A Q&A with Berlin-Based Jordanian Composer and Producer Zeina Azouqah

  1. Tell us more about you, your background, your dreams and inspirations. You are currently based in Berlin as a Jordanian composer, producer and song-writer. How does your background influence your work and music?

    Yes, I am based in Berlin now, and I started scoring to picture over 12 years ago in Amman, when I was still working as a graphic designer. After moving to Germany, I studied Film and Animation, and during my studies I used my music skills to score all the shorts we produced one every semester. We also had a sound studio at T.H. Georg Simon Ohm Nürnberg and that’s where I got into sound design. After graduation, I attended a sound design workshop with composer Max Knoth at Film Fest Dresden. A year later, I went to Berlin to assist him on some projects (meeting film composer Rachel Portman along the way- a huge inspiration of mine as a teenager of the nineties). Eventually I chose to make Berlin my home. So I got deeper into film scoring, arrangement and orchestration, which fulfilled the part of me that wants to help tell stories collaboratively, but there was a part of me that wanted to tell my very personal stories, so I started arranging my own songs for chamber pop ensembles and releasing them, as well as performing live. I am happy that I get to exercise both the more isolated side of music-making and the more social side, where I connect to the audience in the moment. Coming from a visual background and studying all aspects of filmmaking definitely helped me with the film scoring aspect.

  2. You have been and still are working on a lot of projects in diverse outlets. You produce your own song-writing albums, compose for picture, perform, and teach. I am especially interested in learning more about your producing journey, as you are the first female* Jordanian songwriter and producer to fully produce your music. Tell us more about how that idea was sparked? What challenges do you face? And what have you been working on since you started?

    The idea of producing my songwriting album myself was always there because I felt like I knew best how I wanted to present my music. One challenge was finding the right musicians who resonated with the work and with each other, to commit to forming the ensemble for recording. Some of them also played live with me for a couple of years before we went into the studio, but the recording ensemble was considerably larger than my live setup. As for being the first female songwriter from Jordan to produce her own album, it is something that actually still impacts me strongly, because it’s painful to face the enraging degree of misogyny in one’s own culture. I love so much about Jordan and being Jordanian. We have a rich cultural tapestry that is amazingly holding together despite the odds (look around us!) and I deeply appreciate that. But the misogyny runs so deep.

    Ultimately, I do want to talk about it, because ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. You are boxed into a very rigid idea of what it means to be a womxn and that is true for the music scene as well. I’ve worked in various countries, misogyny is a global phenomenon, but it was strikingly more difficult for me in Jordan to be seen as I am; a composer and arranger in her own right, just like the cis-men. Most of those guys just shut me out by default or tried to reduce me to my appearance. In the film industry, the picture is already a lot more hopeful, with Jordanian female film composers like Ghiya Rushidat and Suad Bushnaq, who have been active for several years now. It encourages me to learn about womxn, nonbinary folks and trans people who take agency over how they want to tell their stories and let their voices be heard, in general, but there is something special about seeing people who are from your birthplace doing this.

  3. Elaborating more on the projects you have worked on this year, many of them are going to festivals now and getting great recognition. From features to music* releases, tell us more about these projects and your collaborations.

    Gladly. “NICO”, a film that my colleague Doro Bohr (from track15) and I scored was selected to premiere in the feature film competition of the 42nd Max Ophüls Preis Film Festival. The producer/actor of this film, Sara Fazilat, the director, Eline Gehring and the camerawoman, Francy Fabritz, all wanted to make a film where you can see diversity in the casting as well as in the crew. It grew from this conviction and now it’s resonating with audiences worldwide at renowned film festivals (Shanghai Int’l Film Festival, Frameline Int’l LGBTQ+ Festival in San Francisco). Most of the prizes are going to Sara Fazilat as Best Actor, and I’m so proud and happy for her, because she really is an amazing actor, but also a force to be reckoned with as a producer.

    Meanwhile, here in my chosen home, “A Head Will Roll”, a song I co-produced with Barbara Cuesta, was recently selected for the annual “Listen to Berlin” song compilation 2021. I’m co-producing Barbara’s 3rd studio album with them, as well as producing the debut EP for a very special songwriter, Wizzy.

    On the film front, I’ve also just finished scoring two shorts, both shot in Jordan, so I am a happy cat because I get to help tell amazing stories in my birth-home and in my chosen-home. One of the tracks I wrote for the film, “Family Portrait” by Noor Zawateen, is going to be released on the 26th of November. I’m proud to say that violinist Sarah Martin helped bring my melody to life.

  4. What advice do you have for younger composers and songwriters or producers who would like to explore the world of producing their own tracks? Do you have a certain setup you would like to share with us? What is your workflow like in the process?

    My main piece of advice would be: don’t be scared to ask questions. Find mentors and peers to support you in your quest for reaching the standard you strive for.

    My production setup varies from project to project, but my personal go-to on the software side is the Studio One DAW. Hardware-wise, I’m hard analog, my main instrument is the piano, so most of my writing happens there. Even if piano is not in the actual finished work, it helps me sort out my thoughts and figure out harmonies and form when I’m at the piano.

  5. If you had to work with one composer/director/producer in the industry, who would it be and why?

    I’d love to work with Céline Sciamma or Nadine Labaki, directors who have really unearthed narratives long aching to be told. I just appreciate their conviction that these stories are the relevant ones now, to be told with sensibility, a perfect mixture of pathos and clever commentary on social issues in the most organic way possible. It’s true, their utilization of music differs greatly, but they both know when to place it and that’s what counts. Ultimately, I’d like to write music that counts in its place and time, regardless of whom I am working with!

    Interview by Ghiya Rushidat

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