Classical Arabic music speaks to Jordanian musician Qais Raja in such a way that he formed a band, Random House, to blend its elements into a modernized sound that can be understood globally.
In ripped, faded jeans, flip-flops, and long dreads that curl a bit at the ends, Raja is unassuming and down-to-earth. We got a chance to speak to him Tuesday evening before the second of the band’s three-gig Cairo tour, at ROOM Art Space in downtown Cairo.
“I really feel like the classical form of Arabic music stopped growing after the late 20th century,” he told us, adding that some of its elements really speak to him. “It look years of evolution to build this sound and now it’s dying.”
For Raja, also an audio engineer and producer, it was something of a challenge. “I was like, ‘no,’” he said. “It can be really used in a lot of beautiful ways.”
And so, in 2012, upon returning to Jordan after studying in the U.S., he started Random House. The four-man band is comprised of Raja (singer, songwriter, and guitar), Feras Arrabi (lead guitar), Ahmad Al-Haj (bass) and Saif Abu Hamdan (drums).
“We are an experimental Arabic rock band,” he said when we asked him to sum up the band in a sentence.
The band’s biggest challenge? Money. “I think that’s it for everyone,” he added.
“At the beginning it was hard,” he told Scoop. “When all of the members kind of understood the final image of what the sound should be, and then everyone started to build his own character in the band, his own sound, then it went on organically.”
The band mixes Arabic lyrics and rhythm patterns with Raja’s Sufi background and a myriad of Western influences, from punk to rock to metal to indie, to come up with a unique sound.
Raja attributes this partly to his producer’s perspective. “I took some pieces from here, some pieces from another genre, if they fit well together it just goes naturally,” he said.
Inspiration ranges from Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim – two of Raja’s favorite artists – to Radiohead, Arctic Monkeys, and Joy Division. As we talked, the rest of the band was starting soundcheck with the Doors.
This is the first time the band has brought their ‘Neo-Sufi’ music to Egypt and, so far, they’re enjoying it. “It’s pretty interesting,” Raja told us. “The Egyptian crowd is different… culturally, they appreciate music a lot.”
The band began its tour last weekend with a gig at Geneina Theater, followed by Tuesday’s show at ROOM. Tonight they’ll play yet another venue, bringing their high-energy performance to the Cairo Jazz Club.
Raja, however, is no stranger to Egypt. “It kinda feels like home in a way,” he said. “I believe in reincarnation, and I believe I was Egyptian many times before.
WE SAID THIS: If you missed their first two shows, you can still catch them tonight at the Cairo Jazz Club! Also, check them out online here.