“This is the soundtrack to our generation,” shouts a beautiful and energetic young woman, pointing towards the stage behind her. She turns to dance, joins the throng of people facing a young man crouched over his laptop, and begins to sing.
We are at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green, London, and the Aleppo-born DJ and live visual artist Hello Psychaleppo has effectively reduced the venue to a frenzied mass of dancing bodies. Slight of frame, with glasses and long wavy hair tied into a ponytail, the founder of ‘Electro-Tarab’ is in many ways a symbol of Syrian resilience and the country’s ever-expanding diaspora. He is also at the forefront of a new wave of Arab electronic musicians who blend the industrialised sounds of the Western world with the golden age of Arabic music and the emotive sounds of the maqam.
His is a psychedelic dreamscape of dubstep, drum and bass and trip-hop that remains deeply rooted in Arabic tradition. Bedouin mawwals combine with electronic solos and distorted bass lines, creating songs such as Tobayabooya, an addictive dubstep re-working of Abdel Halim Hafez’s Kol Maoul Touba, and the lo-fi Tarab Dub, inspired by Umm Kalthoum’s Min Elli A’al, with its melodramatic insistence that the beloved is more beautiful than the light of the moon. Although his second album is less obviously Middle Eastern, despite the influence of electro chaabi and Bedouin chants, it is, he says, more of a ‘modern Arabic sound’.
It is this ‘modern Arabic sound’ that intrigues. A sound that essentially ignores any pre-defined musical or geographic boundary and has reached a level of production, professionalism and quality that was previously missing within Arab electronica, with the obvious exception of Lebanese trip-hop duo Soapkills. Alongside Hello Psychaleppo sit the likes of Dubai-based electronic music producer, artist, writer and multi-instrumentalist Karim Sultan; Kuwait-based multimedia artist Zahed Sultan; and Egypt’s Shorba. You can also throw 47Soul’s ‘futuristic sound of dabke’ into the mix, with its meshing of synthesisers, dub effects and the deep beats of the Fertile Crescent; or Asma Ghanem’s audio-visual project Shams Asma, which has provided an avant garde take on sound in the Arab world.
“I don’t think it’s Western or Eastern. I don’t categorise it like that,” says Hello Psychaleppo, whose real name is Samer Saem Eldahr. “I believe we’re all just using modern tools and technology to express ourselves and backgrounds in a music that we personally like to listen to. I’m a fan of EDM [electronic dance music] and I used to wonder how it would sound if Abdel Halim Hafez went drum and bass. So I just did it. The secret is in crafting the tiniest details in a piece of music and, of course, in respecting all the elements of the music and where it’s coming from.
“I was born and raised in Aleppo and this city especially is known for its original Tarab music. Yet on the other hand I spent lots of time experimenting with electronic music and at some point those two things came together. So the fusion began and evolved naturally. Recently, I also became interested in the charm of the arrangements of Arabic music. The average length of a Tarab song used to be around half an hour, which is surprisingly fascinating for our modern fast-paced world. I really wanted to bring this way of thinking back to life. So I incorporated the concept of long arrangements in my recent album, HA!, by doing longer tracks and finding all the musical solutions to make a richer arrangement with each track.”
Eldahr’s performance at Rich Mix was his first in the UK and formed part of the Shubbak Festival, London’s largest biennial celebration of contemporary Arab arts and culture. Sharing the stage with him was Karim Sultan, whose production has been increasingly influenced by the music of Iraq. Although he works for The Third Line gallery in Dubai, his personal work brings together elements of contemporary electronic music production and performance, sound art and musicianship. Oud players such as Munir Bashir, Jamil Bashir and Naseer Shamma; and maqam singers such as Yusuf Omar have had a major influence on the way he makes electronic music.
“I am very open about my adoration of the historical and living musical heritage of Iraq,” says Sultan. “There is something incredibly unique that is almost difficult to verbalise without being a little poetic about it. There is a deep and long-standing reputation of cities like Baghdad for producing deeply meaningful music and highly-skilled musicians. The expression ‘books were written in Cairo, published in Beirut, and read in Baghdad’ hints at the cultural literacy of that city. The music of the maqam of Baghdad, for example, is a delicately literate, powerfully emotive, musically sophisticated, and highly urban (and urbane) form of music. Some recordings of some of these artists mentioned fill me with wonder and are emotionally devastating, in the best and most cathartic way. Modern dance music styles, on the other hand, are rough, streetwise and can make a room move in exhilarating ways. For me, the issue is not simply reproducing the music or sampling it for the sake of employing that sound, but understanding the methodology, the interplay of musicians, the history and the contemporary. Then I may set about creating something in response that contains the excitement and awe of when I first encountered this music and is true to the art rather than simply imitating it, with the end result sometimes sounding completely different.”
Why choose to inhabit both worlds with your music?
