Kuiwaisiana, a 7-piece band based in New Orleans, has recently released their debut album Chapter 1. I spent the past few days listening to Chapter 1, absorbing the familiar sounds of New Orleans and the unfamiliar rhythms of the Middle East. Not understanding Arabic did not stop me from attempting to dance and sing along, all while having a swooning heart. I recently saw Kuiwaisiana in New Orleans, which was even more magical than listening to their album. These musicians feel and feed off of one another, displaying a bond stronger than friendship. Chapter 1 is an album that grooves and yells, begging you to listen. Chapter 1 shows us what it is like to be a true melting pot of multiple cultures--showing us that "the future is multilingual.”
I got the chance to chat with the lead singer and guitarist of Kuiwaisiana, +Aziz. Dive in and read the birth and future of the band!
+Aziz, you've lived in Kuwait and many other places in the US. Many of your bandmates in Kuwaisiana have also lived all over. How did you come to settle in Louisiana and make this place your home?
I was looking to move after completing a little solo album called SoHo Spirit.
Coming from Kuwait, I always exoticized the American South, and New Orleans was the most affordable city to live in compared to Austin and Nashville. In New Orleans, I’ve managed to secure the trust and commitment from some very talented musicians who believe in what I’m doing. Believe in what we’re doing. Now the band is really what’s keeping me here, so we’ll see how far it all goes.
How was it meeting your bandmates for the first time, and wanting to play music together?
We met online, which is not unusual at all for me. I’ve been running Kuwaisiana for 2-3 years now with the same group of people. I first met my drummer Matthieu; he’s the memory of the band. I practice with him the most and he helps me find a “balance” in my song ideas. After that came our bassist John Soltrane, who is more like a lead guitar player in the way he performs. Very explosive and moving around a lot. Pat Driscoll is our hand percussionist; he’s the most chill and adds a thickness and intricacy to the percussion. Our synth player Michael Stalios (who’s also our music engineer) sprinkles in some keys, pads and synth voicings. And then the two horn players (who are both from Tulane University) bring a lot of punch, motion and intensity to the music.
I always wanted to do grunge rock music but you also have to work with what you have. But because of its democratic structure, Kuwaisiana has been shaped by the folks it’s attracted more so than simply being my “vision”.
I love that Kuwaisiana is a project stemming from the minds and talents of several people. You've all found a way to utilize your unique voice through playing music together. Did this mashup of cultures immediately work together or did it take a while to get Kuwaisiana to what it is now? What was the evolution of the band like?
The cultural mash-up is really just an extension of my own identity and where we are as a band. I did make a point to expose my bandmates to Kuwaiti culture, the Arabic language and some of the realities I've grown up with. They've obviously reciprocated this and I've learned so much from bandmates who grew up in France and Turkey. That exchange did take a while to circulate. Our bassist John is the only person who's really from New Orleans, so he's the one who really owns the "NOLA" lens. Our percussionists are also big on 2nd line and marching band music.
When looking at this wave, what makes our band stand out is the fact that we work to reflect both the consciousness of Arab-Americans and natives to the Arabian Peninsula... through the lens of New Orleans or the vague idea of “Southern Americana.” At their best, I feel like my lyrics reflect the concerns of Arab/Muslim communities through a musical format that both accepts and vilifies it. That’s really what’s happening at the deepest cultural levels. Sometimes it all feels so obscure, but also highly relevant and symbolically important in the current political climate.
I by no means am a representative of Arab-Americans (I didn’t grow up in USA) nor Khaleeji Arabs (I haven’t lived there in over a decade), but I am in a highly unique position to engage with those cultures, my cultures. And it’s very common for me to choose to sing about dysfunctional aspects rather than get all teary-eyed and proud of my people’s heritage and lifestyle.
Sound-wise, there has been quite an evolution. In the beginning, I was doing a lot of the heavy-lifting in terms of translating my ideas, identifying the tempo and groove with Matthieu, our drummer. But after a while it became pretty clear that most of our bandmates are much better musicians than myself, so I embraced this as much as humanly possible and we are now putting an emphasis on encouraging more collective creative contribution.
Most tangibly, I wanted to do music to be a lot more aggressive, basic and harsh sounding. I also wanted Kuwaisiana to be a project that was more hip-hop and beat oriented. But the result and reality today is that the band has a different flavor that is so much more approachable without losing that edge and sense of urgency.
Chapter 1 themes are strong with your lyrics being incredibly poetic and narrative. How long did it take to develop your writing style? In the song "The Journalist”, I can hear that aggressive, grunge sound you've been talking about.
Right? “The Journalist” to me is probably one of the most exciting songs. I both love to perform it and I think it will stand strong in the test of time. My writing style has evolved over a very long period of time. I use to carry notebooks with me as a teenager and I loved to scribble down catchy lines, funny ideas and just really trying to 'feel the feelings'. And I still have those notebooks!
Before I had even graduated high school (which happened in 2002), my lyrical appetite had already matured as the focus of my fandom shifted from The Smashing Pumpkins at first in the 90's and then At-the-Drive-In in the early 2000's and then finally with Sigur Ros as I moved from Kuwait to becoming a full-time student at Penn State. Billy Corgan for me represents the poetic and more scholarly approach to writing. Cedric Bixler-Zavala, on the other hand, is the more cryptic, highly abstracted and open-ended approach. Then, to top them all off, you have Jonsi, who created his own language, would be establish "post rock" as a genre and become my first "world music" band.
As time went on, I discovered writers like James Joyce, Milan Kundera and Kierkegaard, who really opened me up to new possibilities of what can be done with language. I won't even bother going in Arabic writers for now, but I can certainly say that my writing has evolved through many touchpoints.
The mixing of these genres is fun, experimental, and refreshing. Which songs on the album were the most challenging or exciting to compose together?
After the initial reggae groove, “Say Yea” transitions to a pre-chorus that breaks from the reggae flow into something more rock. And then the song flips into this disco beat, so all those fluctuations took time to iron out. The chorus on “Nada” presented challenges on multiple fronts including drums and bass. Finding the sweet spot to make it as bouncy and exciting as possible took some time to iron out.
So those are the most challenging. The most exciting were probably “Vintage”, “The Journalist”, “Virgin” and “Gabba Barra.”
Thanks for filling us in on the process of your music making, but now I want to know is there any possibility of Kuiwaisiana going on tour?
Oct. 2018. Lake Charles, Lafayette through to Houston, Austin, San Antonio and perhaps Dallas too. We will continue to play Baton Rouge and Hammond with one-off shows.
Looking for a manager and looking for a booking agent! We have two tracks getting mixed and two music videos. In terms of the new tracks, we're looking to mix up Arabic and English lyrics within the same song instead of parsing them out the way we did on the debut release.
In terms of the mid-range future, we will be pressing our vinyl to celebrate the one-year anniversary in May 2019. I'm working on a campaign to gather pre-orders, which includes a Patreon campaign for those early adopters: https://www.patreon.com/plusaziz
Kuiwaisiana is on many different streaming services, so go ahead and check out my favorite tracks: “Murra”, “Gabba Barra”, “Virgin”, and “The Journalist”. Their next show is on August 16th at Gasa Gasa in New Orleans with The Painted Hands. Come on out Southeastern, and enjoy this back to school show!
Dara Calmes, a junior at Southeastern Louisiana University, is an Art History major with a minor in Theatre. Calmes is passionate about music and her job as Student Music Director for 90.9 FM KSLU.