In the kitchen of a small terraced house on a North East-London estate, Ramzy Suleiman, Hamza Arnaout, Tareq Abu Kwaik and Rami Nakhle sit around a laptop watching a YouTube video of Akala’s “Find No Enemy,” debating whether the London rapper lives up to the hype, as the rain drizzles down the window outside. They make up four of the five members of 47Soul, a Palestinian new shaabi band formed in Amman in 2013 that has recently relocated to London.
It all started when Palestinian-American songwriter, keyboardist and producer Suleiman, who goes by the name Z the People, came to Jordan from the US and met Abu Kwaik aka El Far3i, at the time a member of post rock band El Morabba3 and one of the biggest names in Arabic rap. He introduced Suleiman to his producer Arnaout, aka El Jihaz, also the bassist of Jordanian reggae-indie band Autostrad and they later worked together on a solo EP. They all connected via YouTube to Palestinian-based Walaa Sbait, a dub-dabke dancer, poet and teacher. Nakhle, of mountain reggae band Toot Ard from the occupied Golan Heights, recently completed the five, bringing live drums to the 47Soul sound.
Since first coming together, they’ve created music rooted in the rhythms and melodies that have dominated the region of Bilad al-Sham (the Levant) for years; the soundtrack for everything from wedding parties to the street-side shisha café, but funneled through the diverse spectrum of their respective musical inspirations and past projects. Call it electro-mijwez, shamstep, or electro-dabkeh, they’ve already garnered considerable attention and a steady fan base in both the Middle East and UK, despite having only released one live EP to date.
Ironically, though previously living in neighboring countries, only now – 3000km away from home in London – is the band all together in the same country for the first time. “To get all of 47Soul in one country is not that easy for us in the Middle East,” Arnaout says, wearing an Afghan hat. “It’s our struggle. We write about all these problems we face.” Abu Kwaik continues, “Rami is from the Golan Heights, so he doesn’t have a passport. Walaa has an Israeli passport; all this creates limitations. We try not to make it our main focus, but we’d be naive if we acted like it wasn’t an issue. It’s part of the name, part of the message, part of the music, but we don’t want people to view us as only that.”
Of course, being a band of Palestinian musicians there’s a tendency for people to politicize their music and expect them to be mouthpieces for what’s going on in Palestine, but though there’s a message to their music, 47Soul would prefer to be regarded as musicians first. “I had to answer questions for an interview a few days ago and all of the questions were like ‘is the UK politicized enough as an arena? How do you see musical struggle in Palestine?’ Basically the answer was that a social anthropologist [would] answer that for you,” Abu Kwaik says. “That’s not our goal.”
As the band gears up for its third London tour, the UK’s capital city has proved an incubating environment for the group’s music, where they’ve been soaking up the musical diversity and connecting with audiences. “London is a city for music, any musician would be happy to be based here and we know that being here is going to take this style even further. Whenever we go out we’re exposed to new sounds,” Arnaout says, as Nakhle brings over glasses of tea.
Before coming together, the members of 47Soul had long toyed with the idea of a project focusing on the melodies and rhythms of the Levant. “We’d kind of talked about this style a lot. All of us as individuals jammed the idea of playing these styles, these Levant type grooves from Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. And the idea came up of Ramzy playing Arabic-style but on analogue keys, to give it a more fat electronic sound,” Abu Kwaik says. After preparing a set and playing their first gig in Amman, they played at the UK’s Arabic music festival, Shubbak, in the summer of 2013. “After that it clicked. The feedback was good; it was new for the people and new for us,” he adds.
Since then the band has played numerous concerts across London and the UK, at Dalston’s Passing Clouds, SOAS, University of London, as well as recording a track at the legendary BBC Maida Vale Studios, for the World Service a few weeks back. Their live performances are high-energy dance parties rooted in electronic dabke sounds, with fast-paced hyper analogue synth melodies, hypnotic derbake hammerings matched with live drum beats, groove-filled guitar lines and vocal choruses that jump between English and Arabic. Their music retains the energy of a traditional Palestinian wedding, with a large live improvisational element and whirring extended mijwez solos.
“I’ve been listening to this music since I was a kid. Dabke is played at every wedding. It’s on the street where I came from,” Arnaout says. “The understanding of it is kind of built in subconsciously so it’s so easy to arrange.” Their sound also incorporates numerous other genres, with everything from reggae and hip hop to afrobeat and rai slipping into their melodies, but the band don’t consider this meeting of sounds as fusion, more a natural culmination of the music they’ve been listening to their whole lives. “The sound is always going to be an intersection of our personalities and what we’re interested in. It always evolves depending on what kind of sound we’re feeling in the moment. We come from a globalized generation,” Suleiman says succinctly.
