Ilham Al Madfai’s musical talent began to seriously develop at the age of twelve in his hometown of Baghdad. He started, and still is, a guitarist at heart.
His first musical band, The Twisters, was formed in the 1960s. They were the first band in Iraq, and probably the Arab world, that used modern instruments in playing Arabic music. His use of guitars, drums, bass, and piano pioneered the Arabic-world music crossover. This modernization of traditional and folklore Arabic songs resulted in a new wider-audience appeal. The Twisters created a new wave in Arabic music which was heavily criticized for modifying the long maintained traditions of Middle Eastern music.
Ilham left Baghdad, pressured by his high-profile family—with a long history of holding high-governmental positions—to pursue a professional career. He went to England to study architecture. The young student played with a group and performed at Al-Bayt Al-Baghdadi in London (Cafe Baghdad). He attracted a special and distinct audience including Paul McCartney, Donovan, and George Fame as well as many jazz musicians who enjoyed his unique style. Ilham was one of the first modern-era Iraqi artists to cross the borders and reach out to a more cosmopolitan audience.
When Ilham returned to Baghdad in 1967, he formed his well-known band 13 ½. This time, he introduced the Spanish guitar rhythms of Andalusia to the traditional Iraqi folklore songs, appealing to yet another newer, younger audience. His popularity soared and was generally considered Iraq’s most popular musician through the 1970s.
When political problems in Iraq began in 1979, Ilham, like many other Iraqis, was forced out of his homeland under death threats. Not only did he leave behind his homeland, his wealth and his popularity, but he also left his music. He travelled to many countries trying to pursue different careers, occasionally having music concerts. Recordings of these concerts made their way to Baghdad to the delight of his fans, keeping them in touch with his newer work.
Upon returning for a short visit in 1990, Ilham and his family witnessed the start of the first Gulf War and were prohibited from leaving. After his son was threatened by Uday Hussein in a nightclub, the family escaped to Jordan in the middle of the night and has not returned.
EMI Music Arabia released a self-titled album ILHAM AL MADFAI (a.k.a. THE RED ALBUM) on the Virgin label in 1999. This album became one of the fastest-selling recordings in the Middle East, surpassing the platinum status in sales, and becoming the biggest Arabic hit of the year 2000.
Ilham’s latest album BAGHDAD was released in June 2003, inspired by the current situation in Iraq, it pays homage to his beloved city. The album was recorded over two years in London and in the Middle East and features reputable Arab and Western musicians, with musical influences, instrumentations and fusions ranging from jazz and Latin to Classical Arabic and Iraqi. The album is arranged and produced by Ilham, and following on his tradition of doing renditions of classics, the album includes some very loved nostalgic tunes and some less known hidden gems from Iraqi folklore. It also includes original tracks, including collaborations with the renowned poets Kareem Al Iraqi, Kathem Al Saidi, Muthafar Al Nawab and the legendary Nizar Qabbani.
Ilham lives with his family in Jordan and will always yearn for his beloved Baghdad, which continues to be represented in his music. www.ilhamalmadfai.com
Mohamad Ali Al Mafai’s primary client is his father, Iham Al Madfai, but he also manages dozens of other Middle Eastern artists.
Tareq Al Nasser, born in 1969, is one of the pioneers in the movement to revive Arabic music. His break-away success has been scoring soundtracks for Arabic TV beginning in 1993. Through that success he has been able to move his music vision to broader horizons.
His fame started with his soundtrack for NIHAYAT RAJU SHUJAA (END OF A BRAVE MAN), a drama series based on a novel by Hanna Mina and directed by Najdat Anzur. It was followed by AL JAWAREH (BIRDS OF PREY). In both works, his unconventional approach was clear, breaking away from inflexible patterns of Arabic music that were associated with sung poetry according to unchangeable molds. From that, Tareq created his personal style in music composition and arrangement.
Tareq has worked with several major TV production companies, including Travel Channel, Cham International, MBC, Syria for Art Production, Orbit and the Arab Centre for Audiovisual Services. He has also worked with TV and movie directors that share a drive for modernity and new performance forms, including Najdat Anzur, Hatem Ali, Haytham Haqi and Sandra Nasha't. His works have been recognized with several awards, most recently the soundtrack award at the December 2007 Cairo Media Festival, for two drama series: AL MALEK FAROUQ (KING FAROUQ) and RASAILUL HUBBI WAL HARB (LETTERS OF LOVE AND WAR).
