As promised, This and That With Calandra is committed to supporting independent music and spotlighting independent artists. Our first spotlight is my interview with artist Ahmed Sirour.
Ahmed Sirour is a native of Brooklyn, NY and self-taught keyboardist/pianist with no formal or informal music training, learning how to play in his early 20s by listening to CDs on his boombox and Casio keyboard, practicing till he could both duplicate the song then improvise to create new songs. His first gig as a professional musician began in October of 2002, proceeded by his own weekly, live jam sessions that were improv sets of various genres. He later studied sound engineering, receiving his Masters degree in Audio Production from the University of Westminster, London (UK). His skills range from live performance, production, composition, arrangement, writing and recording/mixing/mastering engineering (from the artist’s bio).
This and That with Calandra: When I first visited your website (Ahmedisthemusic.bandcamp.com), I read this quote and thought of this as describing you in a nutshell. “The composer brings an idea sketched out. The arranger then takes the idea and places it in the best order. The musicians execute the idea. The producer oversees it all, and the engineer captures, mixes, and masters it…and they all happen to have the same name.” Between composer, arranger, musician, producer and engineer, which of these functions do you find the most enjoyable?
Ahmed Sirour: I honestly just enjoy playing the music. The other stuff is the tedious part. Just the fun of playing and creating is the true enjoyment. The other facets do what they’ve got to do in order to fix it, put it together and package it, etc.
TTWC: Do you feel that hinders you at all sometimes, in terms of the work part of it? Do you ever feel frustrated having to do the work part, even though you know the music is most fun and what you’re most passionate about?
AS: No, no, no. It’s all part of the process. Actually, it’s a fun type of stress in the sense that it’s tedious but, I mean, I do it. If I didn’t enjoy doing it, I wouldn’t do it. Making it is the most enjoyable part, but there is an entire process of creating and still putting something together. Every function comes together, so it’s actually cool that I can be able switch hats in this production process. The fact that I can conceive it in my mind, which is the beginning of composition, and then actually putting it down. Of course, for people that can actually read and write music, they actually write it down, whereas I might actually record the basic idea, which is the composition for me, and maybe revisit it later. The entire process is fulfilling, it’s just the fun part is actually creating the music, in the moment.
TTWC: Who were some of your early music influences?
AS: It’s kind of broad. As far as within my instrument, I listen to Joe Sample, even though I don’t play anything like Joe Sample, because I don’t follow his style. He’s completely unto himself, but I listened to a lot of his early stuff. And [Herbie] Hancock, and a bunch of other jazz pianists. It was just inspiring to listen to them and say, look, these guys play well, let’s see how you play your own kind of well. I honestly, to my ear, don’t sound like any of those guys, so it’s hard to even say …most people who are influenced by someone plays like them, and I don’t play like any of them.
TTWC: When I first hit your website and discography, I settled on the Eleanor Rigby remix, as I have always liked The Beatles’ original. In my interpretation, the song started off as the original version, and then it seemed to slow down, and brought out what seemed like the natural instrumentation, but in a way that gave it a mellow feel. The transition was smooth and very natural, as if the original tune was created to sound this way. When I listened to other remixes, they seemed to follow a similar pattern. How do you generally approach remixes?
AS: I actually didn’t slow the tempo down. I did it as the exact same tempo as the original, which I can then say is part of my process. A lot of times I honestly don’t want to change anything as far as the tempo goes; sometimes it throws people off. For instance, people think that I may have sped up the Michael Jackson one for Billie Jean, when in fact it literally is the same tempo. All I did was double the kick. I just basically work within the parameters of the timing and then go from there. So that’s one approach to it. With a remix technically, when you think about it, they’ll take actual samples from the actual song, or take the song, chop it up and do something with it. I can be a bit cocky in the sense that I’ll take the a capella, and then recreate the music. Take some of the elements and replay some of the original and take it to different levels. In essence, it’s almost like I approach it as if I’ve gotten the recording from the artists’ themselves in a real time, in present day, especially the old songs. And I arrange it as if this is the way it was supposed to be done. I try to shut out what I’ve heard from the original and just see what other alternate chords and melodies I hear and where I can take it. I’m a competitive person, so when I get into it, I try to outdo the original version in my own way. Whether I actually accomplish that or not is really…in my mind I may think I’ve done something, but it really comes down to whether the people who listen to it think I’ve accomplished something.
