EDUCULT Talks: with Orwa Saleh
Orwa Saleh is an oud player and devotes himself mainly to (contemporary) jazz in the Viennese music scene. The last exhibition “Die Wiener Jammerei” of EDUCULT’s Salon der Kulturen was musically accompanied by him. The musician was born in Syria, where he studied at the Higher Institute of Music, amongst other places, as well as at the National Conservatory in Lebanon. In 2012 he moved to Austria, first to Linz and later to Vienna.
EDUCULT: Orwa, you have been here at EDUCULT before. You performed at the last Salon der Kulturen: For those who don’t know you, perhaps you could introduce yourself briefly?
I am Orwa, I am now the second or third time with EDUCULT. I am an oud player and composer from Syria. I have been living in Vienna for a few years but I have been in Austria since 2012. I studied music and now I am more involved in the contemporary music scene.
How did you get into music?
Since I was a child. My mom decided that each of her children should learn an instrument. The girls – I have two sisters – learned classical instruments, piano and guitar, but the boys were supposed to learn oriental instruments. Then I ended up with the oud. I was eight years old and did not like the instrument at all. Nevertheless, I stayed with the instrument.
When you started making music as a child, I am thinking of guitar or piano. Oud was not your choice, it was your mother’s. Did you think it was cool?
The oud is totally known in Syria. It is a traditional instrument in all cities, every family has an oud player. It is the instrument of the Orient. When I was a kid, I did not like it though. I wanted to play electric guitar, to be a cool rock musician like on TV. Still, I kept going, playing and practicing. Now I think it was a great decision by my mother. But I was not happy.
What was your artistic path like? Was your education in the music field?
First I studied in a sort of conservatory, a music school for young people. That is where I graduated. Then I moved to Lebanon, studied there – again in the conservatory and then did another masters degree in Damascus in the High Institute of Music. I also studied classical Arabic music with the oud as my main instrument.
How do you experience the music and cultural scene in Vienna?
I like the cultural scene in Vienna. I am already used to it. We played at a festival in the 4th district, at an open-air festival. There we were a lot of musicians and we were sitting in a park and all of a sudden we saw how many musicians from everywhere – each of us comes from somewhere, one from Iran, one from the USA, one from Germany. That was the scene in Vienna for me. Vienna has many musicians, they are originally Viennese and also migrants that study there or work there. The mixture makes Vienna very active. I think the scene is very cool. When I was in Damascus, I watched so many concerts at the Porgy & Bess on YouTube and thought, I really want to go there or see a concert in Vienna. Now I am here and playing there. It is really cool. I am happy to be part of the cultural scene in Vienna.
Does that mean you also feel comfortable?
Partly, yes. It is not always easy. Austrian musicians do not feel totally at ease either. The music scene is hard work. You have a lot to do, you need a lot of self-management for freelancing and also with Covid, the lockdown, the restrictions. A lot of theatres have closed down. It is hard for a musician, no matter what nationality.
You liked Vienna even before you moved here?
It was not planned to move to Vienna. When I was a teenager I watched jazz music and I learned a lot about Austria in classical music education. But never in my dreams did I think I would live in Austria. I was surprised myself that I live here now.
How long have you lived and worked in Vienna?
In Vienna since 2016, in Austria since 2012. The first 4 years I lived in Linz. So I think that is partly my hometown. I have been in Vienna since 2016.
What is the difference between Linz and Vienna?
Linz was very good for me. I came in 2012 and I played an instrument that is not known to the scene here. Linz is small, the scene is small, so you reach a lot of people faster. I started playing in bars and coffee shops with a colleague of mine, a bass player from Istanbul. We started playing there and after two years we won the prize integration of the city of Linz. We made our first album in 2014. In 2016 also my second album in Linz. We have the Bruckner University there, also the Art University, the scene in Linz is small but very active. You can achieve something more quickly, you have connections. My experience in Linz was very important for me. I established myself there and then moved to Vienna, where you can play on a larger scale.
The saying “In Linz beginnt’s” is true.
I have heard that very often. It’s totally true for me.
Why Vienna in particular?
I come from a big city. That’s a difficult question. When I started playing in Vienna, I was still in Linz. Then I was over there more often. The scene in Vienna is more welcoming. It is different. There are many opportunities to learn. I met so many great musicians here in Vienna, where I learned a lot of new things and of my own skills – it was more welcoming in Vienna than in Linz. The city is really nice. Despite the bad mood because of the weather and above all, it’s a very beautiful city. I always feel nostalgic. But I like that as a man from an Arab country. A poetic nostalgia. Vienna is full of strangers. Then you are one of those strangers. You feel at home among people who don’t have a home.