Tareq and his younger sister (and accomplished flautist) and now managing director, Russol Al Nasser, founded in 1998 an independent band that plays Tareq's original pieces. Now known as Rum - The Tareq Al Nassar Group, the name comes from Wadi Rum, a famously beautiful valley in southwest Jordan.
Rum is technically an orchestra of varying size, consisting of 20 -25 musicians of all backgrounds who are at home in a broad spectrum of musical genres, from Western to Arabic and Oriental. Among the instruments deployed are electric piano, accordion, ney, oud, electric bass, trumpet, saxophone, oriental percussion, Western drums and the human voice. The result is a harmonious mixture of Arabic music with Latin rhythms and elements from jazz, blues and reggae.
Tareq’s continuous research in music forms and frontiers keeps the band in constant growth and expansion – musically and internationally. The group has now played in over 126 local, Arab and international cultural festivals, bringing them to such areas as Beirut, Damascus, Tunis, Kuwait, Casablanca, Doha, Paris, Genoa, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Berlin, Bremen, Cologne and Stockholm.
Tareq also has special interest in Jordanian, Arab and international musical heritage, seeking to re-arrange the music and re-introduce it with a new musical vision while preserving its musical, vocal and historical features. In this regard, he produced the album YA BU RDAYEN (Palestinian folklore) in cooperation with Greater Amman Municipality, which features an assortment of Jordanian folklore songs. He also arranged the music of the album ZARIF (Jordanian Folklore) for the Ramallah Folklore Arts Troupe.
Despite his passion for change and breaking traditional molds, Tareq does not deny the influence of classical Eastern and Western masters. He recognizes as his idols Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Kitaro, Omar Khairat, Assi and Ziad Rahbani.
Tareq believes spontaneity is essential in his work but he never fails to use each musical instrument in its right place. He also believes music puts human energy in perspective and that modern life, which is plagued by chaos, can be reengineered by music. He tries through his music to exhibit a sense of human beauty, explore its depths and depict its various forms of expression.
Meeting and working with Santaolalla Gustavo, an Academy-award winning composer from Argentina, on this film project was a career highlight for Tareq. www.tareqalnasser.com
Rana Arafa is a popular Egyptian television personality who understands and communicates the infinite nuances that drive a complex and, to most Westerners, a surprising popular culture. She is one of the morning hosts of a popular Egyptian life-style program, Saba7ak Sokkar Zeyada.
In addition to fronting one of the mid ’80s most successful mainstream/arena rock bands, Night Ranger, bassist/singer Jack Blades has either recorded with, penned songs for, or produced albums for some of rock's biggest names. His unbridled Americanism strikes an interesting contrast to the artists from the Middle East with whom he collaborates on this project. www.jackblades.net
As a member of The GoGos, the first successful all-girl band of the 80’s, Charlotte Caffey brings an incongruous sensibility to the songwriting process when teamed up with activist-artist Tania Saleh from Beirut.
Saad El Soghayar grew up in Shubra, a poor neighborhood of Cairo where many streets are still unpaved and the donkey endures as a major form of transport. As a young boy, Saad began singing at weddings. He was invited to perform at more and more weddings as his cute and enthusiastic demeanor became very popular.
The musical style of Saad is called "Sha'abi," which is the music of the common man on the street. This music is almost always upbeat and lively with infectious rhythms that are so appreciated by belly dancers around the world. Saad’s style is in stark contrast to some traditional Egyptian music and conservative viewpoints. This ability to sing about the everyday life of the local community in the language of that community has been at the core of his success
At the beginning of this film project Saad had just released his first CD, which became very popular. Since then he has starred in two films and released three more albums. His dream of coming to the United States proved to be a major boost for his reputation in the Arab world as this moved him into the realm of "international” star. His business, like most Arab singers, is still largely based on performing at weddings and in the season he may perform at as many as five events a night.
Saad still lives in his old neighborhood and has no interest in leaving. This loyalty to his roots, despite his economic ability to leave, endears him to his local friends and family. To demonstrate his new success, however, he did buy a Hummer to showcase his fame and illustrate that he was not adverse to spending money and that he was staying in his neighborhood by choice.
At his own expense, Saad has generously helped build mosques and schools in his neighborhood. He is a devout Muslim.
Saad’s debut U.S. release, THE PRINCE OF SHA'ABI, was released in 2006.
Mihran Gurunian is an endlessly good natured and witty guitar player with great talent. In addition to playing in Tania Saleh’s band, he plays lead guitar in the well-known Lebanese band, BLEND, which has made its mark in the region as a force of cultural provocation.
