It’s early August in London and four young men have just taken to the stage in Dalston. They have the traditional trappings of an Arab band – keffiyehs, darbukas and a tabl baladi – but looks are deceiving. Within minutes synthesisers, dub effects and a hypnotic reggae riff have merged with the energetic sounds of Arab street music and the deep beats of the Fertile Crescent. This is not going to be a regular evening.
Welcome to the ‘futuristic sound of dabke’, a joyous fusion worthy of the 21st century. “We are trying to capture the festive spirit of a Palestinian celebration,” says Z The People, singer, keyboardist and electronics controller with 47Soul. “At the same time, we want to take the music of the roots to a new place. That really is our main obsession. So we play the rhythms that have been bumping in the region for centuries, the ancient cha3bi beats let’s say, and we take it in different directions, with analog synthesisers, dub effects, and mixing Arabic and English lyrics.”
47Soul are a snapshot of the Palestinian diaspora. Hailing from Amman, the US and the Galilee, the four musicians have been playing and performing together since they first met in 2012, dabbling with Iraqi choubi, Lebanese mijwiz and various sounds from around the world.
Currently enjoying a six-week stint in the south west of England working on their debut album, they are in many ways an example of the rude health of the underground music scene in Beirut and Amman. Singer and darbuka frontman El Far3i and guitarist El Jehaz had been active with different bands in Amman, while Walaa Sbait had a strong reputation as a performer in the Galilee. Meanwhile, Z The People, who has just bought out a crowd-funded solo album, had been performing in Washington DC.
“There is so much content coming from Beirut and Amman, not to mention underground scenes in Palestine, and so many artists from Syria inside and in refuge around the region that are saying deep things through music,” says Z. “There is so much to say, and the channels for expression are there.
“We were all searching for a fresh Arabic sound that we could claim as our own and give back to the people to celebrate with. Music is our life, it’s our voice, it’s our lifestyle. It’s everything. Music is what makes our lives better. We want to put people in a place of celebration and trance, and give people an experience of being united that they can build upon after the concert ends and the amps are unplugged.”
Of all their songs, Jahrusalem – an epic fusion of sounds and a telling play on words – sums up the ethos of their music and their politics best. “This song came about while I was with Walaa in front of the Damascus gate in the Old City in Jerusalem,” says Z. “Many communities around the world romanticise Jerusalem as a religious or tourist destination without understanding the reality of the brutal occupation of Palestine. We are fed up with this fantasy bubble. Jerusalem, like the rest of Palestine, is not free; the indigenous people of Palestine are living with basic rights on hold and homes are being destroyed everyday.
“We say it in a reggae way because we want to break down terms like Jerusalem, Palestine, and Zion, that are commonly used in a symbolic or biblical way in mainstream cultures, like reggae music. We want people to think about the real Jerusalem, the real Palestine, the real Zion, right now in 2014, and the truth of the tough realities we as Palestinians face there.”
* Published in Emirates Man, December 2014