Hi Amine, where are you right now and what are you up to?
I'm in Paris for a couple days, mainly working on different Shouka (our label) related projects, like for instance an electronic music workshop that we are put together in Iraq for next spring, and of course preparing for the Under Frustration compilation release. It's a busy September restart for the label: we are growing the team and several releases are lining up. This year will be very challenging, I'm os much looking forward to it!
So tell us a little bit about Under Frustration Vol. 2 how long did the process take to put it all together? And how did you go about choosing artists for the second volume?
We received so many amazing propositions after the first volume call that we actually had almost enough material ready for volume two. The difficult thing was to order the tracks so as to propose a sonic journey that makes sense. However before getting to that point, all in all, the process was indeed very long. We started talking about this compilation project 5 years ago, in December 2014, at a time where we wanted to work on something that would define our stand as a collective, an audio manifest so to say. We then realized we were unable to think of a common theme or aesthetic, that would bring together electronic musicians from al over the MENA scene. Everyone's music was so different, even within the collective, and the scene was so shattered! Which is actually the very reason why it is so rich and interesting, and so antithetical from the way it is perceived. That's about when the ‘frustration’ theme arose.
What would you say the biggest difference or shift between the two volumes is?
First volume was mainly focused on the Tunisian and Egyptian scenes, with some Paris and Berlin spicing. In the second one, we wanted to explore shattered music in shattered territories. A couple months ago I was telling myself that we could have subtitled this volume "Axis of Evil" for the sake of sarcasm, as it features artists originating from Iran, Iraq & Syria. One peculiar thing to notice is that many of them now live in the USA, the very country that screwed things up in their native countries/countries of origin. This is a very eerie mirror effect that we are highlighting here. Like for instance DJ Haram, who's from Turkish and Iranian origins and lives in Philadelphia; Saint Abdullah brothers Moh and Mehdi, who are Canadian-Iranian and live in Brooklyn, Hello Psychaleppo, Syrian and formerly under refugee status in Lebanon, now living in Minneapolis. Then there's Khan el Rouh, Syrian and a refugee in Copenhagen, and Alsamiri who's from Iraq and kind of a nomad now.
Do you feel a shift in the landscape now following the release of the first Under Frustration compilation when it comes to what the perception of Middle Eastern-influenced electronic music is?
Not really, and even if such a shift had happened, I don't believe we would be the ones responsible for it: few people know we actually exist, and the ones that do already have quite an accurate perception of the scene. But let me first relocate and widen the perspective: Arabstazy is about Middle East, North Africa, and in a more general sense the so-called Arab/Muslim world. Being born and raised myself in Tunisia, I am no specialist of the Middle East, although I traveled it a bit. Then, the compilation is about musician coming from or having bounds to MENA, rather than MENA inspired music. It's about electronic music coming from MENA, certainly not European music with exotic oriental spices.
Two things are happening in parallel: first, coming from let's say Morocco or Palestine, people would expect your music to sound "oriental", whatever that means, which sounds to me like racist non-sense. Second, a bunch of people (from or inside or outside MENA), believe in the fanciful fantasy that the Arab/Muslim world is one and united, although we don't speak the same dialects, nor eat the same food, nor play the same traditional music. Think of it this way: there is as much resemblance between Jordan and Algeria, than between Portugal and Ukraine... which is exactly the heterogeneity we want to highlight, and to celebrate.
What is the idea behind setting out to release only three volumes in the first place?
When I watch a series, I like to know that there will be an end to it, and not be held prisoner by a team of ghost writers. When you set up a company, you set it up for a defined amount of time. When you start a relationship, you know it's gonna end eventually. Necessarily. Thus I often tend to think of the expiry date of a project at the very moment I initiate it. I want to decide when or how it ends, in order not to imprison myself in it. It also gives a sense of urgency, as we only have three bullets to shoot. Last and least, I like the concept of a triptych, and the rich symbolism that lies behind the number 3. Objectifying Manichean duality through a neutral third-party and becoming one. But that's another story.
What do you have lined up after the Under Frustration series ends?
We've already started working on an album, and producing material for a live audio and video performance. We hope to complete the album next winter, probably at about the time when the third and last volume will be released. We might then start touring with the new live band at around that time. Our purpose is to initiate as many collaborations as we possibly can, hopefully including some of the artists that participated to the compilation. However, as we all have our daily jobs on the side, plus our own solo projects, and live in different countries, things can take a bit of time.
