"If the people who invented house and techno were Arab, what would it sound like?" Tom Faber meets the artist who is trying to find out.
WeTransfer supports Breaking Through. Download an exclusive track bundle from Deena Abdelwahed. These two untitled tracks are excerpts from her score for an upcoming dance performance with the choreographer Alexandre Roccoli.
I'd been living in Tunis, the Tunisian capital, for two months before I met Deena Abdelwahed. After weeks spent looking for a club that played decent dance music but only finding cocktail bars and commercial hip-hop, I arrived at a new venue called Nüba on a humid evening in May 2015. The club was hidden under a hotel in the capital's grimy port neighbourhood of La Goulette, where fish restaurants are scattered around an ancient fort. On the club's door a handwritten sign read "UK bass." Would this mean the same thing to locals as it did to me?
Inside, I got the answer. Jam City's oddball 2011 cut "Barely A Trak" pumped out of a crisp soundsystem, followed by a prime selection of bass and grime. Behind the decks I saw a woman with cropped hair deftly straightening out the tricky rhythms with extra layers of 4/4 kicks. I went up to introduce myself.
Two years later, Abdelwahed is explaining the concept behind these parties to me over Skype. Now based in Toulouse, France, she feels she has a little more perspective. She speaks expressively, punctuating her sentences with sound effects and hand gestures. "Nüba just gave me a day of the week to do whatever I wanted," she says. "So I did a special night for kuduro, another for footwork, one for UK bass. I tried to stick to one sub-genre each time as an introduction for the audience."
It was a tough sell to the Tunisian crowd at Nüba. "Most people there don't listen to music that they don't immediately understand," she explains. "If you play something experimental in Tunis you could easily end up with a fight in the streets."
Compared to most contemporary Tunisian music, Abdelwahed's sound is defiantly experimental. Her abrasive techno and greyscale ambient pieces only appeal to a small group of listeners at home, but have earned her considerable acclaim in Europe. In March this year she released her debut EP, Klabb, on InFiné, with four tracks that folded the rhythms of footwork and traditional Arab music into confrontational techno. She has toured restlessly since its release, with highlights including a performance at Sónar and a set at the opening night of Berghain's new space, Säule. Her harsh, claustrophobic sound echoes the challenges she's faced to get this far, contending with political upheaval and discrimination in a bid to be heard.
Born in Qatar to Tunisian parents, Abdelwahed spent her first 18 years in an expat community in Doha. She felt adrift, neither living in her cultural home nor socialising with the locals of her adopted home. She spent her late teens teaching herself about music. "Honestly, it was out of boredom," she says. "I didn't have a personal computer or CDs. I sat on the family computer searching the internet, making playlists of funk and soul, then dancing to them at home when nobody was there. Music was like my own secret garden."
On summer holidays to Tunisia, she dreamed of moving to the capital, thinking, "When I went back 'home' I'd be Tunisian, considered like everyone else." But when she moved, aged 18, it wasn't as she'd expected. "Not at all. I was an alien, a foreigner," she says. "People always asked, 'Why do you speak like that? Why do you use that word?' But it was exciting for me. I was happy to be different."
Abdelwahed sang jazz covers in hotels, which led her to discover artists who bridge funk, hip-hop and electronic music, like Flying Lotus and J Dilla. But she found her first musical home in Chicago footwork. Like traditional Arab music, footwork has a focus on fast, precise percussion, and Abdelwahed liked that the genre had its own dance style.
Club culture is growing in Tunisia, as it is in nearby Egypt and Morocco, but the scene there is still small. This makes it easier to get noticed. After a short time teaching herself to mix on Traktor, Abdelwahed was DJing with a local crew, World Full Of Bass. After a few years she was playing regularly with several collectives while teaching herself to produce on Ableton. She seems driven by a creative restlessness, a quality referenced in the title of her first release, Klabb. (In Tunisian Arabic the word means "rabies," but its adjective, makloub, is also used to describe a person whose behaviour is strange or manic.) By the time I met her, she was already one of the leading lights of the local scene.
As the epicentre of the Arab Spring protests, Tunisia holds an important place in recent geopolitics. Six years on from the upheavals that caused regime changes in four Arab countries and major uprisings in eight more, it's commonly believed that Tunisia, the smallest country in North Africa, fared best after its revolution. A democratic system replaced their dictator of 23 years, Ben Ali, while a coalition of Tunisian activists won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. This was a boost in a year marred by two brutal terrorist attacks, which dramatically harmed the country's important tourism industry.
Like many students at the time, Abdelwahed attended protests in the capital. At first, she was optimistic about the results. "Suddenly people could speak freely, they felt braver," she says. She also points out that blocks on the internet were removed, meaning young people could discover new music from around the world for the first time through YouTube. But she's sceptical about the revolution's long-term results. "Now people are forgetting," she says. "The country is drowning. There are still so many people living in poverty without freedom."
The issue of freedom has recently had ramifications on Tunisia's club scene. A few days after we first spoke, the British DJ Dax J sparked controversy by playing a track in the Tunisian seaside town of Nabeul that samples the Muslim call to prayer. He received death threats online and has been sentenced to a year in prison by a local court.
