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On Sunday, April 2nd, the Arab American National Museum will play host to the Rock for Refugees benefit concert, featuring several notable Detroit-area musical acts. In anticipation of the concert, CultureSource had the chance to speak with Mouhanad “Noody” Hammami of the band Mazaj. Joined by Imad Nouri on guitar and Raouf Seifeldin on oud, Mazaj refuses to fit in a box. Moving bass lines, delicate oud playing and all types of drum production creates a beautiful backdrop for the lyrics that are mainly sung in Arabic. Mazaj are a perfect example of how multiple musical styles can be assembled into something all its own, just as Rock for Refugees will be. 

 

MazajCultureSource: Can you give a brief explanation of how the group was formed, and how long the band has been together?

Mouhanad "Noody" Hammami: Mazaj officially came together as a group with its own musical style in 2004. Guitarist Imad Nouri and I met our oud player Raouf Seifeldin, and started experimenting together. Raouf’s oud was exactly the flavor we needed in our music. Shortly after that, the three of us became Mazaj. Since then, we have had many musicians join us or play as guests at our concerts. But it is fair to say that it is the three of us that make up the band—not to discount our long collaboration with producer Rafik Seifeldin, who has been instrumental in giving Mazaj its trademark sound.

CS: How would you describe the band’s sound to someone who will hear your music for the first time at the Rock for Refugees concert?

MH: The word “Mazaj” in Arabic means mood, and it is very befitting to describe our style. Our music covers many styles and moods and draws from our musical influences and backgrounds. We are not a fusion band, nor are we a traditional Arabic band. When you listen to our music, you can feel a touch of folk, rock, jazz and blues. This reflects our past experiences and the music each one of us was exposed to. This combination of East and West, the marriage between the guitars and oud and mixing traditional chords with progressive beats is what makes Mazaj’s sound.

CS: What is your connection to the immigrant community, and why have you chosen to play at Rock for Refugees, which benefits Freedom House and Take on Hate?

MH: The three founding members of Mazaj are Arab Americans who are technically immigrants. Most of our songs and lyrics address issues tackling oppression and injustice, as well as local issues relevant post 9/11, and war and peace. All of this makes Mazaj one of the few Arab American bands that advocate for equality, integration and pluralism at home in addition to freedom, democracy and justice globally. It is songs like “The Immigrant” that talks about the constant search for a new identity and new country that resembles the utopia of a homeland, or “I the Arab” that addresses discrimination and prejudice towards an entire ethnicity and with a rich history of ancient civilizations that have been reduced to stereotypes of lunacy and hate constantly displayed in media and news stories.  A few weeks ago, we wrote a song called “Executive Order” — you can guess what it is about. These songs are the core of why the Take on Hate campaign and Freedom House are important and must remain the guardians of values and good, especially in our current times and the challenges we face as Americans.

CS: How did Mazaj get involved in playing the Rock for Refugees event?

MH: Our first large-scale public performance as a band was in 2008 at the Concert of Colors. This has established Mazaj as a home-based Arab American band that provides an alternative to the traditional Middle Eastern ensemble or the invited Arabic musical acts from abroad.  

We played again last year at the Concert of Colors as part of the Arab American Sound Experience, so I guess it was natural to be considered to participate in such an event. We are grateful for the invitation and honored to participate in this concert along a list of amazing musicians and accomplished bands. We are planning a great show with a list of songs that are very relevant to the occasion and the purpose of this event. We called the set we plan to play “One Sound” because it will mix our songs with other covers. It is also one of the few sets that we play that will be bilingual, because we wanted to show people that no matter where you come from or what language you speak, we all sing about the same things.

CS: What impact do you think large music festivals can have?

MH: A great impact. Not only it will bring awareness to issues and hopefully support the causes financially from the proceeds, but it will also bring people together from all walks of life and different backgrounds that share the same goals and the same cause. We have witnessed the impact of similar festivals since Live Aid and Farm Aid all the way to The Concert for New York City after 9/11. These concerts contribute tremendously to the cause. It also promotes harmony and togetherness. As Pete Seeger once said, “when people sing together, they will never fight.”

CS: What do you hope people learn from seeing your set and attending Rock for Refugees?

We want them to know that regardless which language you use, love, peace and justice have the same meaning. 

We hope that people can see the similarities we have despite our differences. We hope that they can relate to our music even if they did not understand the words. It was such an amazing feeling when audiences at the Concert of Colors were dancing to our songs although they had never heard them before. We want people attending Rock for Refugees to leave with a better understanding of who immigrants are and what does it mean to be “the other.”  We want them to know that regardless which language you use, love, peace and justice have the same meaning. 

To read more about Rock for Refugees, click here.

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