Album Review: SoapKills – “Cheftak”

Today I am reviewing SoapKills’ second album to be released through Incognito, “Cheftak”. Released in 2002, it was one of the albums of the earlier days of the scene, and thus helped lead the way and helped shape the artists to come.

 -The Look: The front cover is a very visually appealing one. It is reminiscent of classic Arabic movie posters. It is an illustration actually, done on the computer. I know this for a fact because I’ve seen the photo that was used as source material. It does start looking unrealistic in some tiny areas, but as a complete piece of work, it is very well done.

 On the opposite side of this card, the credits and track list, written in gray, on top of white. One of the things that caught my eye was the very authentic-looking stamp that says “جديد”, which is Arabic for “new”, the word that sells. The thing is, it looks like it was hand-stamped, as you might be able to tell from its faded look, and very nostalgic of the past. It says “new”, in quite the antiquated fashion…

 The CD itself is just plain red, with the same album title logo as on the front but this time in white, along with a track list.

 Behind the CD, plain red with the album title in a slightly different font colored black with white outline/ shadow. I am a big fan of the red-black-white combo.

 The back cover is plain red, once again, with the track list, but in black on the right is the track list with the standard Latin alphabet track names, while in white a little to the left is one where the tracks are all written in Arabic. The Arabic word are written in their true forms as well as the rest of the, non-Arabic, track names and the results are Arabizations of English words that would baffle an Arabic reader. I find an appeal in this because I am a big fan of cross-lingual wordplay, writing English words in Arabic letters, popping an English letter into an Arabic word (رسPمد), I dunno, just being creative with letters. I find this a creative use of Arabic letters. Also, credits are printed once again.

 -The Sound: This record covers quite a lot of ground. It is not just an electronic album per se. There are acoustic guitar pieces, harmonica tunes, hip hoppy drums, hypnotic nay, etc… You’d have to be crazy not to label it “alternative”. Zeid Hamdan had outdone himself sound-wise and so did all who contributed. All songs are sung by Yasmine Hamdan in Arabic. The lyrics are well-written, catchy, and heartfelt. They always take me “there”, “there” being wherever they want me to go, whatever emotion I need to feel.

 No offense to Yasmine, and her breathtaking vocals, but I’d like to give the music here some extra attention because Zeid really outdid himself on this one.

 -“Aranis”: Starts out with an acoustic guitar tune while Yasmine sings of corn cobs, paint, and watermelons, both delivered in a soothing manner. It then breaks into this muffled mechanical sounding beat that gradually escalates in volume with Yasmine singing lyrics from the song “Koullondif” over it, later echoing as a drumbeat joins in. It ends with her going back to the first verse of the song, this time acapella, followed by the beat playing one last time before fading away. I like how the beat is all chopped up, composed of broken samples; great opener.

 – “Cheftak”: The title track of this album. It opens to a harmonica tune and minor percussion. Though it is joined by some occasional bass and the harmonica tune has an effect added to it. This segment does go on for a bit too long. It could have been shorter. Then, a completely different beat with drums and some synth sound I can’t put my finger on. The harmonica bit is reused but with some synth (vibraphone? music box?) additions. The second beat plays again, now with Yasmine singing the lyrics, the most memorable of which being the Arabic wordplay masterpiece: “sheftak 3a shifta, shiftak kashaftak”. The synth that was added to the harmonica bit earlier takes the stage once again, this time with this beat. Then an exquisite swap takes place. The drums of the second beat play but with the harmonica tune and they fit like a glove, plus some very sad organ additions appear while Yasmine sings the lyrics, exposing her significant other for his betrayal and lamenting on the situation. The atmosphere here to me is that of a soap opera (pun not intended). The music box synth makes one last appearance with the aforementioned drumbeat. This track has so many pieces that are interchanged with one another. It is very well crafted, and so are the lyrics.

 -“Tango”: This track is a reworking of the song “Tango El Amal” by Nour El Hoda. It starts out with a classic Arabic sample that fades in and out (LPF effect?); a staple of Zeid’s style. A mystical yet distinctly Middle Eastern atmosphere is created. Yasmine sings the original lyrics in formal Arabic, which makes them all that more poetic. While she delivers them, a string section sample plays in the background. As she finishes off that last line, a muffled voice can be heard which is then accompanied by another string sample. This is interrupted by a drumbeat, but it is not an ordinary drumbeat, as it is accompanied by a scratchy synth sound. The drums go silent for a second then burst back in more as an in-your-face-hip hop breakbeat! More of that classical Arabic sampling is utilized for extra percussion. The drums go all “drum n’bass” with the voice heard earlier reappearing with the string sample, then shifting back to breakbeat, then finishing off with just the string samples and the voice. This song is definitely a must hear for Zeid fans.

