El Khat: Rootless Cosmopolitans

By Zachary Lipez

Friday, November 17, 2023

While music itself is as swell and soul-sustaining as it’s ever been, one of the (very) few positive innovations on the industry side of things is the fact that the term “world music” has largely been left behind; a no longer in fashion diminishment that, despite Peter Gabriel’s best intentions, always felt like a prime example of the music media/industry’s unconscious (if we’re being charitable) colonialism. Unless it's made by ancient aliens, it’s all world music, baby; ZZ Top and Mdou Moctar choogling on the same universal/terrestrial wavelength, with nothing more than geographical miles separating them. 

Without orientalism to lean on, the usual hassle of talking about art remains. How does one talk about a band like El Khat—the multinational, Berlin-by-Tel Aviv, concern, led by Yemini-Israeli polymath Eyal El Wahab—in a way that conveys the band’s compelling strangeness and spark? Without retreating into “hey, kids… exoticism!” cliche? While still pushing the music’s novel aspects enough to hopefully move some units (since, while one of the music industry’s other innovations is “there’s no money,” none of us are—as of this writing at least—here strictly for our health)? 

El Khat, a post-worrying-about-genres trio who will perform at National Sawdust on November 18, put out their first album, Saadia Jefferson (on the London based label Batov Records) in 2019.. Their second album, 2022’s Albat Alawi Op.99, was released through Glitterbeat, the German label revered for putting out brilliant albums by Mekons, King Ayisoba, and El Khat’s perhaps closest spiritual (and occasionally sonic) brethren, the psych band Altin Gün. El Khat isn't shy about strutting the band's modernist bonafides. Their debut featured groovily exploratory folk-rock-in-exile, made up of multiple traditional songs rendered as a gang fight between marching bands and named (in part) for the Jefferson stop on the L train in Brooklyn, where Eyal El Wahab lived for a year. A second collection of songs, even more clattering and bossily tuneful than what came before, was titled in such a way as to claim a place in the storied tradition of Middle Eastern/South Asian classical music. And so, El Khat present themselves as rootless cosmopolitans, as if daring the listener to try to geographically pigeonhole their music. (tbc, I use the Soviet-era pejorative in the positive, beatnik/freaknik, reclaimed by Marc Ribot sense, where anything and everything could sound like a klezmer version of Marquee Moon.)

One could argue that such overthinking/reference mongering is simply a failure to extricate oneself fully from the thinking that ghettoized “world music” in the first place. This inadvertent preciousness is driven home when, after the author attempted to draw out comparisons between El Khat and an array of international freak scenesters (like, say, Rain Dogs-era of the aforementioned Marc Ribot or the Cairo visionary, Maurice Louca), and El Wahab pointed out that his main sense of kinship, equal to traditional Yeminite modes, lay with Nirvana, The Doors, G N’ Fuckin’ R. 

Like the frontmen of those popular world music bands, the singer of El Khat vacillates between (or, rather, simultaneously inhabits) a professed cool remove, a desire to be understood, and an acknowledgment/celebration of music being neither school nor chit-chat.

“The subject matter that attracts me the most is relations…identity, connections. Actually not feeling connected to anything, and being a stranger.”

“To communicate with people, it’s…good,” El Wahab says, articulating as much as possible (both over language barriers and existentially) the tension between music as pure feeling and the utility of lyric writing. 

“I mean, to talk to people at the moment, at the present moment, I think that's the best. And you know, everything you put on the paper…It's nice. You put it there. It was your relationship with yourself, and you frame it in the piece of paper, but,” he pauses before finally just going for it, “it's not that so important.”

As befitting for a genre-agnostic band from the Middle East, the music of El Khat is as much about transcendence as it is about exploring a multitude of roots. Transcending doctrine, adhering to what appeals from both nostalgia and modernism, running the ancestors through the old bone machine (without, thankfully, going full on steam-punk), with the happy result being a body of work both grounded and borderless (a state not entirely free from an artist’s mixed feelings).

“The subject matter that attracts me the most is relations…identity, connections. Actually not feeling connected to anything, and being a stranger,”  El Wahab says, “but not in a bad way. Not in a poor way, like, ‘look at us. We are immigrants. We have nothing.’ It's. It's not like that.”

If there’s a disconnect between El Khat and any aspects of tradition that might confine the band, it’s one that El Khat’s leader takes in stride. El Wahab makes a number of the instruments the band plays himself. In turn those instruments are put to use in staggering rhythms which share a genealogy with the music which the songwriter discovered first as a child and at synagogue (and was later reintroduced to by his now ex-wife, via the Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s album), the neighboring pulse of Khaliji music, and the martial swing one could expect to find at your average Einstürzende Neubauten (or, for fellow aging downtown cats, Firewater or Motherhead Bug) performance. To this, El Khat throws in enough half-melancholy horns, Balken-esque violins, and borderline-Love-Buzz guitars to construct a common ground sound that might resonate with any culture which appreciates a good wake. 

In this vein, El Wahab takes further pains to clarify any stated alienation as amiable if not joyous. “It’s not a sorrowful thing,” he says of both the band’s themes and journey. “This is where I want to be.”

A week after the interview, El Wahab sent this statement, which was also posted on the band’s Instagram page:

"As an Arab, as an Arab Jew, I don't have a flag, I never found one that actually means anything good, pure good. For me, flags don't represent the people but the leaders. Leaders never really care about civilians but they act like they do. 

Art. Don't boycott art. By your boycott, you share more division between us the people, you share more fear and separation.

Pain. There is not a comparison between people’s pain. Pain is pain, death is death, loss is the same for everyone. Please do not create a war between us the people. 

Peace protests. Don't choose an easy way, if you feel for the victims of the war, if you really care about life you should care about ALL human’s life."

About Zachary Lipez

Zachary Lipez is a freelance writer in NYC, and the Editor at Large for Creem Magazine. He is the author of a number of books with Stacy Wakefield and Nick Zinner, most recently 131 Different Things (Akashic). He sings in the band Publicist UK.