Vienna and poetry – you describe your lyrics as stories and poems. What is your music about and which topics are important to you?
My music is about me, my everyday life, my struggles, thoughts and feelings. The music I write, the poetry I use, always is a reflection of how I feel. It’s always changing. In the beginning when I came to Austria and had to leave my country, it was such a hard transition for me. That’s why it was always a topic in my music for a couple of years. When I have new struggles, a new scene, I see new things and reflect on them as well. It changes because of that. Every album has got something. The first one was a real separation from Damascus. Every number was either written there or written here – but still, when I close my eyes, I see the streets there. The second album was the beginning of my experience here, a bit more openly, but not yet a separation from Damascus, I hadn’t quite come to terms yet with the whole story of the fleeing. That was hard for me. In the third album I accepted as a human being that I am here, living here, in Vienna and in Austria. I reflected that I had also changed. The third album was not about Damascus or Vienna, but about the distance in between, what I experienced, the man who lived in Damascus and the man who lives here. I think every time we go on living, there are always new struggles. There are always struggles that you have to fight, for the rights of other people who can not speak up about their rights.
What are your favorite languages to write in?
On the upcoming album there is a song for which I wrote the lyrics for the first time. Usually I take poems and they are always in Arabic. I write emails in English, speak German now but can only live in Arabic. My feelings are in Arabic.
A lot of people say that Arabic flows, when it’s beautiful it’s very beautiful and that’s very hard to translate.
Every language has not only its words but also how you connect them. Every language also has so much depth in between the lines. I think a lot of things in German you can not translate into Arabic without the exact feeling. When we speak in each language we can only explain our emotions, but that is it. We cannot speak the reality of the emotions, we will only try to explain. Even in Arabic it is not enough or the exact translation of what you feel. Language is very rich, very pretty in my ears and it flows, but it is also so detailed where you have a stronger word for every emotion. I am not a huge fan of translation. I got a question once, why don’t you translate your songs or your music into German. No. You can translate poems, but music, feelings and so on are ok as they are. We do not have to change anything. I do not have to translate my stuff for new communities, those are just my emotions.
The themes change from album to album?
Yes, from album to album and from day to day. Before Covid, I always felt that we were the only people who had to experience these extraordinary emotions. With Covid, it was extraordinary for everyone. We experienced something new every day, new emotions, new thoughts and that reflected on the music.
How do people react to you who know oud – for example with an Arab background and how do people in Austria react who have never heard oud? Are there differences?
You have to ask those people that question. I do not play completely traditional oud. That is why it can be somewhat critical among the Arab audience. My audience is actually from my generation and a younger generation anyway, who are more into rock and different music. People always think it’s an oud concert and it should be a classical oud. They think it is a traditional oud and then they’ re always surprised. It also happens that people don’t know oud, they google it and think it’s classical oriental music and there comes up the word “world music”, which means whatever. Then they come and it is a real jazz concert. It is just the instrument. So I always get mixed feedback. Either very cool or what are you doing? I have been battling with myself a lot. I thought I had to learn classical oud. When I am at home I listen to rock and jazz, mainly rock. I tried so many times until my album before last, how I thought an oud player should be. It was something that was stopping me. I talked to a musician, Christoph Czech, he is a piano player and professor at the Bruckner University. I worked with him and we often talked about what the instrument does and what you can do with your instrument, how many possibilities there are. I also worked with different musicians, several projects where I was searching for my virtuosity. There I stopped trying and just started playing music. Then came music where you try to play the classic oud. Then I am more at peace with my music. Then I also think my career has been better. It also has to do with the bigger picture.
Who is your favorite artist or role model? Probably someone who is in jazz.
An Arab person?
No, but that too. People influence you. The people I heard from Tunisia Anouar Brahem – since I was 14 I wished to go to a concert of his for my birthday -until I was 25. No matter where he is, I will always go. It is not my style anymore, but he will always be a great musician for oud. Dhafer Youssef was such an influence to me in the beginning, the courage to do something different. Also my professor from Azerbaijan. Each of them. There are many. When I am at home, I listen to something different though.
What do you listen to?
Oh. That would be mainly… it can be rock music or a progressive rock band. I am more open to the current alternative pop music now. Not pop music but the alternative pop music from Corey Henry to Anderson Park. All of them.
Are there differences in how you are working here in Vienna and how you would work if you were in a different place or at your birthplace?
