Photo credit : Judas Companion
The musicians that stand out from the crowd are those who use their roots (in this case, Middle Eastern and North African) as a springboard to launch themselves into other territories by harnessing the power of today’s sounds, more specifically electronic music. A prime example is Deena Abdelwahed, born in Tunisia but raised in Qatar, whose debut album Khonnar creates a new world where we find an equal blend of Arab and avant-garde, as well as a strong commitment to the artist’s dark lyrics and queer-activist perspective as evidence of a protean identity. These multiple roots and masks have earned her a spot among this year’s Faces in the We are Europe network.
“The sounds I compose come from my memory,” an expressive, ebullient Deena Abdelwahed explained to us on the day of her performance at Nuits sonores in Lyon. “I try to recall music I’ve heard on the radio, in the street, at weddings as a child. That pop music atmosphere of growing up in Arab countries. I try to reclaim those sounds for myself.” A clear statement of intent from someone who doesn’t deny her roots but also doesn’t hesitate to transform them. She’s figured out how to create her own distinctive personality without forgetting where she comes from.
It’s interesting to see how this honest artist, who has no desire to imitate her ancestors or Western trends, approaches the process of appropriation: “Sometimes I find the music around me quite annoying, for instance the music at weddings. I can’t listen to it, it doesn’t speak to me. And if we dance to it, it’s only because we’re guests, it’s a social thing. When I sample it, what I try to do is make it fit into my music. The fit may be seamless or grating, but in either case it serves to express what I feel.”
These are the foundations of her electronic composition method, a far cry from merely copying the steady beats that come with the equipment. And it’s commendable, because Abdelwahed arrived in France in 2015, after attending university in Tunisia and living through the Jasmine Revolution. The easy thing would have been to adapt a few eastern sounds to European tastes and spin universally popular techno music.
From Mahraganat to the Future
But her rebellious adolescence, in the midst of student protests against Ben Ali and immersed in a queer community in the heart of Arab culture, also found a musical outlet. When we saw her at Transmusicales in Rennes in 2016, her live performance with a computer already set her apart from many other artists, who try to impress with a grand coming-out at a big festival and refuse to be weird. She was superbly so, drawing on the tracks from her first EP Klabb (InFiné, 2017), even though she claims that wasn’t her best show because she was just starting out.
But let’s continue to explore her background and decontextualisation to create something new. From Egypt, Abdelwahed brings us mahraganat, the popular Arab music known in Europe as electro chaabi. She is attracted to and influenced by the deconstruction being officiated by some of the more daring labels, like 100Copies. “The first time you listen, it makes your ears bleed. But it’s helped me because it revealed the true face of this music, a music that’s released and intended for teenagers who’ve had a very masculine, very virile upbringing. I’ve scrutinised it minutely in my work.”
Between the mahraganat from the Arab streets, a bastard hybrid of all the urban sounds of the day, and the standard tech-house that sounds the same everywhere, a new and virtually untrodden path seems to materialise. Because, according to our artist, “There’s no such thing as Tunisian electronic music.” In other words, she doesn’t represent any particular scene, although in her country she was part of the World Full of Bass collective and, in Europe, she participates in the Arabstazy circuit with members who hop back and forth between Tunisia, Paris and Berlin.
“In Tunisia, we don’t have a journalistic platform that talks about music, like there is in Europe. Here, thirty years ago you already had magazines specialised in electronic music, and a history has already been written. In Tunisia, and Arab countries in general, there’s nothing, unless the topic is traditional music from the 1950s.” It’s a blank page waiting to be written — which can be a good thing for those looking to do the unexpected.
Khonnar: A Statement of Intent
With that intention, Abdelwahed began recording her debut album, Khonnar (InFiné, 2018), which sums up all these premises quite well. Her sights are set on pioneers who’ve already tried to envision the kind of futuristic Arab club music which she refers to in a half-joking, half-serious way. They are the late British artist Muslimgauze, El Madhy, Jr. from Algeria, and Egyptian-American talent Mutamassik, three “outsiders” to whom success never came or hasn’t come yet. “None of them, whether by artistic choice or due to demoralisation, have gone all the way. It’s risky, because you have to consider the record label, the manager or the team around you. And then be able to land gigs at Nuits sonores or other festivals. And know how to make the album sell in shops.”
