Reflections on The Whisperlights “Ulna Habenaha”

Photo by Dana Albert

While most of my choices when I put the spotlight on a single song are based around bands with upcoming performances, this week’s musing is for a song I heard three weekends ago that has been playing on my mental sound system ever since. There were many, many great things going on across the two days of Los Dias De La Crescent—Future Loves past kicking off things, ROAR brilliantly showcasing the talents of Mark Erickson, Mergence with guest James Cameron allowing Adam Bruce to concentrate solely on vocal during the keyboard numbers (and with great effect), Source Victoria blowing the roof off the place, Dry River Yacht Club commanding a crowd of many hundreds, Factories blowing minds as usual, Black Carl showcasing one of their best sets ever, Ladylike running the clock on Friday and taking everyone along for the ride, Snow Songs making an all too rare appearance, Minibosses shattering the souls of hundreds to video game themes, Stan Devereaux surprising everyone with his brilliance and authenticity, Fatigo returning to Phoenix in fine form, Bad Cactus Brass Band getting the award for most impressive entrance, Snake! Snake! Snakes! giving one of their best performances ever and oh, The Whisperlights reunited on stage after a near year long absence. Yeah, it was that kind of good. My entire Saturday night, that weekend, hinged on catching Fatigo and The Whisperlights—and I’m glad to say that neither disappointed in any capacity. It was The Whisperlights performance though that has stuck with me over two weeks later.

The Whisperlights are not your typical local band, they are something of a supergroup, honestly, but also the members are spread from coast to coast and often aren’t even in the country—in fact Illya Riske (guitar, Rhodes keyboard, vocals) had just returned from Bangladesh, Bali and many other points West the Wednesday before the show. Some members attend University in New York, others live in LA and still others are in other local bands of distinction. The lineup is pretty amazing in addition to Illya: Wasef El-Kharouf  (drums, vocals), Owen Marshall (guitar, vocals), Tobie Milford (violin, guitar, vocals), Dave Gironda (Rhodes, guitar, vocals), Brent Bachelder (bass) of sister band Underground Cities and Henri Bernard (percussion) of Dry River Yacht Club, Peachcake and nearly every other band in town—then Add to this mix their producer, Chris “Creeko” Kasych who occasionally joins them on stage and you have possibly the most astounding octet in the nation today.  Needless to say, I was excited as hell to catch this band live that Saturday night—this was what I like to describe as a non-negotiable event. Weird band composition, sharp dressers and amazing tunes that I’ve never heard across the Crescent sound system before—almost nothing could appeal to me more.

They played an amazing set that Saturday at the Crescent, it almost felt like I had handpicked the set list from their first two albums, but still one song, one unexpected song has stuck with me since, if for no other reason because it reminded me just how freaking much I loved it over a year ago upon its release. The irony is that the lyrics for “Ulna Habenaha” aren’t even in English, they are in Arabic, but the song is so strong, so brilliant, it wouldn’t matter what language they were sung…er…shouted in. The song has such an infectious groove that you may find yourself singing along to lyrics that you don’t even understand—the music is dreamy, textured, completely reflecting the multicultural folk element, accented especially by the backing female vocals (on record) and handclaps that turn it all around to pure pop.  Then there is the pure ascension that takes place at the three minute mark when the horns kick in, the drums explode—brilliant in its own right, before it all comes back to a round of the repeated vocals.

Wasef El-Kharouf once told me about the origin of the song that “I was singing to myself in the car on the way to practice once and I walked in on the guys jamming and I sat down on the drums and the jam went on for a while. In the middle of it I started yelling the same thing as I had in the car and when we finished I told the guys that I tried something out. I got a mic and we tried it out again and I was like ‘ Nevermind, that totally doesn’t work.’ Then they all yelled back ‘No! That was perfect!’.” 

The song itself has a deeper meaning to El-Karouf, though. “It’s about the guilt I felt after realizing that when my little sister needed me to understand her the most, when she was going through a difficult time in her later teens, I thought I was doing the right thing by being distant because I thought I was a bad influence on her,” El-Kharouf further illuminated. “It ended up backfiring and caused a little rift between us for a couple of years. Ultimately it’s about trying to understand someone rather than insist on a particular fix. The ‘she’s beautiful but she’s sad’ line comes from these two guys who were walking behind her in downtown Geneva speaking to one another in Arabic not knowing that she understood them. One of the guys said she was pretty and his friend said, “Yeah, but she’s sad”, then he started clapping and singing it in stereotypical Arab fashion. My sister then looked behind her and said ‘From looking at your face’. It was pretty awesome.”

It was pretty awesome to see The Whisperlights again, now let’s hope their hints of another album coming along are not just made of dreams or rumor, because at their best, these guys are really too good to be true.

And for those who want to know, the lyrics translate thusly, but please have fun singing along in Arabic:

“Ulna Habenaha”

“From when we first saw her,
we said we loved her,
from the colour of her eyes,
from the strength of her mind,
we said we loved her
she locked her heart away from us,
so much that we loved her”

 (bridge & backup) 
“She’s beautiful, but she’s sad”

You can listen to “Ulna Habenaha” Here

You can listen to and buy the entire Surfaces album Here