Antonio “Toy” Hernandez is a major force in the Monterrey, Mexico underground music scene. He is a renowned DJ, producer and founder of the group Control Machete. His deep roots in Mexican culture and subsequent vision of how music is made, offers a true challenge to Middle Eastern Artists collaborating in LA.
Caesar Kahwagi is a committed Lebanese purist of the hip hop genre. He performs frequently with Wael Kodeih (a.k.a. Wayess Bek), the hip hop artist from Beirut.
Wael Kodeih was born in 1979 in Nabatieh, a small village in the south of Lebanon, to a Lebanese father and Palestinian mother. In 1982 the family fled Lebanon upon the Israeli invasion campaign known as "Peace of Galilee". The tragic war sent them to Paris where Wael lived until the age of 13. In 1992, two years after the Lebanese Civil War ended, the family moved back to Lebanon.
Wael’s interest in the arts began at a young age as his father, an artist, taught him how to draw.
This passion stayed with him through his education, and as a young man Wael focused his energy on his studies, completing a master’s degree in mass communication and graphic design in 2003 from the Lebanese Fine Arts Academy (ALBA or Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts). With Lebanon nearly destroyed from the continued violence of war, Wael then returned to Paris to begin work on his doctorate at the French National School of Fine Arts (Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Décoratifs).
Wael's began his musical career at a time when most rappers in the Middle East were putting out records in English and French. Wael, however, decided to rap in Arabic. He adapted rap music to his personal background and created his own sound and style. His lyrics - always polished, sharp and committed - speak about Lebanon, its crisis, its war, its youth and disillusionment with politics by the new generation.
Wael, with his band Aks'ser (literally "Against the Current"), had their debut at the Fete de la Musique concert summer of 1997 in Beirut. This concert earned them critical respect. Aks'ser released two albums AHLA BI CHABEB (WELCOME YOUTH) in 2000 and KHARTOUCH (BULLET) in 2002 on the independent label ChichProd. In 2003, Rayess Bek released his first solo album 3AM BEHKEH BIL SOKOUT (TALKING IN SILENCE) as an independent release and went on tour throughout the Middle East and Europe. In 2004, Aks'ser was signed to EMI and released their self-titled third album 2005.
In 2007, Wael was commissioned by the UN to compose and produce a song for a special awareness campaign on disability. The song and video, "Ekhtilef Tabiyeh" (“Difference is Normal”) was the first media campaign promoting acceptance of handicapped people in the Middle East. It has been broadcast in over 20 countries in North Africa and the Middle East.
In June 2007, Wael completed his Doctorate in Fine Arts in Paris, and began work on another campaign for the United Nations, this time for an anti-war campaign, along with American co-writer and producer Frank Fitzpatrick. The song and video is titled “Just Like You” and debuted throughout the Middle East and North of Africa in 2008.
Today, Wael is working with musicians in his new band, The Rayess Bek Orchestra. The musicians use traditional instruments like the oud (oriental luth) and nay (oriental flute) with bass, upright bass and groove box to form orchestral hip-hop in French and Arabic. They have performed all over the world, in such places as Paris, Casablanca, Liverpool and Berlin.
Pop music star Latifa was born in Manouba, Tunisia. In college she transferred to the Arab Academy of Music in Egypt and received her degree. It was during this time that her singing began to attract more attention and she was soon in the studio with a record contract. Early Arab-language hits included “Don’t be Jealous” and “Frigid Love”. She was one of the first women in the region to sing about issues of love, loss, and desire.
Latifa believes strongly that every artist must interact with the issues of their nation. To this end, Latifia’s songs are often about political activism and anti-war sentiments.