"It's not his fault," Abdelwahed says, "he can play whatever he wants, as long as he's not physically harming anyone. People accuse him of being culturally insensitive but it's the opposite—he was being too sensitive. He knew he was going to play in Tunisia and wanted to play something to reach out to the local culture." She goes further, suggesting the local government used the event to score points and be seen as a defender of the faith. "Poor Dax J," she says, "the government used what he did to their own advantage and to maintain their popularity."
On Klabb, which came out in March on InFiné, Abdelwahed references some of these continuing social problems. "My music is socially engaged," she tells me. "When I record under my own name one of my main objectives is to critique injustice in Arab society. The injustice I've seen since I was a kid. Particularly when it comes to gender—people are fully convinced that men are better than women." Her first layer of commentary is purely sonic: her techno soundscapes evoke claustrophobia, their dry rhythms assailed by brutal gusts of noise.
For Tunisians, who can understand the vocals, the social critique is more pointed. "Jalel Brick Rrumi" samples the caustic voice of Jalel Brick, a Tunisian based in Paris who gained notoriety during the revolution for YouTube monologues that cursed the Tunisian president and police in colourful slang. "It was like spoken word poetry but with swear words," she says. "It made us feel good."
Another track, "Ena Essbab," is a veiled critique of the rising current of homophobia in Tunisia. Though considered one of the more liberal countries of the Arab region, Tunisia still has a chequered history with gay rights. Men suspected of homosexuality are subjected to forced anal examinations, the results of which could land them in prison. Driven by death threats, the vice president of Shams, the only official LGBT group in the country, attempted suicide last year.
"The song's title means 'it's because of me,'" Abdelwahed explains. "The lyrics are about a guy who's not manly enough for our society, though I don't directly say he's gay. In Arab society, not just in Tunisia, they say the rising visibility of gay people is because God doesn't love us anymore. So he's saying, 'It's because of me, huh? Society is fucked up economically and ecologically, and all of that because I'm gay?'"
The song's lyrics, which Abdelwahed sings herself, are multitracked and pitchshifted, rising in a chorus before they are suffocated by grey synth swells. When she first played the EP to her Tunisian friends, they were impressed by it technically but found it uncomfortable listening. She sees this as a success. "They get it. I'm uncomfortable. If it makes them uncomfortable too, I did a good job."
This kind of social critique, even when directed only at small circles of experimental music fans, is safer to make from outside the country. Like many emerging producers from the region, Abdelwahed had long since set her sights on Europe, and finally moved to France in 2015. "Arab electronic fans and producers see Europe as a kind of El Dorado," she tells me. "The West is linked in our minds with a kind of modernity. If you want to do something completely new you have to be in Europe." Though there is a growing appetite for electronic music in Tunisia and the wider Arab region, nascent scenes are hampered by a lack of good venues, uncooperative local authorities and the scarcity of music production hardware.
Europe's perceived values are also a draw, the idea that people are more open to alternative ideas and cultures. "Whenever I go to Berlin or Paris there are so many Tunisians and Arabs," she says. "Many of them are my age, they have dreadlocks and piercings, some are gay or trans. Like me, they've only been in Europe for two years. It's not Europe which is encouraging young Arabs to live like that—it just allowed them to express what was inside. For me, I was already open in my head but I couldn't express it in Tunis. If you look unconventional in any way there, it makes you a clear target for police attention. In Europe they don't care about public morality like in Arab cultures. If you're just looking to be free, they'll let you."
This desire for freedom can be heard in Abdelwahed's music. Though situated within the broad framework of techno, her work smoothly incorporates sounds from ambient, industrial, bass, the global club sound and traditional Arab music. This last one is particularly important: "If I don't have something Arabic in my music it won't be me," she tells me.
Her first EP includes synthesised approximations of traditional instruments from the region, like the tablah and the qanun. But she's not afraid to chop and twist these sounds. In fact, Abdelwahed feels frustrated at the deference to convention in modern Arab music, putting it down to a culture where respect of tradition is the dominant value. "I didn't have any musical education," she says, "so I don't respect Arab music or Western music. This allows me to separate everything and respect nothing." This kind of deconstruction will be necessary if she's to achieve her ultimate goal: finding a future for Arab culture. When I suggest that it's a bold mission statement she laughs and qualifies, "I'd like to see if it's possible or not. I just haven't found that out yet."
So far, it seems like she's on the right track, just as eager to learn as to disrupt and challenge. An increasingly busy touring schedule is proof of international interest in her approach, while she continues to explore new ground. She's currently working on the score for a new dance piece by the rising French choreographer Alexandre Roccoli. Whatever the project, Abdelwahed starts every new piece of music with the same question: "If the people who invented house and techno were Arab, if they had grown up with our rhythms and our instruments, what would it sound like? Would it be the drum & bass, house and techno we know today? I don't think so."
What if she were to take the end result and play it back home?
"If I took that music and played it in Tunis, would people dance to it the first time they heard it? Probably not. But I just say to myself, 'Fuck it, I'll make my own groove. I'll dance to it. Hopefully, with time, they'll follow.'"