Haus der Kulturen der Welt

“Off,” and Maybe, Out of Place
Popular Orientalism(s)―Remembering and Performing Edward Said as a Music Critic

Johannes Ismaiel-Wendt is professor for musicology at Stiftung Universität Hildesheim. He teaches and gives sound-lectures on aesthetics and sociology of electronic music, and his research focuses on music as/and postcolonial knowledge production. From 2010 to 2012 he was academic advisor at Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin for Global Prayers and Translating HipHop.

Johannes S. Ismaiel-Wendt


In the 1970s, when literary and cultural critic Edward W. Said was working on his seminal study Orientalism, German TV was showing a children’s cartoon series called Sindbad. Even if that was nearly forty years ago and I was just a small boy at the time, I have never forgotten a short musical phrase—of no longer than a second—in the title song to the series. To introduce the verse evoking the dangerous burning heat of the desert and caravans losing their way, a few lilting, somehow beguiling and supposedly “oriental” notes were played on a flute.

Play Video

Arabian Nights: Sindbad’s Adventures (Fuji TV, 1975–6) excerpt, Opening Song of the German adaptation. Link to Source

Much later, it must have been around the time that the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Said’s Orientalism appeared, I realized that this brief melody—undoubtedly a harmonic minor so typical for such compositions—was just one little tile in the mosaic of oriental ear-training which I have been fortunate to experience in Germany. In addition to Karl Gottlieb Herbig’s musical setting of “C-O-F-F-E-E, don’t drink too much coffee” with its “Mussulman” who, supposedly, was unable to stop sipping his “Turkish” drink, the Sindbad music provided us children with a revamped and more up-to-date pop-music version of Orientalist fantasies. (Even now, there are still regular updates in oriental ear-training in pop music—more or less ironically broken—with little melodies and performative inserts in Sindbad-style bloomers/baggy trousers, from “Rock the Casbah” (The Clash), “Killing an Arab” (The Cure), to “Walk like an Egyptian” (Bangles), “Desert Rose” (Sting), and a barefoot dancing Shakira or Loreen, winner of the European Song Contest 2012 (see Anja Wernicke (2013), and Alexander Weheliye (2014)).

As the son of a Palestinian growing up in Germany with pop music produced in the West, I made a proper mental note of these musical markers and the addictive behavior of the “common Oriental,” since I was unfamiliar with either of these from life at home. Interestingly, I could not recall the other sounds of the Sindbad music around this little orientalized phrase. Only now, when I can hear the entire title song again via YouTube, do I notice that the piece really has quite a funky style—wah-wah guitar and bubbling electric bass. And in contrast to the verse, in the refrain (of course in major) liberating us from the desert, the singer no longer used such an oppressively wavering voice, perhaps a pseudo-maqaam style. The whole thing happily thumps along in a disco beat.

Culture as Imperialism

In his body of work as well as in interviews, Said repeatedly elaborated, more or less latently, a conflict-laden paradox, both in connection with colonialism and imperialism but also in the contexts of global interconnectedness and international media reporting, which he examined in a broad variety of ways:

Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental. (Said 1993, pp. 407–8)

Said localizes this paradox primarily in connection with cultural production, especially in literature, but also in the domain of music. He reveals a contested space in which, on the one hand, culture in general and music in particular are instrumentalized—as creators of borders—for nationalistic and racist purposes; even just a few notes from a fantasized melody allow a clichéd contrast of the “Other’s” world (of music) with one’s own. On the other hand, in Said’s view, music also has the potential to cross boundaries and forge connectedness. In particular, playing music together, as well as music itself in its compositional styles and forms, facilitates the development of an anti-essentialist understanding of the world. Although Said criticized the culturalization process as part of wider European colonialism and imperialism (Said 1994, p. 302), he was capable of noting, for example, a worldliness in the compositional concepts of European art music, such as polyphony and counterpoint, which encompass the hybrid, non-monolithic, the highly differentiated and heterogenic nature of cultures and identities (Said 1994, p. 30, p. 49).

