Badawi: Tomorrow’s Warrior

This was originally published in the January 2002 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

The titles of New York based Raz Mesinai a.k.a. Badawi’s three ROIR CDs Bedouin Sound Clash, Jerusalem Under Fire and the newly issued The Soldier of Midian all take a warrior stance that sounds pretty provocative in the wake of September 11 and it’s aftermath.  The music itself is aggressive too: the first two records filled with righteous nyabhingi drums stalking through digi-dub loops and heavily processed vocals, while Soldier explodes with Middle Eastern percussion, Persian horn samples and dulcimer licks cut up with a major dose of studio tricknology.

Born in Jerusalem in 1973, to American and Israeli parents, Mesinai moved to New York City aged 3, making periodic trips back to Israel.  When he was seven, his godmother took him on a trip to a Palestinian refugee camp on the Lebanese border, where he attended zikr Sufi ceremony led by Sheik Murshid Hassan.  There he first heard the frame drums which triggered a lifelong obsession with rhythm that has so far encompassed Persian, Indian, Yemenite, Moroccan and Afro-Cuban styles.  Time spent with the nomad Bedouin (from which the name “Badawi” comes) in the Sinai desert as a child seems to have infected the young Mesinai with a musical nomad style capable of moving through different terrains without ever losing itself.

Post-punk music from hiphop to hardcore often relies on a rhetoric of violence whose superficiality is quickly revealed in the light of the real thing.  But talking after a weekend that saw a succession of suicide bombings in Jerusalem and renewed threats by Israeli prime minister Sharon against the Palestinians, Mesinai has a more nuanced take on the subject: “War’s something we all have within us as human beings.  The aspect of a warrior changing, a spiritual warrior who for a while killed people and then realizes they can focus in a different direction – that really interests me.  Violence is the easiest way to make a statement, and there’s a lot of lazy people in the world.  But sound can also be violent.  I went to a psychic who told me that in my past life I was a priest who forced everyone to convert to my religion, and if they didn’t I would destroy their cities with guns made of bass!  I was like yeah …. I would do that!  I’m not a completely peaceful person.  I’ve got a lot of hostility to certain ideas and I get mad and I shout.  Music can be that way, and it’s great when violence is expressed in that form.  I was really into hardcore, the more violent the better!”

Mesinai notes that the culture of violence that left the biggest mark on him was that of New York City, where, growing up in the early 1980s, he was also exposed to early hiphop culture: “I was a horrible breakdancer,” he recalls, “but so into it, it was like angels to me: amazingly spiritual, like a trance ceremony.”  Mesinai also wrote grafitti, using amongst others the tag of Scriabin, the great Russian composer.  Turned on to dub through his love of the instrumental side of electro, he formed SubDub with John Ward and became part of the downtown NY scene around DJ Spooky, Olive and Byzar that was given the tag of illbient for a period in the mid nineties – a label he says that was as inevitable as it was meaningless.

Mesinai says he remains interested in dance music, especially now that New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has made dancing illegal in most of the city, but he has also pursued a parallel career in modern composition, culminating in the recently released Before the Law in the Radical Jewish Culture series on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, a set of soundscapes inspired by Czech Jewish modernist writer Franz Kafka.  The tracks combine strings, percussion and piano into moody, short, Zorn-like blocks of sound that capture the mood and pace of Kafka’s writing.  Mesinai, who is also a writer, dates his obsession to telling musical stories without words to time spent studying as a child with New York orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a master storyteller who dramatized his tales with a guitar.  He’s put out several other pieces of modern composition including The Heretic of Ether, a CD which landed him a gig contributing to the soundtrack of horror film Hellraiser 6, along with his own tripped out imaginary darkcore soundtrack The Unspeakable.

Although Mesinai’s work has strong connections to Jewish tradition, he’s emphatic about the universal nature of what he’s doing: “Badawi means “desert dweller”.  I wrote it as “Badawi” because I wanted to keep it universal, open, like William Blake, as opposed to any particular tradition – a friend from Korea says the word means “over water”.”  Perhaps because of the rich complexity of his background, Mesinai has managed to avoid making a “world music” that just pastes together different musical styles in an exotic way.  Noting that Kafka wrote his novel Amerika without ever actually visiting the continent, he views his own work as being based on the universality of sound, and of human experience.  “Badawi is about whatever influences I’ve had in my life.  I want to perceive not even in a musical way that all people are vibrating, making these sounds in this desperate way, all over the world.  I’ve heard a lot of music and grown up around a lot of types of music and started seeing resemblances.  When I DJ, I’ll take a ska track and some Hungarian gypsy music, and discover that they’re both making similar sounds, with rhythms going umchuka umchuka.  And that raises the question: what’s going on there? Rather than forcing Hungarian music to sound like ska, it just does sound like ska and vice versa.”

Technology, used Badawi style, provides a set of experimental tools for opening lines of communication between different sound cultures from around the world, without smoothing them down into one bland “global” style.  Walking across town to his DJing gig, we discuss our mutual enthusiasm for American composer Charles Ives, who Mesinai notes was “sampling” American military marching band tunes and folk song and mixing them up in modernist compositions at the beginning of the twentieth century.  When Mesinai spins, the resulting noise is often similar to Ives’ exuberant, aggressive clashes of styles, but with the emphasis shifted from melody to rhythm: tabla throwdowns melt into Garvey’s Ghost and King Tubby, Moroccan gnawa, Nuyorican percussion workouts and tracks from Soldier of Median, polyrhythms crashing into one another like waves.  It’s an intensely joyful sound, even if it predictably sends East Village cocktail sippers scurrying off to the bar.

Mesinai, who is marrying fellow turntablist/composer Marina Rosenfeld (see Wire 213) on December 30, continues to work with decks.  In the works for 2002 is a CD for Tzadik’s Composers series of string quartet pieces, which includes his String Quartet for 4 Turntables, premiered at Lincoln Center last year with DJ Olive and Toshio Kajiwara.  Mesinai doesn’t subscribe to any traditional dichotomy between technologically and traditionally produced sounds.  “I always start with acoustics.  I believe that energy has to be put into the music, you have to be moving, you have to put energy in through the instruments.  The problem with electronics is that often you’re not putting enough energy through – you sit there more, you type.  Turntables are actually the closest thing to a live instrument, and energy can be thrown through very nicely.”

Even if, as philosopher Paul Virilio says, war is the essence of technology, Mesinai remains optimistic.  “You need to know your enemy, and befriend him,” he says.  “If my enemy is electronics, then I need to befriend it.  That’s what the Badawi project is about.  Machines processing traditions.  When I was a child, my mother used to take me to the Sinai desert and I used to have these Japanese Transformer dolls that can transform into insects, they’re these machine robots.  So I’d sit out there in the desert, and there’d be Bedouins, and I had to entertain myself so I’d take out these Transformers and start up these total battlefields and I think of that when I do a Badawi track, these Transformers duking it out in the desert.”

Raz Mesinai’s Before the Law is available on Tzadik; Badawi’s Soldier of Midian is out on ROIR.