The soundtrack of a new generation

Fusing traditional Arabic music with modern dance styles and creative approaches, a new generation of electronic musicians and producers are collapsing the differences and distance between East and West to create a fresh transglobal sound of their own, writes Iain Akerman

“This is the soundtrack to our generation,” shouts a beautiful and energetic young woman, pointing towards the stage behind her. She turns to dance, joining the throng facing a young man crouched over his laptop, and enthusiastically throws her arms in the air.

We are at Rich Mix in London’s Bethnal Green and the Aleppo-born DJ and live visual artist Hello Psychaleppo has effectively reduced the venue to a frenzied mass of dancing bodies. Slight, with glasses and long wavy hair tied into a ponytail, the founder of ‘Electro-Tarab’ is 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 melodies of the maqam.

His is a psychedelic dreamscape of dubstep, drum’n’bass and trip-hop that remains deeply rooted in Arabic tradition. The traditional Bedouin vocal form the mawwal combines with electronic solos and distorted basslines, creating songs such as Tobayabooya, an addictive dubstep reworking of Abdel Halim Hafez’s Kol Maoul Touba. Although his second album, HA!, is less obviously Middle Eastern, the influence of electro chaabi – itself evolved from the popular street music of modern North African cities – and Bedouin chants helps build what he describes as a “modern Arabic sound”.

It is this “modern Arabic sound” that intrigues, essentially ignoring any predefined musical or geographic boundary, and achieving a level
of production, professionalism and quality 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 artist, producer, writer and multi-instrumentalist Karim Sultan, Kuwait-based multimedia artist Zahed Sultan, and Egypt’s Shorba. You could also throw 47Soul’s self-described “futuristic sound of dabke” into the mix – it takes its name, if little else, from traditional Palestinian folk dancing, meshing synthesisers, dub effects and the deep beats of the Fertile Crescent. Or Asma Ghanem’s audio-visual project Shams Asma, which provides an avant-garde take on sound in the Arab world.

music arabic shubbak oud east west
Karim Sultan (left) passes on some oud advice

“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 our backgrounds through a music that we 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 [20th-century Egyptian singer considered one of the ‘Great Four’ of Arabic music] went drum’n’bass. So I just did it. The secret is in crafting the tiniest details of 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 surprising 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. He was sharing the stage with Karim Sultan, whose production has been increasingly influenced by the music of Iraq. Although he works for The Third Line, an art 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 – along with maqam singers such as Yusuf Omar – have had a major influence on the way he makes electronic music.