Edward Said and frictions in popular culture

Said’s thoughts on certain types of European art music formed one of the main foundations in developing his theories in such influential works as Orientalism (1978) or Culture and Imperialism (1993). Moreover, he was directly involved in the field of music as well: as a pianist, through his lectures on music, and as co-founder with Daniel Barenboim of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra—an orchestra designed to bring together Palestinian and Israeli musicians, thus pursuing the guiding idea of “opening the ears to the other’s narrative or point of view” (Barenboim-Said Academy [n.d.]).

Naturally, for this tribute, one could have drawn directly from Edward Said’s publications on and discussions of music, for example, Musical Elaborations (1991), Parallels and Paradoxes (2005), or On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain (published posthumously in 2006). However, this will confine the discussion to musical items that Said had already explored: Mozart’s Serail, Verdi’s Aida, Wagner, Glenn Gould interpretations. Ultimately, due to neglecting an expanded perspective going beyond the rather limited notion of art music and a list of male European composers, Said himself was criticized as Eurocentric (see Ahmad 1992; Agawu 2007; Abels 2014).

Accordingly, the approach I would like to pursue here is a counterpoint reading of Said’s memoir, Out of Place (1999), in which, at first glance, his critical elaboration of “European classical music” appears so dominant, almost fetishist. From there, one could, in effect, establish how his life and theories were also decisively influenced by contemporary, mainstream productions. It is just as fascinating as it is banal to learn from his description of his childhood that the cultural frictions he experienced arose from his identification with contemporary popular figures. Said read and saw various stories from the West about the “Orient,” and was unable to identify himself with them—whether in his visits to the Cairo opera house, or when reading popular books, comics series, or watching popular films. As a teenager, he saw himself as the superhero Captain Marvel:

At school, we lived a parallel life to the unreal British syllabus through a regular exchange of Tarzan, Conan Doyle, and Dumas Serials. (1999, p. 200)

Said lived with such heroes, imagined their world, and daydreamed about them:

The second source was films, particularly those like the Arabian Nights adventures that regularly featured John Hall, Maria Montez, Turjhan Bey, and Sabu, and the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series. (1999, p. 33)

Born in 1935, Said may well have seen the (literally) projected “Orientalism” in the 1930s and ’40s in the animated cartoon Popeye the Sailor meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937). According to his accounts, questions of identification and representation for the young Said were burning issues about trends relating to his own popular performance. He regarded himself as having to face the question: should my sandwiches be cut into triangles or rectangles? Would he rather favor the British or the American style for his sandwich performance during breaks at school?

I tried explaining to my mother that it might be nice to have sandwiches cut into rectangles with jam and butter, but that got me dismissive ‘We only use toast bread and jam for breakfast. I want you to be nourished. What’s wrong with our food anyway?’ (1999, p. 81)

On another occasion, he confronted the genuine problem of a child of the pressing need to wash one pair of socks, given to him by his father (who had been given them as a gift by a American pilot), and which were expected to give Said—a Palestinian in Cairo—a momentary feeling of being American,

One evening we were sitting on the veranda and my father reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pair of striped socks. ‘An American flier gave them to me,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you wear them?’ It was like a sudden lifeline to better days. I wore them the next day and the day after with a noticeable lift in my spirits. Yet no one on the bus really noticed, and the socks had to be washed. With only one pair of socks to give my claim to be American any credence, I felt let down brusquely. (1999, p. 81)

It was these superficial things, matters belonging to everyday life that produced severe friction in relation to ethnicizing projections, and even with familial self-projections. Apparently, in school, on the sports field, or in his dealings with mainstream cultural productions, Said constantly came to realize that the things said about his own purported cultural sphere had almost nothing to do with his real-life experiences; and nothing at all to do with what he wanted to be. In his case, as he mentions at various places in his memoir, Out of Place, this realization did not lead him to try and identify a particular reality around him and then arrange himself in this ostensibly more real world. Instead, he evidently drew strength from a conscious identification with fantasy figures and spaces (Bonz 2014).