During her 20+ year career, Latifa has released more than 20 albums and singles. Unfortunately, she was not part of the group that traveled to Los Angeles. www.latifaonline.net
Malverde is a Mexican hip hop artist whose music promotes the poetry of Mexican culture. Like Wael Kodeih from Beirut, he speaks of finding a national identity and of marginalization from foreign perspectives. www.malverde.com
Ken Mazur is a gifted composer and guitarist who has appeared on over 50 albums. He has scored numerous television shows and films and has played with the likes of Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, Robert Palmer and Herbie Mann. He displays great enthusiasm for how bewilderingly different Arabic and Western music can be. Mazur’s web site
Nile Rodgers has been of staple on the American music scene for decades. He has written songs or produced albums for Madonna, David Bowie, Diana Ross and the B52s, to name just a few. He continues to explore his interest in music that crosses and even unites different cultures. www.nilerodgers.com
A Cairo native from an wealthy Egyptian family, Ramy Romany, in addition to translating work on this film, offers a perspective of Egyptian class issues as they pertain to the regional popular culture. His production skills on this project were invaluable. He works frequently with foreign crews throughout the Middle East
RZA is the de facto leader of the hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan. He is also an accomplished producer, composer and film actor. Prior to volunteering to collaborate with Middle Eastern artists for this film, he spent time in Egypt on a spiritual retreat, which served as the source of his contribution this process. www.wutang-corp.com
Tania Saleh was born in 1969, six years prior to the Lebanese civil war that lasted 15 years. Her musical interest started while young and Tania grew up listening to Fairouz, a famous Lebanese singer, and the joyous celebratory melodic music of the Egyptian Tarab in the sixties and seventies. Rock and jazz selections on the local radio were also an early influence.
A graduate of the Lebanaese American University (LAU) and the Sorbonne University in Paris, Tania studied fine arts before working for several advertising companies. She sang in several local rock bands throughout this time, singing popular rock and jazz songs and playing all over Lebanon, mostly during the occasional cease-fire periods
In 1990, the Lebanese war ended with no official winner. Tania continued her musical career working as a backing vocalist for Ziad Rahbani, an icon in Lebanese music and theater between 1993 and 1996. Tania also appeared as a guest singer for Charbel Rouhana, Toufic Farroukh and Mounir Khawli’s albums and kept writing her own songs dreaming that one day she would release them.
Tania began working with Philippe Tohme, a sound engineer and music producer. Their musical collaboration extended to a personal relationship and they were married in 1997. Together they co-wrote, co-produced and released her self-titled first album in 2002.
The couple’s personal experience as well as the everyday issues of living in the Lebanese post-war period became the focus of many of her songs. Tania writes about truth, about false ideals and about the lost identity of the Lebanese people.
The music in Tania’s heart is a fusion between Dabkeh (the Lebanese traditional dance beat), folk, rock, and funk. She has performed live in the Byblos International Festival, LAU, Unesco Palace, Dar al Opera in Egypt and at The Roxy, L.A. Her music has been played on film soundtracks like VOICES OFF BEIRUT by Marco Doringer, JOHN MACCARTHY, OUT OF THE SHADOWS by Geoff Dunlop, and Katia Saleh’s ALL FLIGHTS CANCELLED.
The musical workshop she participated in for this film, gave her the chance to jam with Charlotte Caffey from The GoGo’s, Jack Blades, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan and Nile Rodgers. As a result of this filmed workshop, she wrote lyrics for two songs that were recorded in L.A.: “Had There Been a Dream” written and arranged by Steven Last (published in a compilation produced by Miles Copeland entitled BAGHDAD METAL); and “Halfway” (a musical collaboration between Tania, her band members, and Charlotte Caffey).
In November 2007, the song "Slowdown" was released in a compilation also produced by Miles Copeland, DESERT ROSES 5 (lyrics by Tania Saleh and music by Philippe Tohme). Tania also wrote “Mreyteh Ya Mreyteh” (Mirror my mirror), the title song in Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s feature film, CARAMEL, released in 2007.
Tania Saleh and Phillip Tohme live in Lebanon with their two sons. www.taniasaleh.net
Gustavo Santaolalla has won Academy Awards for scoring BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and BABEL. His music has also graced the big screen in INTO THE WILD, LORD OF WAR, NORTH COUNTRY, SHREK 2, MOTORCYLCE DIARIES, and 21 GRAMS.
Gustavo has also composed music for 24, THE SOPRANOS and ENTOURAGE.
He is a gifted musician who composes, performs and improvises from pure instinct and passion, as he cannot read or write music.
Phillippe Tohme is a recording engineer, a producer, and he manages numerous bands, including his wife Tania Saleh’s.
He was drawn to technology at an early age, always surrounded by tools and electronic bread-board circuits. Science, music, and technology interests lead Phillippe to sound engineering. He studied electrical engineering in the Silicon Valley of California before immersing himself in all aspects of the professional audio industry of the San Francisco Bay area from 1982-1992.
Phillippe returned to Beirut to manage and operate the Notta Studios in 1992. Since then Phillippe has been busy with system design, installation, broadcast consultations, concert system design and operation, brand representation, music production, and of course, engineering.
Phillippe presents a deep understanding of how the chronic conflict in Lebanon has stunted its cultural growth. He’s committed to revising this tragic cycle.