead singer and guitarist, +Aziz, who is using music to convey the everyday experiences of Muslims and Arab-American youth, as well as the perspectives of Khaleejis living in the Arabian Peninsula through the framework of a New Orleanian musician.
Katie Sikora: When did you start playing music?
+Aziz: I picked up a guitar when I was 16. My mom had already been taking me to piano lessons for years and I wanted to try something more freeing and mobile. Although resistant at first, my mom would continue to support me. I’ll never forget how she bought me a Gibson SG and carried it from America all the way back to Kuwait. And I’m mostly self-taught!
KS: Where did you grow up, and how did you end up in New Orleans?
+A: I grew up in Kuwait but I got my dose of Americana early in life. Right after the Gulf War, we spent 1992-1994 on the East Coast as Kuwait was recovering from the war. We ended up coming back to Kuwait in 1994 and I would complete the rest of my schooling in Kuwait.
Fast forward to 2014, I’m in NYC about to relocate to New Orleans for a full-time gig. I always exoticized the American South, and New Orleans is a great environment to create and experiment in. I was considering other ‘music cities’ like Austin and Nashville, but my employer at the time was willing to pay for relocation, plus it’s easier to start a band here and cheaper to live, so I went for it!
KS: Describe your music.
+A: We’re a bilingual indie rock band. We are going for a danceable, big sound. In the mix, you’ll hear robust jazzy melodies from the horn section, and lots of intricacies in the way we mix hand percussion and drum kit.
In terms of building the songs, our drummer Matthieu lays down something very simple and dancy. Then you have Patrick, our percussionist, who does more intricate and colorful percussion work. And finally, the horn section, which is comprised of Nick Ferreirae on saxophone and Dehan Elçin on trumpet. Our current bassist is Sam Levine. Both of our horn players are Tulane grads who are heavily influenced by jazz. We’ve worked with a trombone player, accordionist, synth player, and a few bassists at this stage as well.
KS: What has been your favorite performance experience in New Orleans thus far?
+A: It was definitely the night of my most recent birthday at Gasa Gasa (October 10). We opened up for Flipturn and had such a fantastic audience of people who had never heard us. Also, we had tried to film a few shows prior to that but something had always gone wrong [with the recording]. Finally that night, nothing went wrong and we captured one of our best performances to date and we’re going to be releasing a bunch of live music videos soon.
KS: Which New Orleans musicians most inspire you?
+A: I really like Macavoy. There’s a very warm quality to their music and the beatboxing that carries everything is just amazing to me. They recently put out a five song EP and it’s just really moving. I’ve also been floored by The Painted Hands and Lilli Lewis. Our bassist Sam Levine just wrote and released music under Skelatin (my favorite songs are “Your Guy” and “Stay Away”). And lastly, I would also mention Chelsea Hines, who I heard when I first moved to NOLA and does such an amazing range of work.
KS: What’s your favorite place to catch live music in NOLA?
+A: I’ll go anywhere to catch live music but my venue of choice is Gasa Gasa.
KS: What do you love most about this city?
+A: I like how rustic of a city it is. Generally speaking, I am attracted to smaller cities that carry a “rough around the edges” quality (Beirut in Lebanon is another great example). I think this is in reaction to the very luxurious, pristine, spacious, newly-made structures in a lot of other cities, so I glamorize older cities for their mystery.
KS: What is your favorite non-musical activity to do in New Orleans?
+A: I really enjoy being close to Arabic: teaching it, studying it, and trying to carve out time to read. In terms of what’s available in New Orleans, I try to go out to SeaCave Arcade as much as I can. I use to be around the corner from it when it first opened in Bywater, but then I moved to Lakeview so it’s harder for me to get out there, but it’s always a blissful time for both serious and casual gamers.
KS: What’s your favorite food to eat in NOLA?
+A: There’s a lot of great food in NOLA (after my wife’s cooking, of course). Not to play too much into stereotypes, but I love a good falafel sandwich. I love the unconventional flavors of 1000 Figs and Kebab (I think they both add beets to their sandwiches and I’m not used to that). [My wife and I] make a point to try most restaurants, but we mostly cook at home.
KS: What would be your dream gig or collaboration?
+A: My dream gig would be opening for Altin Gün, or doing a show at Music Box Village.
KS: Is the chimera that is your music as simple as adding two things together to make a new thing? If not, which elements are you taking from Arabic music and which elements are coming from Western music?
+A: The cultural mash-up is really just an extension of my own identity and where we are as a band. Kuwaisiana did begin with the idea and desire to combine Louisiana’s musical heritage with my own Middle Eastern identity. But much of what you hear is simply based on the bodies in the room and what they are being influenced by. For instance, the ska, Caribbean, and Afrobeat influences are coming through via our drummer Matthieu, a French guy that displays his interests in a strong way. I did make it a point to expose my bandmates to Kuwaiti culture, the Arabic language and some of the realities I’ve grown up with.
KS: In terms of your performance style, where do you draw inspiration from?
+A: I grew up in an environment where most people listened to music sitting down on a chair. So, I really loved and appreciated the physicality of playing live. My biggest influences helped me find not only my movement on-stage but also singing style, because I sounded terrible when I first started. On the UK rock side, there was Blur, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, and Stereophonics. And on the American side there’s James Maynard Keenan, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and Billy Corgan. At the end of the day, we all move to the music in our own way, but these were some of the key figures who influenced my performance style.
KS: Tell me about the upcoming EP. What is it about and what do you want people to take away from it?
+A: The new EP plays more to the bilingual nature of the band. It’s what Kuwaisiana sounds like in a greater collaborative environment where we’ve grown more comfortable with entertaining and working with each other’s ideas. It will be less busy (we’re now without an accordion or keyboard player) and more focused.
KS: Where do see your career as a musician going in the future?
+A: My idea of success is becoming a touring musician. I transitioned into being a full-time freelancer while living in New Orleans so I’d like to get better at that. I never toured extensively in my 20s so I’m trying to focus more on the idea of traveling for my music. I know that that’s the best way I’ll give [my music] a chance in the world.
In terms of spirituality or a larger sense of purpose, the core idea for me is iterating against this idea of Khaleeji Rock. That is, to explore rock through the lens of someone from a country in the Arabian Peninsula. There’s just so much to unpack there for me. You’ll find this desire in anything I put together: mixing rhythms, mixing languages, etc. I want to test what I can do with not only Khaleeji culture but also Arab-American culture and Muslims everywhere. I see our music as an expression of not only Khaleeji culture but also Arab-American culture. Although I am not a full representative of either community, I relate to and oscillate between those two identities.
KS: When is your next performance in New Orleans?
+A: We’ll be playing NYE Ball at Starlight on Tuesday, Dec. 31.