I think migration in itself is a very extraordinary experience, not only in terms of work, but also in terms of everyone’s personality. It is an experience that plays a huge role. Also musically, as I said, the people I met there, the stages I was allowed to play on. Each of them gave something extra, one made me more brave than the other and I had more courage because it was an honor for me. A couple of people really showed me a lot and reflected so I learned from them. A few experiences have also made me stronger, in areas where I can’t accept injustice. Every city has its own character. That is very important. Beirut has a very different character, Damascus has a different character and here too. The character of the city has an effect on the musicians who live there. The experiences you have in a city also have an effect. Every step I have taken here is a part of my life and not a part of the city. It is a different experience and it also means different music. I am proud because I think we have to think on a human level. We are very different. We are all in the same city and we still do not get along. People are so different. Having a universal model of integration presented, back then as a policy – having a standard does not make sense. We just have to learn that we all live together, no matter where we are, no matter what colour, language, religion, what drink, what you eat and just respect a common law. Everyone has to respect the law. But otherwise migration is a broad term that can be used in very funny ways. I had so many funny experiences in Vienna as well. I was called a foreigner after I got the integration award. The authorities in Vienna also wanted to examine me to see if I was integrated, even though the piece of paper said Integration Award. I was allowed to live in Vienna for 2 years without a visa. I am not a refugee, I have the normal residence card. At the same time, the Austrian embassy abroad invited me to play. It is a paradox. On the one hand an artist and a worker who has the feeling “I belong to this state” and on the other hand someone comes and says your life here and everything you have built here is worthless. That was a very strong experience for me, where I was really called a Viennese oud player in the newspapers and had to fight with racism as well.
When people say things like that, I would always like to ask: When are you integrated? What do I have to do for this?
What is integration in general? I don’t believe in integration. What does it mean? That you drink a “Spritzer”? I don’t understand it sometimes. It is a very broad word. It can be that you obey the rules of the country or that you have to change your life and everything about yourself. I am not pro-integration, as integration was a political tool. I was always against it. There was a phase when Covid came and people were busy with something else. Before that, integration was everywhere. It is not clear, not effective. I do not understand what integration is, even with the integration prize.
I think it is beautiful what you said before: When you live in a city, part of the city belongs to you. Then it is the integration of a city within oneself.
Exactly. If you live there, obey all the rules and do your part for the community. What do you need more? The language? I speak the language, I am still a foreigner. It is really paradox. We imagine that we are an open, inclusive city, with many festivals about other cultures but go to a bar at night when you are from Africa, you are not allowed to go in. No matter if there is an African band playing inside. That is Vienna. We are talking about Black Lives Matter, all of Vienna was outside and at the same time they want to deport two children. It is a paradox in Vienna. Sometimes you can deal with it, sometimes you can not.
Would you say that racism plays a role in your music?
Yes, the fight against racism. It happened to me with my visa and it happens to many other people. But I was louder because I am used to it, being in the music scene, I have a lot of friends and I have a lot of support. I went there with a lawyer. But a lot of people do not actually have the opportunity to fight back. They have lost a lot of rights. They can really get in a lot of trouble. Racism plays a role. We talk about world music: white Europeans talk about it, we have the music and then we have the world music. Integration, world music, there is racism. There are people who support it and some who do not. In art and music this exists.
Basically, we are back to the previous question: if you were making music in your country of origin, racism would not be an issue.
But other things would be an issue. We have to think about the world again, it is really huge. When you live in a small room and you always look at the same walls, you think, you have to paint them. You think, I am the only one who has to experience such a bad situation. But it only takes opening the door to the second room to make you realize it. There is no racism here, but there are so many other things. There is still racism in our country. In the beginning after the war in Iraq, there were so many refugees from Iraq. I feel ashamed because I did not do anything I should have done. I did not realise. You saw on the news 100 Iraqi refugees, ok, switch the channel. And then all of a sudden I was one of the numbers on the news. Then you realise that human rights are something you have to fight for. We have racism and other problems, other issues, other struggles. We always have to try – no matter where we live – to make our living space better, a better future for people.
Is there an experience during your performance where you were particularly proud or had to laugh about something?
The worst thing is that my life is divided into before and after the war. It is a self-protection mechanism. You think you do not have so many memories from there but one story: I was at university in Damascus and we were sent to China to play. I was in China for the first time in my life in a small town and there we played on stage. One of them asked where I was from, I said Syria and he said, “is that close to New York? We are also Asian and they did not believe me. When I was younger and travelled a lot, that broadened my spectrum. I was still really small. Here in Vienna I am proud of… I cried backstage at the Porgy because I never thought I would play at the Porgy in my life. With my ensemble, when we tried rock stuff. My birthday concert always stays in my head. I had a birthday concert every year before Covid, where I invited my friends. That is an experience I like.
