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On his sophomore album, Al Hamra, Syrian oud virtuoso Mohannad Nasser M.M. ’18 takes listeners on a sonic tour that reflects his own journey, from growing up in Syria and Lebanon to studying at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain.
Featuring a seamless blend of jazz, flamenco, and traditional Middle Eastern influences, the album was inspired by the Alhambra, a palace in Granada that reminded Nasser of his previous home on Al Hamra Street in Beirut. He saw the palace as a symbol of his decision to move to Valencia to study jazz and flamenco. These “two Al Hamras,” he said, represented a link between his old and new homes, “especially because Arabic music and flamenco music are very similar historically.”
A graduate of the Master of Music in contemporary performance (production concentration) program, Nasser says he chose Berklee Valencia for the campus’s unconventional teaching methods, particularly in terms of jazz. “At traditional institutions, when it comes to teaching music, there's this right and wrong,” Nasser says. “But at Berklee, they use a modern way of teaching; it’s much more open-minded, and they look at what the musician wants.”
Production During Crisis
After the first coronavirus quarantine, Nasser tapped two frequent collaborators and Berklee instructors, jazz pianist Albert Sanz and flamenco percussionist Sergio Martínez, to produce the soundtrack to his Al Hamra–inspired story. To complete the band, they recruited Berklee alumnus and double bassist Masa Kamaguchi ’94 and prolific Spanish flamenco flutist Jorge Pardo. The group composed the tracks on the album at a studio located steps from Alhambra palace.
The production process was better and faster than he had expected. The quintet brought so much heart and excitement to their performances that they would play each tune for the first time, rehearse, and record it in the span of a day. “It really comes naturally when you gather human beings from different cultures to create something,” Nasser said.
Nasser remembers walking past the Alhambra castle after each successful day in the studio, enjoying a delicious Spanish dinner at home, and then listening back through the day’s recordings. Each take was too perfect; he couldn’t easily choose which one would make the cut.
Then each morning, he’d wake up early and return to the studio, ready to repeat the experience. “I felt like something inside me was giving me energy not to be tired at all, and I was just super excited that it’s happening,” Nasser said. By the end of the process, he’d settled on the nine tracks that make up Al Hamra, which he released in September of 2021.
Nasser feels the album represents his best work to date, but he already has two more projects in the pipeline: First, a solo album that reflects on how self-isolation and social distancing during the pandemic has encouraged many people to look at themselves as individuals and see the bright side of their individuality. His second upcoming project is composing music for another band. Nasser's focus will be on creating beautiful music while retaining the high quality found in his previous work.
A Lasting Legacy
“I want to keep creating music and looking for inspiration because once you have released an album, you basically bury the process of making the music,” Nasser explains. “The people will listen to it, if it exists forever, but the process of making the music, which is full of life, comes to an end when we release it.”
With his oud in hand, Nasser also aspires to leave a legacy that creates a positive image of Syria and its heritage. He aims to share an image that “is really open to many different cultures and everyone around the world."
“It’s much more like two ways of looking for ourselves and the others, and I love to present that in my music. So I don't want to play only traditional Syrian music, but also I don’t want to forget the traditional Syrian music,” he says. Al Hamra marks Nasser’s latest success in building that legacy.
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