Sidenote: Ahmed has an interesting story behind the evolution of each remix. Here’s what he said about the Eleanor Rigby remix (Ahmed’s Cold Remix)”I think some of you are getting used to the pattern that I am someone who uses music not simply to make sales or show my skills, but also to test my creative limits and enjoy some sound therapy in the process. So is the case for this remix, which was actually inspired by a not-so-pleasant day I was having to deal with, and so instead of staying in a bad mood, I decided to channel that energy into something positive and creative.” http://ahmedisthemusic.bandcamp.com/
TTWC: Is there any remix that’s very special to you?
AS: They may all have different elements. I’ll look at it in the sense of what I’ve accomplished, as opposed to the actual meaning behind it. For example, if I look at Shine, the John Legend one, I think I accomplished something with the orchestral arrangement. Creating a new intro, but especially with it being an orchestral intro, I was very happy about that. With Move Love, I was happy to be able to authenticate elements of bossa nova. With Billie Jean, it’s an iconic song and I think I did it justice. It’s almost like what Prince or The Time would have done if Michael Jackson had collaborated with them.
TTWC: Speaking of the Move Love Bossa Soula Remix….Being a fan of the bossa nova sound, I can appreciate your desire to honor the genre by consulting with an accomplished bossa nova singer. I played this remix at least three or four times, mixing it in with multiple plays of the original Glasper version. Tell us how that remix came about.
AS: Robert Glasper had a contest. For some reason, every time I enter these contests, I never end up winning! The winner was exceptional and of course, I’m going to say mine was better, ha! When I listened to the Glasper original, I enjoyed it. The a capella had a really soothing harmony and melody; I always like quiet grooves, which I play. I knew I could hit bossa nova in this. I messed with it and then I put it away. I didn’t revisit it until I had to play a gig that happened to be in Brazil. I don’t know if it was Providence, because I didn’t do it knowing I was going to be in Brazil. So it’s very fascinating that I happened to be in the country of bossa nova. And then literally being in the country hearing it, because my host played it every day and I loved it; I just soaked it in. It just authenticated what I had started. So I was able to finish it in Brazil, which I thought was poignant. And I finished it on my birthday, so that was cool too!
TTWC: Another single that I fell in love with is Sensitive with vocalist Cleveland Jones. What was the inspiration for that song and what was it like working with him?
AS: Well, first of all, I’ve been a fan of his, even though people may not have known him nationwide or worldwide. He’s a good friend of mine, and like my big brother. I was visiting him in Boston and was trying to help him get started on his own project, which I told him was long overdue. We were working on something he had composed and in taking a break from editing one of the songs, I ended up playing something else. When I asked him to take a listen, he started humming something and went to write it down. It took him roughly 10 minutes to write the main part of the song. Even when we finished it, we put it aside and sat on it for a couple months. Then we put it out there and it took a life of its own. We had literally recorded it in his apartment, in the living room, with a microphone in the corner. It gave both of us a lot of exposure. In the meantime, he has pretty much finished his own album, which won’t come out until later this year.
TTWC: So let’s get to your new release, The After 2AM Sessions. As I listened to it, I heard a soulful jazz vibe. What were some of the inspirations for The After 2AM Sessions?
AS: I released the EP last year, just as a collection of slow, chill pieces. When I take a break from one thing, I may end up recording something else. That’s my way of relaxing. I go to the next thing, to clear my mind. I had a bunch of short pieces that I could put together as an EP. I was nervous about the EP because it was all instrumental, and may not be what most people are looking for. When I put all the pieces together, I realized I had an album. I’ve gotten emails from all over the world – that the music has helped people who are stressed out, guys who appreciate the “look out” and made my night work with my lady, and so on.
TTWC: The first single is FORePLAYING – I could think of several reasons why you may have chosen that as your first single, but I wanted to know what your reason was for choosing it.
AS: Well what do you think my reason was? I’m just curious.
TTWC: First of all, the act of foreplay is the anticipation of that which is to come. It sets the stage for other things, so I drew that analogy that this is the anticipatory song of what’s to come from the rest of the album. That was my first thought. And then sometimes people look at foreplay as something that’s getting you in the mood, that’s putting you in that zone and that’s getting you excited. Those were just Calandra’s interpretations, so I wanted to know what your thought was behind that.
AS: Honestly, I don’t think any one song can capture all the singles…the album is in three sections. I just wanted to do something different and it’s the longest song…
TTWC: Yeah, it is! I said to myself, “Wow this song is 8 minutes and 19 seconds long!” I joked that that was a lot of foreplay! Ha ha
AS: Heh heh, for a song it might be…in real life it may not be!
TTWC: Yeah, it all depends on the interpretation. I understand.