What would you tell people who want to become artists, musicians? What would you have wanted to be told when you started?
I would not recommend anything. Live on and everything you experience is exactly what you play on stage. To be at peace. I think doubts are very important. That is the only thing that stops you from being unrealistic. You should always be realistic but keep on dreaming. Always doublecheck, what did I say, play, do. Each of us should gains our own skills or make our own experiences. People should study etc. but in the end music is the reflection of what is inside of people. That is why it’s important to live.
Is it necessary for people who want to make music professionally to go through training?
It depends on what kind of music you want to make. But yes, it is, sure. It is a language, a tool. If you are in pop music or singer/songwriter. Music is like any other product. Every product has customers. For the music I make, sure. That is where you should get an education. If I do not practice or play for 1-2 weeks, I just got worse. You always have to practice, always have to play. The more experiences, the more things you do, the better it is on stage. This is a really wide range. Some people do not need it and are still able to showcase their music. But in other fields of music the standards are so high.
Is there a song that you like to play the most?
That is a very difficult question. It varies according to how I feel. When I’m sad or emotional, I would never listen to my own music. That is embarrassing for me – when I am at home and friends come over and someone there someone saying, hey, play your music – I would say please do not!
What do you look forward to most about performing?
The anxiety before the performances. I am already used to it. Since I was eight or nine years old, I have always had the same feeling. But I am always happy after the first song, where I can really breathe. The fear of it, it stresses me out – but I kind of like it.
How can I picture that? You are backstage, nervous and then how do you overcome that to go on stage?
We are backstage, had soundchecks, talked to the guys and then I go out. Then I come back. There is a moment when I am stressed and then I go on stage, sit down and close my eyes. Then all of a sudden I can feel myself, my instrument. Usually, the last couple of years, Basma a colleague of mine, we always started as a duo and then the band came. I always like to think it is just the two of us, I do not think about anything else and it always works. I always like to think that I am alone. What always stresses me out on stage is talking in German. I have always spoken in English. It is already stressful to be on stage and imagine, then you also have to speak German. I do not remember what I said the first time. I always tell the same joke now: I lived in Linz for 4 years and that is why you do not understand my German. I started talking in German 8 months ago and it works. Sometimes I switch back to English. I play a lot in Austria, also abroad, but a lot in Austria, a lot in villages, a lot for people who actually can not speak English at all. A few years ago, when I did not speak German, it was ok anyway. But now it is not just that I demand it of myself that I have to speak German. I myself want to reach the old ladies in this village. It is a demand by me, it has never been demanded of me to speak in German. But after a few years, where I actually have a sense of home here, I have the urge. I want them to understand me. That is why I had the courage to try it. Slowly it is getting better.
Do you have actual CDs or where can people listen to your music?
There are four albums so far. And then there are two more coming. My music is all on YouTube Music and there are CDs. Each album has a different publisher and different conditions. You can buy them on my homepage, Amazon Music and Apple Music.
Are you on Spotify?
I only have one album on Spotify through an online publisher. Spotify pays the musician so little, it is terrible. I am not so good with streaming platforms.
Last question: What are your plans and wishes for the future?
In 2022, two new albums will be released. One with my ensemble called “Second time”. I had the chance to reconsider a lot of things during Covid last year. With the support of my colleagues, my band – Sebastian Simsa drums, Mahan Mirab guitar, Judith Ferstl double base and Basma Jabr vocals. We have a second revision of everything I used to do. I am very happy and excited. Hopefully that will come out in May 2022. A month ago I also recorded with Music in Touch Trio with brilliant masters, Christoph Czech pianist, Andi Schreiber violin player. They are both really open-minded in contemporary jazz. That is a whole new experience for me. That is the extra mile I never thought I could do. Hopefully that will come in 2022 as well. I am a bit worried about the future for each of us, Covid was a very difficult experience. I lost family to Covid. My uncle died from Covid. I wish that we can make it out together and realise that the fight with the virus is coming to an end. I do not think we will have a completely normal life. I will never take the underground without a mask again. We have already changed. But I hope that we can be clearer with some of the struggles and have a better result. I am already looking forward to 2022, the new albums and the summer.
Thank you for the interview.
Thank you, what you guys are doing is really important. This is my third time there and I have always felt comfortable.