There is an otherworldly mix of Arabic and Western instruments: the qanun, the ancient 81-string Arabic dulcimer; double bass; electric guitar – that symbol of Western popular music everywhere from Beirut to Texas; oud; viola; accordion; Arabic percussion; violins, courtesy of the Pan Arab Strings of Damascus.
The musical journey began in London, when Nick "Dubulah" Page (Trans Global Underground and Temple of Sound) and Syrian Qanun player, Abdullah Chhadeh start a collaborative project discussed some years earlier. Nick and Abdullah were soon augmented by the Irish double bass player, composer and MD Bernard O`Neill, who had worked with Abdullah prior to Syriana.
Writing and recording the album took place in London and at Real World Studios. But it was a ten-day stretch in Damascus, the capital of Syria and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, that left an indelible mark.
“The Syriana idea was the bringing of west and east together in places where conflict had either been resolved or where it had manifested itself. One of the ideas we had was to record in Damascus and then to bring local musicians in and to present a project had its roots in the West, but had also been manipulated into being out of the East. The thing that struck us when we were in Damascus was how many old gramophones there were; you went to the souk and there would always be lots of old gramophones. It was then that we realised of course, that the gramophone was hugely, hugely popular in Arab culture because EMI and various other record companies had been established in the Middle East since 1938. And the other thing was that the period of the Cold War was also the height of the LP, the long player. So, the idea of vinyl was very much in our mind.
‘A Life In Film’ was realised as only ever going to be a vinyl project. We chose certain tracks and certain remixes specifically because we wanted the experience of going back into a mastering room with a Neumann lathe and with someone who could actually cut vinyl. It just so happens that around the corner from me in East London is Mandy Parnell who has the Black Saloon studios. She had just finished working on Björk’s last album and was so up for the idea of taking something a little bit unusual. So the lathe was fired up and she cut the vinyl on a Neumann lathe in front of us using an old EMI desk. So it was almost like going back to a Meccano kit.”
“How can I export this sound, this really different quality and perspective that vinyl has captured, to an audience who’s used to really clean and pristine and digital and refined sound? The best way just had to be to take the original record with an old turntable and play it. Surely, that must have been the best thing to do. So, I took the record. We chose the best turntable we could lay our hands on. We chose the best analogue to digital converter we could lay our hands on, calibrated everything (made a few tests to make sure that everything was fine) and we just played the record down. It sounded great. We didn’t want to do any editing or clean it up; all the little pops and clicks are still there. It sounds like the real experience, the real thing. That’s all there is to it. I loved it. It’s great.”
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