Basel Zayed on Translating Poetry into Music: ‘I Believe That Words, They Come Up With the Music’

Oud player Basel Zayed has translated two poems by Mahmoud Darwish, five or six by Najwan Darwish, and “a lot of 3ameya” poetry into music:

Zayed on stage with Turab in Nablus.
Zayed on stage with Turab in Nablus.

While written poetry and popular music don’t often come together in the English-language tradition, they do in Arabic. To see Najwan Darwish’s poem “Algeria” performed live, and to have a large audience clapping and singing along, is to see a poem become something else entirely.

“I believe that words, they come up with the music — it’s not me who comes up with it,” Zayed said. “Depending on your reading of the poem,” that’s how you will find its music.

Zayed said that one of his next projects are the formation of an Oriental jazz quartet, and “Najwan’s lyrics are one of the main focuses of this band.”

How does Zayed decide what sort of poems will work as music?

“A lot of poets would send me really good pieces of poetry,” he said. “However, sometimes I don’t find myself in the poems. They feel complete. Turning them into music would ruin them.”

Zayed said that he has many different relationships to poetry: sometimes poems become lyrics of one of his songs, but sometimes the relationship is looser, and they are the inspiration of — not directly mapped to — a musical work.

Zayed said he has particularly enjoyed performing the pieces with N. Darwish, as it was the only times he has performed on stage with the poet, and the writer’s energy also supports his performance.

Zayed’s YouTube channel is here.

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