Arnaout continues, “Yeah, we grew up listening to this kind of music, but we were also exposed to MTV, to rock, hip hop, reggae. But I know that we all share the idea of developing our own sound. Not representing a country or a culture, but just representing ourselves. That satisfaction of delivering a fresh sound is the hardest task for any musician.” Suleiman continues, “It shouldn’t be like if you listen to our music, that’s that Palestinian sound, that Syrian sound, no that’s the 47Soul sound. It can’t be replicated, it can’t be compared to anything, it can’t be boxed in; it’s just itself.”
The kind of shaabi music and dabke that 47Soul tap into has always been part of the region’s identity and continues to have a big presence in popular culture and the streets. Lately though, this genre of music that rarely passed into the output of alternative musicians from the Arab world has now begun to infiltrate the melodies of different groups throughout the region. From the movement of Egypt’s “new wave” of young electro-shaabi artists notching up YouTube views into the millions, many of whom recently signed to alternative Egyptian music label 100Copies, to underground artists such as Maurice Louca who integrated the genre with experimental psychedelics into his recent trippy album “Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan” (Salute the Parrot), a younger generation of Arab musicians are essentially revisiting their roots and turning the focus inwards.
Arnaout, however, is cynical about Egypt’s electro shaabi hype and questions its labeling as a burgeoning genre. “I’ve heard it many times. I don’t think it’s true that electro shaabi is rising in the Middle East. Shaabi music has been there for ages; it’s the backbone of the Middle East. I don’t think it was weaker before. I guess the difference now could be that the youth of where we come from are more conscious of the fact that we need to bring our own style of music. But if you go to a library and do research through many subjects, you’re still gonna have to write your own essay.”
But there’s no doubt that the sounds are also starting to have an influence beyond the Middle East, from the international success of long-time Syrian dabke singer and musician Omar Souleyman to the success of compilations from record labels such as Sublime Frequencies, revisiting shaabi music from the Levant. As artists and audiences around the world begin to explore the wealth of Arabic music heritage, could this be the era for music from the Middle East?
“I think [the interest in electro shaabi] opens more curiosity for people to understand Arabic music in general,” Abu Kwaik says. “Even if electronic people are gonna be like how the hell is this being played? Why does this sound like this? Oh, there’s a quarternote – what is that? All these questions will rise.” Arnaout continues, “I am kind of glad that I start to hear some mijwez sounds in a Bjork track, it doesn’t annoy me. I think it’s really great that you have more people exposed to this style because that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re a part of this huge movement and we’re trying to take this style, push it and spread it internationally,” he says. “Since the ‘80s a lot of international artists have been working with shaabi musicians from the Middle East, Egypt, Morocco… I think the gap of research about what happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Arabic music is what’s missing.”
But 47Soul don’t only want to shine a spotlight on these music forms from the Levant, they have bigger ambitions to evolve its forms and create a new genre, to take from their musical heritage and develop it. “Now we have more acts trying to [create that sound] and I consider ourselves a part of them, but we also want to do music from the mentality of having played and produced other styles too. We’re not people who’ve been playing this style at weddings all our lives, not to judge that, but this is more like, ‘let’s make electronic and dance music that’s on the same level power and production-wise as other genres, but all the while using that sound’,” Abu Kwaik says.
There’s a genuine visible excitement the band has towards the potential of 47Soul, despite the success they’ve all had on their individual projects. Z the People & El Jihaz’ side project – with minimal synthy electronics, groovy basslines and Z’s soulful vocals played to a crowd into the thousands at last summer’s Wicker Park Festival in Lebanon’s Batroun. Abu Kwaik has reached huge audiences with his acoustic rap and hip hop project El Far3i, recently releasing a new album with Damar, and Toot Ard continue to grow in popularity, but there’s a general consensus that 47Soul will now become their main focus.
“I think the passion of wanting to create a new genre is the main thing all five of us share,” Abu Kwaik says. “I don’t want to be just a musician who played something. This is different, we’re playing that style and trying to take it to different places and make it ours. Of course you can’t help but be proud of it too, because when you say this music represents my street, it literally does. If someone comes and visits me and we go to the supermarket to buy some bread, this is what we’d hear.”
If you’re down with the Soul, you can help them get their forthcoming EP, Shamstep, made by clicking right about…here