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Chilling with Mochila on the eve of its album release

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

April 24, 2009

During the course of the past year, no musical ensemble has managed to capture the imagination and spirit of Brandeis’s mission to promote harmony among different cultures quite like Mochila. The group, which includes such instrumentation as the oud, tabla, flute, sitar, viola, cello, fuses Arabic music, jazz, reggae, reggaeton, and Indian classical music to craft a unique sound that transcends musical boundaries. Mochila, founded by Mohammad Kundos ’10, a Palestinian from Jaffa, holds as its central purpose the bringing together of people of different backgrounds through a vibrant melding of musical traditions. In anticipation of the release of their debut album, “Green Bullets,” I dropped by a rehearsal to get the inside scoop on these ambitious musical innovators. As the musicians were setting up, I had a few moments to chat with Mohammad about the band, its roots, and its message.

MP: Mochila is a rather large ensemble (12 musicians) as far as student bands are concerned. How did you all meet and bring together such a wide array of musical talents into a single cohesive group?

MK: Message. When you have a good message and you have a new experimental [idea] that got people’s interest you can get as much people as you want. Mochila’s message is to bring different people from different cultures, different identities together on one stage to give their personal experience through their music. So you have a person that plays sax who’s jazz-oriented, and someone who’s classical-oriented, and someone who’s Arabic—Arabic music is where I’m coming from.

And I thought that I need to combine cultures together, I need to make a fusion between cultures, to be able to understand other cultures as well as [my] own. Because each of the twelve members of this group is coming from a totally different background, different experience, different identities. And that’s what makes it possible.

MP: Could you describe the process of forming the band? Did you have a clear idea of a sound you were looking for before the band existed or did the musicians who joined you help forge the style?

MK: It started with me. I came here and I needed a soundtrack for my film that I made for last year’s Bernstein Festival [“Before Sunrise”]. I composed two pieces and I needed people to play with me. So I found the bass player and the sax player and we reached six members for that recording. And then while recording I thought, “Why we are not having a band?” So that inspired me to build a band.

We started bringing more people and our first performance was Culture X last year. We played “Arabic Coffee,” our first performance ever in front of an audience, and people liked it. And from the support—and this is the most important thing—of the students, of the audience, gave us the energy we needed to continue.

In the beginning I thought of a fusion between Arabic music and jazz, but the more I met people and started playing the more I wanted to experiment with different styles like Indian music, Latin American rhythms, reggae, and other music…Improvisation is the common language between each musician. So with improvisation each one is bringing his or her own touch.

MP: You’ve managed to earn quite a substantial following at Brandeis and beyond even before the release of your first album. What do you think appeals to people about your music, even those who are unfamiliar with the genres from which you draw?

MK: I think people…want to hear different cultures. Not a lot of [bands] do that. People want to be exposed to different styles of music and see it in a frame where it makes a dialogue. Like jazz and Arabic music, you never expect to hear that. So it’s an experiment. Every piece that I write, it’s an experiment—either it works or it doesn’t. And so far it’s working.

MP: Can you describe the process of composing and arranging a piece for the whole band? Is there an element of improvisation or are most parts written formally before they are played?

MK: For example, one piece is by cello player Eric Alterman, but I write most of the music. The process of making this piece work is—so I write the body, and it’s part of the band message to start experimenting with new stuff, like adding some classical harmonics here or jazz harmonics there. And in the improvisation each one has his ideas. So each one on the stage has something that he gave for the piece.

MP: Is there a particular song or musical moment from the album of which you are particularly excited or proud? Did the sound of Mochila in the studio surprise you compared to the dynamics of a live performance?

MK: I’m surprised every time I’m onstage or in rehearsal. It’s hard to pick one song, because each song for me is a story, it’s a narrative. But for me the theme song for this album, it’s called “Green Bullets,” and “green bullets” is kind of the idea of Mochila itself. Green is a representative of peace, nature, coexistence, understanding. And bullets is representative of war and realism, all the stuff that’s happening in the world. So it’s the piece that brings the question of, “Is it really possible to be with each other and understand each other?” And this is the answer. The band is the answer to this question.

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