“I am not sure choice had anything to do with it, nor do I see ‘East’ and ‘West’ as being separate and opposing groups, or existing at all in a meaningful way,” responds Sultan. “I spent my childhood between the Gulf and Canada in the 1980s and 1990s and through my parents I have both Syrian and Indian families. My earliest musical memories are often based on what my mother would listen to, and it thoughtlessly switched between classic Arabic pop and disco, for example, all while watching science fiction like Star Trek in English and cartoons like Grendizer dubbed in an epic literary Arabic.
“There was no deliberate meeting of East and West in this, as even in my mother’s childhood a place like Kuwait was already quite globalised, well before that word was en vogue. The ‘East’ is an easy label for a distant, passive, and mysterious place when it is in fact something far closer, and ‘West’ is equally misleading. My interest in electronic music and the oud and things like minimalism and the maqam come equally from an honest approach to the experiences I inhabit, and what they mean in terms of a history of the present. I suppose I take a science fiction approach to understanding these things.”
“I was 16 when I realised that Arabic music was so deep and complex,” adds Zeid Hamdan, who was a pioneer of the Lebanese underground music scene as part of trip-hop duo Soapkills alongside singer Yasmine Hamdan in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “I felt it would be a shame not to feed my music with it. I was a young Lebanese boy who had received a very Western education and the music I would hear on Lebanese radio was the awfully cheap Arabic pop and it didn’t interest me at all. When I met Yasmine she shared her passion for old Arabic songs and it kind of woke me up.”
What elements of old Arabic music were you most interested in?
“Mainly the voice,” replies Hamdan, whose current projects include Zeid and the Wings. “I tried for many years to have my singers sing pure Arabic scale on pure Western instrumentation without it sounding weird or forced. I tried to avoid anything that would give it a folkloric feel or a ‘world music’ sound. I just wanted very catchy melodies sang in Arabic that would transcend styles. I wanted music that was Arabic but that any person could relate to without having the feeling of listening to a foreign language.”
The fusion of Arabic music with Western genres such as jazz and classical, of course, is nothing new. The Syrian singer Asmahan was in the vanguard of change in the 1940s and influential in bringing elements of Western music to the Arab world for the first time. There has, however, been a noticeable increase in interest in the region’s musical heritage over the course of the past few years, not only by electronic music artists, but also by those within the fields of hip-hop, leading to an incorporation of elements of Arabic tradition into modern dance music genres. The end result has been a blending of inherited and local sounds and instruments with popular Western dance music production techniques, while in hip-hop the likes of Stormtrap in Ramallah and El Ras and Rayess Bek in Beirut have created beats and samples harvested from traditional roots.
“Electronic music in a wider sense is part of the musical language of the region in a very deep way, and young producers are posting tracks on a weekly basis that surprise and challenge me,” says Sultan. “On the other hand completely, wedding music is full of samples and drum machines and loud, unashamedly synthesised instruments and vocal effects that are very much a part of the experience, without being separately considered ‘electronic’ music. There are countless musicians in every city using often very basic gear to create music with a fluency in local musical dialects, which is very interesting to me.”
It is interesting to the likes of Eldahr too, who incorporates Arabic rhythms and scales and melodic synth lines into his music, and uses micro-tune plug-ins that allow him to play Oriental music scales with quarter tones. With the ability to switch between maqam bayati and the minor scale in D by altering a single note by a quarter tone, the main issue of tonality is not about simply playing the notes, but “learning the language of both scales, learning the language of the maqam, how to live within it and inhabit it, and the language of Western melody and harmony”, says Sultan.
The number of electronic artists creating such music, however, remains small. Hamdan also asserts that there is a need to build an entire electronic music industry from scratch, including rehearsal spaces, venues and radio and TV stations in order for the scene to grow. “There are a lot of great artists but the main obstacles are Arab TV and radio stations – also music promoters – who play and programme mostly one style of Arabic music, so even the young Arab crowds don’t have access to quality bands.
“Arab countries also need to sign copyright protocols so artists can earn money from the exploitation of their music. We are so far from having the infrastructure that would allow the scene to blossom that any artist with talent tries to go and live in the West, where they can hope their talent will be noticed.”
Amongst them is Eldahr, who relocated to Beirut from Aleppo in 2012 and has recently moved again, this time to the US.
“Arab people are becoming increasingly nostalgic for our heritage and culture and I’m trying to use it in a new way that you can really dance to,” he says. “I believe people all over the Middle East are more aware of their identity and existence and appreciate their culture in all its forms. And as a result – and from my own perspective – the electronic music scene is getting richer by the day. There are lots of great musicians and producers in the scene, many collaborations are happening, and I believe we’re going to have our own Woodstock-like festival in a matter of a few years. I can totally see it happening.”
* Originally published in Vision magazine, September 2015
Photograph: Hello Psychaleppo