 -“Kazdoura”: A simply beautiful track where Yasmine really shines. It starts out with an acoustic guitar tune accompanied by a synth sound. Yasmine sings the lyrics so purely. She wants her lover to make her breakfast, but it’s far from a nagging command, and more like a playfully humble request that plays off the love between the two. These are requests, not commands. Requests that may or may not be satisfied, but are given with an air of relaxation, knowing with a certainty that they will be satisfied, not because of her loved one’s obligation to serve her, but because of love itself. These are two people who are truly aware of their love for one another. Before her craving for chick peas, hommus, she says to her lover that he looks cute. This isn’t an attempt at sweet talking him. She doesn’t say that expecting something in return, but simply, just blurts it out, out of overflowing passion. She requests for them to talk about each other’s dreams, him letting her sleep, letting her rest, and she professes her adoration for him. The acoustic guitar tune and synth that kicked off the song are played joined by a drumbeat that fades in and out. The beat plays, guitar, synth, and breakbeat. She wants him to feed her, she wants to be with him, in his house, on his bed, and wants him to hold her in his arms. The declaration of love is evident. Over the beat, her requests echo. Suddenly, a robot starts babbling some unintelligible electro language, which turns out to be Arabic. The beat is nice, but here Yasmine is the main attraction with her sensual delivery of the very honest, very passionate lyrics.

 -“Marcoslow”: This is an instrumental. It starts out with this tune played on a Middle Eastern string instrument whose name I am not sure of, accompanied by intermittent percussion samples. More percussion is layered on top, and bass joins in, then drums top the beat off. The drums then shift into a slightly different beat and a classic Arabic string sample plays. It echoes to classic Arabic movies, just like the album cover. The beat returns and the string samples are reintroduced but sliced up, and thus this piece ends. It’s nice but not too spectacular.

 -“Wadih”: This one starts out with a drumbeat and some synth bass interrupted by an occasional noise, reminiscent of that of an electric guitar, probably synthesized. Other noises also play, which is nice to hear, because noise is part of electronic music that I enjoy. As this beat with intermittent dissonance goes on, a string sample plays, and along with that Yasmine starts singing the lyrics. The drums shift a bit, but other than that the rest has already been heard previously in the song. Not really one of my favorites, though it does have some lyrics that stand out.

 -“Dub4me”: This instrumental speaks for itself. It starts out with this sound that I cannot quite specify, but it makes me feel like I’m being sucked into the music, and it ends with this harp melody. It loops several times, until the track’s beginning is heralded by one of Zeid’s classic Arabic samples. A drumbeat plays, with a flute/nay accompanying with a mesmerizing tune, all on top of a loop from that sample that laid right before the drumbeats ushered the track in. Call me crazy, but at this point, I am reminded of Beirut. The fantastic and elaborative nay playing with the constantly looping monotone of the Arabic strings is reminiscent of the contradiction of contradictory nature of Beirut life, the contradiction between the magnificent and the mundane. All of the aforementioned elements are gone now except for the drumbeat, and instead now there is guitar strumming, with muting, a bit like in ska or reggae, another staple of Zeid’s sound. They give me the feeling of some kind of “wrong”; action that is forced perhaps. One working a job he despises, or one having to break the law to make a living. Those are just examples, but this guitar tune brings the uglier aspects of the society to mind. After that, the sound heard at the very beginning of the song, the one that ends with a harp tune, is played, leading to the looping of the guitar part, this time along with the strings. After these two parts repeating one more time, the previous nay/ string part plays once again, this time with the guitar, then the guitar on it’s own (with drums and the overlooked bass that is), then with the strings joining in, and it all ends with that sound that sucked you in, spitting you back out with that harp tune as your last memory of that experience. I really like this piece. As I said, I feel the city of Beirut in this; another great Zeid-solo track. Apparently, this track was so good that the Lebanese Arabic rapper Rayess Bek wanted to use it for a song, and that song was “Choufou 7alone”. You might that the lyrics he added to the music influenced my interpretation of it, but I swear, I listened to the music sans lyrics. I talks about the hardships of Beirut life basically. The stratification, the injustice, the lack of alternative musical talent, etc… Nice!

 -“Rnbullshit”: The third instrumental on the record starts out with a chopped up percussion beat with synth scratch noises that is soon joined by a drumbeat. It plays around with that percussion sample it had looping in the beginning. The track takes a turn toward the electronic. Various synth sounds are utilized and so is the phaser effect, if I’m not mistaken. The percussion sample then comes back into play, along with the synth from the previous section. New beats are formed. It’s a tolerable track, but not really up there for me with “Cheftak”, “Kazdoura”, and “Tango”.

Overall, both Hamdans gave it their all!


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