Naufalle of Aïwa: Purveyor of edgy, cross-cultural breakbeats

Phil Meadley meets the French Iraqi rapper Naufalle of Aïwa
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The Independent Culture

"We are not politicians, but if we can show another aspect of Iraqi culture, that's good," says Naufalle, the rapper of the thrilling Franco-Arabic breakbeat combo Aïwa.

He and his brother Wamid are due soon on stage in London with their seven-piece band, but are happy to discuss their new album Elnar and the events in their homeland. Aïwa are from Rennes, where the brothers have lived since childhood. Their parents moved to France in 1972, when Wamid was two. "They weren't refugees," Naufalle says. "Saddam had come to power a few years before, but my father thought it would be better to try and find a better life somewhere else."

Seeing their sons penning stinging social diatribes didn't impress their middle-class, education-minded parents. "They would listen to Lebanese and Egyptian music, and we would hear Oum Kalsoum, Abdel Halim Hafez or Fairuz, which certainly inspired us," Naufalle says. "But they wanted us to study, so we both got diplomas and masters degrees."

The band was formed in 1998. "We'd bought samplers and electronic equipment, but had played instruments for 10 years, so didn't want to just press buttons and dance. We brought in a drummer, DJ, saxophonist, flute player and singer," Naufalle says.

The intention was to "make cultures meet", partly due to their Iraqi descent and French upbringing, but also because their influences were hip-hop, jazz, drum'n'bass, Arabic traditional and Asian beats.

Their eponymous debut album reflected this, although it was less a coherent whole than a multi-styled assault on the senses. "There would be a drum'n'bass track, next to a hip-hop track, next to a more traditional Arabic track. There wasn't any real progression."

One of the biggest attractions of the Aïwa sound is their singer Séverine, a Rennes native with a low bluesy drawl. She also contributes lyrics and beats. "She involves herself much more personally in her lyrics, whereas I tend to talk about social issues; about chronicling life in the West, and what's happening in Iraq," say Naufalle.

"On Elnar there's a song 'Dioud', about integration," he says. "Séverine is trying to understand how a foreigner can be accepted, because in France if you don't drink wine people ask why, even if you're a Muslim. It feels uncomfortable when everyone is judging what you're doing."

On the new album, the edgy title track tackles the horror of war, with lyrics such as "one third of the world doesn't care about what the Third World puts up with". "It's for all the people suffering in Iraq," Naufalle says. "'Elnar' means 'fire' in Arabic, and it symbolises that lives are being burnt and their families are being torn apart."

Aïwa's idea of cultural fusion hails from the United Kingdom, specifically from acts such as Transglobal Underground and Fun-Da-Mental in the early Nineties. "We feel closer to the English scene than the French scene. There's little peace or unity there - and fun? They've never heard the word. We don't relate to that; we love dancing and having something to groove to. This is what unites us as a band."

'Elnar' is out on 3 April on Wikkid