With a Kaffiyeh and Synthesizer: The Arab Music Revolution Starts Here
BY: BAR PELEG
Nasser Halahlih and Isam Elias, the local electronic music duo known as Zenobia, want to revolutionize the global Arabic pop music scene. Their performances are hypnotic. The energy and smiles spread on their faces throughout the entire show are infectious. The wail of their synthesizers, alongside the pulsating beat, creates authentic instrumental music, a full-length tribal trip that many in the world toady are trying to copy without success.
Over the past year, the instrumental electronic duo from Haifa of Halahlih and Elias have toured Israel from one end to the other. They appeared in bars such as Anna Loulou in Jaffa, Kabareet in Haifa as well as Ramallah in the West Bank, Tel Hai in the far north and many other places.
They opened the Roots of Art festival in the south Tel Aviv club Haoman 17 in May. Hundreds danced to their music for over an hour. Just last week, they returned from performing in South Korea, and at the end of the month they will appear in Berlin. They’re also set to perform in the Meteor Festival at Kibbutz Lehavot Habashan in the north in September.
Elias, 27, was born in Nazareth. He began studying piano in first grade and at 23 he fell in love with the synthesizer. He went on to study at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music and was part of Ghazall, one of the most important Palestinian-Israeli pop groups today.
Halahlih, 37, was also born in Nazareth. Originally his family was from a village near Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar. From there they moved to the Arab city of Shfaram in the north, where his father — who studied film and acting in Tel Aviv in the 1960s — established the first theater.
In 1996, Halahlih moved to Haifa. He DJed at weddings at night while attending a morning course for DJs. When he realized he wanted to create original electronic music he moved to Tel Aviv, picking up the secrets of the profession gradually from anyone who was willing to teach him. He began to produce clips of trance and psychedelic trance music on a demo version of the legendary Fruity Loops software he had.
The first real track I released was ‘Fairuz.’ I sold it for 500 euros to some collection on a German label curated by a guy from Binyamina. Everyone who heard it was in shock at first. It was 2001 and since then things began to roll. Performances, sets,” said Halahlih. In a local Tel Aviv paper from those days Halahlih was described as the first Arab trance artist in the world. At the same time, he began experimenting with electronic pop in Arabic, something that didn’t exist at the time. One of his first projects was “Sha’ababika” (in loose translation: the new kids). in which he wanted to create an Arabic version of the Pet Shop Boys with a friend.
He began performing in Israel and abroad during that period and released tracks with well-known trance record companies, such as the Danish label Iboga and the German Blue Tunes. His first full studio album was “Checkpoint,” released in 2008 by the Berlin label Iono. The cover featured an image of the West Bank separation barrier.
Halahlih got a job with a mobile content company and abandoned the studio for a long time. In 2012, musicians from the Jazar Crew, a Haifa-based party collective, approached him and asked him to play his 2008 album live.
“I went to the Natanzon club in Haifa at 2 A.M. and saw some 200 Arabs dancing dubstep. It was a shock. Suddenly I was sick of my office job and only wanted to make music. I began searching for a direction,” he says.
The first station on his way back into the music scene was a project called “Fauda.” Halahlih played keyboards, someone else the electric oud and with Ayed Fadel of the Jazar Crew and one of the best-known figures in the alternative Palestinian nightlife culture in Haifa, and in general. The project was quite dark and the lyrics Fadel wrote dealt with slavery and liberation. The trio appeared quite often, even outside Israel. The entrance to the Kabareet club in Haifa still has graffiti with the band’s name on the wall.
“Kabareet was home for me,” says Halahlih. “I think that I was the first to play there when the place had three tables. I would host all sorts of artists and perform live with them. Ayed always would come up and improvise on the microphone.” And then, on the place’s first birthday, the connection with Elias happened.
The two already knew each other when they ran into each other at the Ashams radio station and even worked together making children’s’ songs, but nothing much came of it until they met by chance in the club — and this led to the start of Zenobia.
“I had just left Kabareet, he was just coming in. He told me he was doing an hour-long jam and offered for me to join him. By chance, the keyboard and synthesizers were in my car. We did a very down tempo deep house session. The next day we sat in a café on Masada Street and people told us that we had to do something with it, so we did. In the third rehearsal we decided to lower the beat even a little more. It was Mizrahi with soul, a session of a few hours in which we didn’t stop playing.” That’s where Zenobia was born, says Halahlih.
Septimia Zenobia was the queen of Palmyra (Tadmor), an ancient city located in what is Syria today. From 267 to 274 she ruled the eastern part of the Roman Empire, which included large parts of Asia Minor and Egypt. That is why they chose the name Zenobia for their project.
“This is the new Levant, it is our new music and this music connects us to our roots,” says Halahlih. “My father, grandfather and grandmother were Bedouin and they have energy of place and wandering. Our music comes from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine.”
Despite the deep-rooted characteristics, this is not debka music, the party sounds with darbuka drums, and also not ballads with violins. Zenobia leaves the stigmas at home.
“We play both our souls, and that of the music we grew up on: We don’t play debka but we toy with ‘maqam,’ the Arabic word for the scale that has quarter tones,” adds Halahlih. “That is the music of the region where Zenobia ruled, on top of which we add a 2018 production.”
If we are talking about debka, it is hard not to mention the resemblance, at least outward, to the Syrian singer Omar Souleyman. Halahlih and Elias perform in kaffiyehs, headbands and dark glasses, a look modeled, none too subtly, on Souleyman, the king of Syrian wedding music who is credited with reviving the genre.
“Omar Souleyman is a gimmick as far as I’m concerned,” says Halahlih. “He has been making the same music for years and is not developing in any direction. We live in a world in which people want a show and not just music, and also to film and upload to the internet. We reached the conclusion that because the music that we make is a mix between folklore and the new world we need to express it in clothing too. So we wear a kaffiyeh and headband but wear black clothes and not galabiyas.”
The revolution the duo is talking about, a mix of old and new, is taking shape day by day. If the first step in the Arab music revolution was Egyptian singer and composer Sayed Darwish, without whom there would have been no Umm Kulthum; and the second was the Jordanian-Palestinian electronic music group 47Soul, as the duo says, will Zenobia be the third step in the Arab pop revolution? Only time will tell, but for now it seems they are heading in the right direction — and all this without releasing a single album.
Brian Eno came up to them after their performance in the Music Expo festival in Ramallah, the French duo Acid Arab have become their friends after a few visits to Haifa and they are signed with an international booking firm. Soon they will sign with a Belgian-French record company.
Halahlih: “Our dream is to come out with this music from Haifa to the world, so they hear it in China, they can hear it in Brazil like any other music without all the stories, without all the issues. Until now, Arab music in the new era since Umm Kulthum has not been on the map in the world and this is our dream, they should ask us where it comes from. They should know that it doesn’t come from Europe but from here.”
If everything goes according to the plan, knock on wood, and you conquer the world, will you continue to work from here?
Elias: “We’re from here, aren’t we? That’s what makes us special, that is the story our music tells.
Their music is hypnotic, powerful and seasoned with critical dashes of Levantine acid, and if you ask them about the occupation — they prefer to focus on conquering the global world of music.”