Mehdi, above all else, Speed Caravan is you playing your oud. It's quite an impressive instrument and not the type one would find in just any instrument store I imagine?
Mehdi Haddab: "Well, you could actually, because this type of electrified oud is mass produced in Turkey. Electrical ouds have the same neck as classical ouds, but the body is nothing more than a piece of wood. Of course, I still customized and fine-tuned my instrument a bit after I bought it."
When did you first start thinking of using the oud as an Arabian version of the electric guitar? Wouldn't it have been simpler to play an electric guitar instead?
Mehdi Haddab: "No, because the result sounds quite different. The chords I play on my oud can only be played on an oud and simply using an electric guitar would also have been far less original. I also play the classic acoustic oud and I really wanted to take that instrument into the 21st century."
The oud is an instrument with Arab and oriental roots, but you use it to play music influenced by rock and even metal. The Islamic world and western music, that seems an odd combination.
Mehdi Haddab: "(laughs) Rather than calling it the Islamic world, it's maybe better to describe it as the Arab world or the nations of the Maghreb. In those countries there is a growing number of youths who listen to the same music that's being played in the west. To give you but one example: my younger sister is born and raised in Algeria, but likes nothing more than to listen to death metal whilst doing the dishes. When we played in Algeria last, there were girls in the audience dressed in Black Sabbath t-shirts whilst at the same time also wearing the veil. Things aren't always as black and white as they're being portrayed over here, where the media likes to picture the Islamic world as set in its ways and fighting against anything remotely western. That image is misleading, because that part of the world is far more surprising than one would imagine."
Would you be interested to play a gig at an actual metal festival like Graspop Metal Meeting?
Mehdi Haddab: "Absolutely, although I think we would have to adapt our set a bit. I'm not too sure how a hardcore metal crowd would respond to our music. I've already pondered on the idea of doing a collaboration with a metal band, so that's something that could possibly manifest itself in the near future."
There's also a trance element in your music, resembling Moroccan gnawa rhythms (Gnawa music is a mixture of sub-Saharan African, Berber, and Arabic religious songs and rhythms. It combines music and acrobatic dancing. The music is both a prayer and a celebration of life, red.). When you're on stage there are moments where you seem to be in another world.
Mehdi Haddab: "Playing these pieces demands a lot of physical energy and it's exactly that sensation of going to the edge of your physical limits that makes playing live so interesting to me. I'm actually completely drained after the set we've just played. Playing an instrument like the oud is quite a physical undertaking; it aren't just my fingers that are moving, my entire body is in tune with what I am playing."
The album title, 'Kalashnik Love ', as well as its cover, both have a very soviet-communist feel. Where did those influences come from?
Mehdi Haddab: "We chose to give the album cover that Russian look because of the title 'Kalashnik Love', which of course refers to the firearm that was also invented by a Russian (Mikhail Kalashnikov, red.), but that we transformed into an instrument of peace and love. I grew up in Algeria, that was part of the non-aligned nations and that had a Baath-type regime like the one that existed in Iraq. It was a strange laymen government with Marxist influences, but at the same time still firmly rooted in Islam. So for me, these communist influences aren't that far-fetched, as they were really part of my youth."
On the album there's a Speed Caravan version of a song by Udi Hrant.
Mehdi Haddab: "Yeah, I play the oud in quite a futuristic way, but at the same time I'm quite rooted in tradition and part of that tradition are the old masters of the instrument. Thankfully, we still have old recordings, because they have all passed away themselves. Udi Hrant was a blind oud player of Armenian origin living in Istanbul. There he established himself as an artist and stayed there until the Armenian genocide started (The Armenian genocide took place between April 1915 and July 1916 and cost the lives of two thirds of the Armenian population living in Turkey. The whole operation was planned and executed to perfection by the committee Union And Progress, also known as the "Young Turks", governing the Ottoman Empire at the time. An estimated one million two hundred thousand people lost their lives in the events, red.). At this stage Hrant decided to move to the United States where he further developed his music."
Of course we can't leave out talking about the one track on the album almost everybody will know, The Cure's 'Kiling An Arab'. Did you include that track as just a bit of fun or are you really into their music?
Mehdi Haddab: "What happened is that a couple of years ago, when I was still playing with a band called Ekova, we were booked as the supporting act for The Cure during their concerts in France. I met Robert Smith and he seemed quite taken with the music we were doing. Much later I rediscovered this song on a old cassette tape laying around in my apartment. When I listened to it, I was immediately convinced Speed Caravan was the only band qualified to cover it. On top of that, the song also is a reference to Albert Camus (Albert Camus, born 7 November 1913 in Mondovi, French Algeria - died 4 April 1960 in Villeblevin in the Yonne, was a French writer, dramatist, essayist and philosopher. He was active as a journalist for the resistance during World War II and also played a pivotal role in solving some of the moral questions resulting that same war, red.) who was a French writer born in Algeria who even received the Nobel Price at one stage. There's an intellectual side to the songs of The Cure. Literally the song is about "killing an Arab", but in fact it's really a reflection on man as a being that does not stop short of killing his own. It's just a great and well-written song!"