Would you say that there is a tangible and substantial shift in the electronic music scene across the Middle East post-arab spring? If so, how?
Was there such a thing as the Arab Spring? To my opinion the only thing that changed after the 2011 revolts, has nothing to do with the artistic scene. The latter has always vividly existed. What did change is that after an uprising that surprised everyone, from locals to former settlers, a perception shift occurred toward so called "Arabs". Formerly perceived as primitive indigenous, not educated enough for democracy and understanding only reward and punishment from our masters, we suddenly were considered as incarnated humans with proper souls, consciousness and free will.
That shift induced - for sure - a substantial change on how we were perceived as artists. A lot of attention was brought towards the Tunisian scene, and I guess it was the same for the rest of Maghreb and Middle East. A positive fallout is that the cultural scene is now slowly structuring itself independently, so as to lower the help needed from post-colonial cultural institutions. This is a slow and inertial process, that still needs to grow some momentum to sustain itself, which is precisely what we are working on with Shouka, at our small scale.
It's obvious that as a collective Arabstazy shows intent of highlighting and showcasing regional and national representation in terms of musical identity across the region, yet, it is also a platform with an ethos thats deeply ingrained in this idea of cultural cross pollination, how do you find the balance or middle ground between this celebration of both cultural homogeneity and heterogeneity?
There is no such thing as nations. Nations are political ad-hoc cultural packages forced on regions, including a language (which is just a globally imposed dialect), a music (often from former settlers) and so on, so as to smooth roughness and irregularities, to level a territory. Tunisia is such a small country, and yet, we don't speak the same dialects nor eat the same food in Sfax or in Tozer or in Beja, which are only a few hours’ drive away from each other. Regions are very specific, and showcasing those representations in terms of musical identity doesn't mean supporting any kind of regionalism. Communitarianism is a curse!
There is no contradiction between looking up to these specificities, and then cross pollenizing them across a wider area. Music is something to be shared, something to get inspired from; it's experiencing otherness and alterity. Most importantly, music and in a more general sense art and culture, are the only effective subversive tool available to the people. The message is very clear, and could be simplistically expressed this way: you can think what you want, thus you can be what you are. Why do you think that every single totalitarian state started by making up an official art, putting artists and intellectuals under control, and creativity under siege? To starve subversion. Subversion is our weapon.
What role do you believe music, or your platform to be specific can play in dispersing this ultra-reductive idea of post colonial Orientalism and fetishization of our culture?
Post-colonialism, cultural appropriation, intersectionality etc. are very fashionable yet cleaving themes nowadays. I personally prefer to act rather than react, and I believe creativity is the key. Instead of losing time and energy fighting things we believe are stupid, let's create alternatives. Prejudice grows out of ignorance, and there is no cure for stupidity. Let's create alternatives for people to choose from: some will identify with them, and some won't. This latter group, rather than losing energy criticizing how we could have done things differently, should in their turn be creative and propose more alternatives, create diversity. Let's drown stupidity into creativity, let's blur the boundaries of prejudices: That's precisely the role I would like our platform to play. Never teaching anyone lessons about how they should perceive or think; I want us to be an inspiring alternative among a constellation of even more inspiring alternatives.
There's a general perception in the Middle East that the electronic music experience is superficially restricted to club culture and the perceived hedonism behind it? What does it take in your opinion to shift such perceptions and view points and what role can collectives likes yourself play in creating a different narrative?
I don't have any issue with hedonism and club culture, let people do what they like, as long as they don't interfere with anyone's freedom. If Arab - or any - countries have a problem with it, they should get their shit together and get rid of these primitive prejudices. Prejudices come from all sides.
This said, I see a clear misunderstanding about how electronic music relates to entertainment. From the very beginning Arabstazy was about live performance. Playing live music. Creating live videos on stage. Electronic music has to take its own responsibility: if the audience is not able to tell the difference between a live act and a DJ set, then we have to recast our performance and create more interaction. What happens on stage needs to be born on stage, out of taking risks. It needs to breathe, in order to be alive.
We've always been proposed to play mainly in clubs, which is a very big misconception about what Arabstazy is doing. We do concerts and performances. We are not here to entertain, we are here to interact. I believe every artist has to realize that whatever he does will be a political statement, a personal manifesto, and be aware of the conscious and unconscious narrative he's filling his performance with.
How do you envision the future of electronic music in the Middle East?
The future is happening now. Amen.