AS: For some people, 8 minutes would be pretty short for foreplay! But, I thought who does that? What label would allow an artist to release a super-long instrumental that’s more than twice the normal 3 minute, 30 second song? None, really. Well, who’s in charge of this project? Me! So I can do what I want. So I figured what the hell? Initially, my inspiration for the song was Moments in Love, by The Art of Noise. The way FORePLAYING is constructed, if you put it on repeat, the timing should be perfect and it should be a seamless loop. So, let me just help people out, heh.
TTWC: It was difficult for me to choose any favorites…but the singles that stood out to me were Warm Rain and FORePLAYING. Are there any songs from the new LP that have special meaning to you?
AS: I like Warm Rain. I actually like walking in warm rain, especially with me being a water sign. Rain and waterfalls are naturally therapeutic, so there you go. Love One Another is my favorite because of the soothing energy, with a slow gospel-type feel. Slow and Steady, I really enjoy, despite the way it came about. I was actually stressed out. I just liked the mood of it. But it’s very melodic, slow-dance, Bill Evans-ish.
TTWC: So musically, what’s next on your agenda?
AS: I don’t know! I’d like to do a few more performances and in between, collaborate with other artists. The next project will be more up-tempo, or mid-tempo; speed it up a bit. I want to do something more edgy.
TTWC: As an independent artist, do you find it’s easier for you to stay true to your gift, and have that freedom to not always have to follow a particular musical agenda that is dictated by major labels or the mainstream industry?
AS: Of course! I don’t have anyone breathing down my neck. Thank God I grew up in the Internet age, where the playing field is gotten somewhat level. I’m not going to have the same exposure of mainstream artists, but I don’t care! I have enough space where I can do things at my own pace. I’m blessed that there are people around me on almost every continent who listen to my music and I’m cool with that. People know my work. The only pressure is from myself; it comes from me. To be honest, I don’t want major labels. It depends on what people want. If people just want a lot of exposure, a lot of money, a lot of fame – that’s fine. But I don’t want that. Distribution might help, and I may need management to help take with bookings, etc. But in general, I’m content. I call the shots and make music in my own way. As long as I can survive with what I do, everything else doesn’t matter.
I have this gift and it’s for a reason, and that reason actually helps people. The first person that it helps is myself – my own therapy. People use music for various reasons. I listen to music for the essence of it, and take the energy of what that person is trying to translate. I let myself be instinctively moved by it. I can analyze it later! I can take the music and apply it to whatever is happening in my world. The fact that there are people who are affected by what I’ve done, in any kind of way – which means there is a purpose and it’s not just entertainment. It’s me inspiring, influencing and somehow causing new pathways for people, mentally, physically, or spiritually. That’s a powerful thing, to be able to affect people in a certain way, whatever that would translate to. I mean, this project may have helped to create people! It’s pretty powerful and I don’t take it lightly. I don’t go into the studio thinking these things. I just do it. As an independent artist, I want to control what I do, and make sure the music gets to the people who want to hear it.
TTWC: I have one last question for you. When you leave an audience for the night…whether a live performance, or after someone has just listened to your music at home, what impression do you want your music to have left on them?
AS: The easiest answer is “something positive.” I want people to think this is amazing. I don’t want someone to just say, “Oh that was nice.” I’ll just think they don’t get it. Some people may not understand it the way I intended, and that’s okay. It’s the sensitive artist in me! I enjoy the music and I want people to come away enjoying the music and experience something. It’s a great feeling for someone to email me or come up to me and tell me what the music meant to them. I’ve done the same to other artists.
TTWC: I want to thank you for agreeing to speak with me. Thank you for your music. In my research I was able to enjoy what I was listening to.
AS: My pleasure. Thank you.
In writing articles for TTWC’s Music Notes, I have often mused that music is not about just throwing something together and putting it out there. It’s about an extension of the artist. It’s about translating that gift and putting it out there and allowing that gift to come forth. I respect the musical process and I respect people who respect their gift. Ahmed Sirour is a musician who recognizes and respects his gift.
Many thanks to Doug Ramsay for sharing in my vision for TTWC’s Independent Music/Artist Spotlight and Karen Parker for introducing me to Ahmed and his music. And of course, I am thankful to Ahmed Sirour for granting TTWC’s first Independent Artist Spotlight interview. On a final note, I was especially touched by something Ahmed said as we spoke generally. “I don’t want people to think that I’m really into myself. It’s not that I’m into myself. I believe that music is a gift and I’m intrigued by the gift. I believe in God and I’m intrigued with what God has gifted in me. I’m just fascinated with this gift that I still can’t put my finger on.”