Establishing the non-existence of the kind of “Orient” in Verdi, Karl May, and Flaubert does not lead to the fallacy that if only the right person were to speak, then an accurate picture could be conveyed. Here, Said resolves the paradox mentioned earlier, which functionalizes identity as a fixed entity in culture and cultural identity. Furthermore, he resolves this by making use of a metaphor strongly oriented on musical structures. On the last page of his memoir, he writes:

I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self, the identity to which so many attach so much significance. These currents, like the themes of one’s life, flow along during the waking hours, and at their best, they require no reconciling, no harmonizing. They are ‘off’ and may be out of place, but at least they are always in motion, in time, in place, in the form of all kinds of strange combinations moving about, not necessarily forward, sometimes against each other, contrapuntally yet without one central theme. A form of freedom, I’d like to think, even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is. That skepticism too is one of the themes I particularly want to hold on to. With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place. (1999, p. 295)

This quote offered some wonderful material around which a musical performance was built to commemorate Said’s writings on music (presented at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s (HKW) symposium “A Journey of Ideas Across,” and at the Hildesheim symposium “Popular Orientalism(s),” both of which were held in fall 2013,

marking the tenth anniversary of Said’s death). Rather than building on Said’s elaborate critical debate with, and publications about the Eurocentric appropriation of music, this music performance sought to take Said’s biographical experience as a basis, which could be correlated with “more universal” musical forms decoupled from the canons of music. (Aware of its colonial and imperialist undertones, the term “universal” is used here as an inherent counter-concept to all musical and acoustic design.)

Dubbing Out of Place

In spring 2013, I approached the musician Saam Schlamminger, asking him if he would be interested in creating music taking up and addressing the ideas expressed in the earlier quotes from Said. Schlamminger, who found many parallels in his own life to the experiences recounted in Out of Place, immediately agreed. Born in Istanbul in 1966, Schlamminger spent his childhood in Iran and moved to Munich when he was twelve years’ old, where he still lives. As a musician and an expert in diverse styles of playing and tunings, he plays a range of instruments including the zarb, daf, and bendir, altering the sounds electronically, while also being familiar with some time-honored styles and tunings now vanishing from musical memory (his Audio Essays play with acoustic memory and bewildering spaces of resonance).

In summer 2013, Schlamminger joined forces with musician and producer Burnt Friedman, who works in the fields of electronica, dub, and jazz. Friedman’s instruments include ambient noise, analog synthesizer, organ, and percussion, and he is engaged in developing and revealing rhythmic shapes beyond rigid conventions and fixed (cultural) patterns. In fact, in 2000, Friedman founded his own record label, Nonplace; an interesting name for a project inspired by some of Said’s ideas on being “off” and out of place.

Schlamminger and Friedman, working in Friedman’s Nonplace studio, recorded so-called Macedonian flutes and Persian drums, as well as electric guitars without pickups, and asked themselves what had been there before these instruments were so culturally charged. They turned their recorded and live acoustic sounds into electronic samples, thus uncoupling music from stylistic conventions and places and from cultural, ethnicizing geographies. Their collaboration resulted in a release entitled Tohuwabohu (Nonplace Records No. 36/2013). They orchestrate a state from “out of place,” but also “outaspace.”

In this instance, by recording their handmade compositions—imagined as “traditional,” made within impossible, unnatural sound-and-echo spaces, and setting them in strongly repetitive structures—Friedman and Schlamminger point to a motivated (not arbitrary) non-folkloristic idea of folk music. Their collaboration also resulted in a sound performance and live-dubbing installation (performed both at the HKW and at the University of Hildesheim), which incorporated a kind of “Acousmonium” audio system with seven different guitar and bass amplifiers. The amps were distributed around the space, and Friedman fed them with various pre-produced audio tracks from Tohuwabohu. From this set-up, Friedman produced a mix of sound-and-echo effects, creating a performance that no longer had anything to do with chronologies, originals, origins, and the dichotomies between live and recorded music. The guitar and bass amplifiers stood rather like the players in an orchestra with their own identities: Fender, Roland, or Ampeg. They, the amplifiers, stood as exemplifying dynamic identities, which constantly transform input and sound, giving them a different quality in every space. The audience was invited to explore their own spaces of sound between these amplifiers. At various places, quotes from Edward Said’s variable popular-cultural identifications on “currents” of life that are “off,” possibly “dissonant,” “contrapuntal,” and “without one central theme,” were projected and moved on the floor, drawing the listeners at diverse points between the loudspeakers—i.e. “always in motion.”

Burnt Friedman & Saam Schlamminger, Repition:Takes:Place in Actuality

Coda—back to the kids’ Sindbad TV series

Fortunately, oriental ear-training does not always work so simply. In the years when the Sindbad series was running on German TV, a stencil appeared from somewhere or another as a kind of a gimmick. It depicted Sindbad, wearing his turban, bloomers/baggy trousers, and pointed oriental shoes, accompanied by his magic lamp, and of course a palm tree and camel. Using this stencil, we children could practice over and again to sketch the magical “Orient,” following an exact and rigid pattern. Initially, we tried to do just that as hard as we could, but our results never looked as ideal as on the TV screen; our felt pens were just too thick. They made lines where no lines should have been. The shoes hung separated from the legs. In the end, a friend of mine at the time and I, both practicing painting, used the stencil in our own way. We sketched the jagged palm-tree trunk onto Sindbad’s baggy trousers, and the shoes onto the trunk. We produced camels with turbans, and Sindbad with a palm-leaf hairstyle, so that every notion of stability became absurd.

Translated from the German by Andrew Boreham.


Books and articles

Abels, B. (2013) Attraktion und Repulsion im Elfenbeinturm. Edward Said und die Musik. Talk given at the symposium “Popular Orientalism(s). In Erinnerung an Edward Said als Musikkritiker,” Hildesheim, November 7, 2013.

Agawu, K. (2007) Edward Said and the Study of Music. Philomusica 6(1). [Online]. Available from: <> [Accessed February 12, 2014].

Ahmad, A. (1992) Orientalism and After: Ambivalence and Cosmopolitan Location in the Work of Edward Said. Economic and Political Weekly 27(30), 98–116.

Barenboim-Said Academy. Publisher: Michael Naumann. [Online]. Available from: <> [Accessed March 4, 2014].

Bonz, J. (2013) Popmusikalische Identifikationsdynamiken jenseits von “Identität” und “Othering”: “Mimesis,” “Fort/Da,” “Übergangsobjekt” und “Genießen im Realen.” Talk given at the symposium “Popular Orientalism(s). In Erinnerung an Edward Said als Musikkritiker,” Hildesheim, November 8, 2013.

Groot, R. de (2010) Edward Said and Polyphony. In: A. Iskandar and H. Rustom (eds.), Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 204–28.

Said, E. W. (1978/2006) Orientalism. (Twenty-fifth anniversary edition with a new Preface by the author.) New York: Vintage Books.

Said, E. W. (1993) Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto & Windus.

Said, E. W. (1999) Out of Place: A Memoir. London: Granta Books.

Weheliye, A. (2013) Allochronic Technologies: Coloniality and Popular Music. Talk given at the symposium “Popular Orientalism(s). In Erinnerung an Edward Said als Musikkritiker,” Hildesheim, November 9, 2013.

Wernicke, A. (2013) Orientalismus in der Popmusik. [Online-Interwiew with Markus Henrik Wyrich]. Available from: <> [Accessed March 11, 2014].


Friedman, B. & Schlamminger, S., Repition:Takes:Place in Actuality (2013), sound performance, symposium “A Journey of Ideas Across: In Dialog with Edward Said” (2013) HKW. Performance stills © HKW.


Arabian Nights: Sindbad’s Andventures (Fuji TV, 1975–6) Cr.: Shin’ichi Yukimuro, Japan, Nippon Animation, 52 episodes. Available from: <> [Accessed March 20, 2013].