The Tunisian is in good company with the French label InFiné, which takes proper care of its artists. Oddly enough, it was they who suggested that she should produce her album in Barcelona with Edu Tarradas (an electronic musician who goes by the name of Clip!). “I’m disorganised and he’s organised, and I told myself we’d balance each other out nicely. As I wanted lots of details on my album, with club vocals and things, the producer needed to come from a different scene than me.” As a result, “The album with Edu has a studio feel, it’s very clean.“
The album contains new tracks that elude us as they progress and remain enigmatic every time we play them. It’s predominantly instrumental, but now and then Abdelwahed releases her ghosts and diatribes in a voice that doesn’t aspire to be prodigious. And, in the songs ‘Al hobb al mouharreb” and “Robbouni”, she uses lyrics written by young Egyptian poet Abdullah Miniawy, who also sings and plays the trumpet. He’s currently living in exile in Europe, due to threats received in his country after publishing a poem called “Students of the Third World” in 2016, which denounced the unsolved murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni. “I thought he was the right person. The way he writes really reflects the music I compose, in words.”
In 2019, InFiné released two EPs from the album with remixes by other artists: the first, Tawa (remixes), based on the eponymous track, with M.E.S.H. and Karen G. (USA), Basile 3 (France) and Clip!; and the second, Khonnar remixes, with four different tracks by Enyang Ha (South Korea), Lord Of The Isles and Ital Tek (UK) and Dawan (Tunisia). In addition, Abdelwahed composed “An Itch” for the 2017 album Plunge by Fever Ray (Swedish artist Karin Dreijer).
When performing live, she presents these tracks differently in order to give them greater intensity and be able to improvise with her voice. “It lets me connect with people faster than if I just convey abstract messages at the sound level. Although the way I sing isn’t upbeat, it’s not pop. It comes from within, like spoken word. Emotions are what tell my throat the range and level of intensity I need to sing.“
That’s her simple recipe for concerts: a computer, Midi interfaces and a mike. “My improvisation depends on where the festivals put me. I don’t have a lot of machines. I use the computer commands. I don’t play with my hands, but I leave improvisation for the vocals.” Later on, she’s explained, she’ll add more machines and complicate her stage setup.
For now, we’ve seen her at Nuits sonores in Boiler Room mode, though in her case it wasn’t broadcast live, and at Sónar in Barcelona, on a stage where she spread her arms wide in satisfaction at the end of a late-night concert in the vast halls of Fira Gran Via. Her voice had expanded through an audience eager to dance and hear something other than the usual tones.
Activism under Debate
On the walls of Lyon, while the political and social forum European Lab Camp was underway, people saw a photo of Abdelwahed labelled as an activist, within the group of 64 individuals chosen in 2019 by the We are Europe festival network. She frowns because she thinks the label carries too much responsibility.
“In reality, an activist isn’t someone who just talks about these issues. It’s someone who commits to political actions, working through an association and a strategy. I’m a committed person of conviction. I think it’s normal for us to talk about injustice. Especially because I’m part of this LGBT community, and I speak out against the types of injustice I suffer or have suffered. But I’m not an activist, in the sense that I don’t organise anything. I just participate in events organised by LGBT activists.“
She compares this to when she was living in Tunisia: “I participated in the 2011 revolution. Those were my university years, and the police beat us. I participated in the assemblies of the General Union of Tunisian Students. That was being an activist.” Now in Toulouse, where she lives, she admits that everything is new to her and she’s not familiar with local political circles. She even says, albeit with a smile, that the label could actually work against her. “Maybe those activists in Tunisia won’t call me now, because they think I’m using it for personal reasons.“
This is another sign that, though she may currently live in Europe, her mental imagery is still Arab, in the broadest sense of the word. She was born in Doha, Qatar, where she lived with her Tunisian parents until she was eighteen. At that age, she left to attend university in her home country. “Qatar is a melting pot of the entire Arab world: Tunisians, Jordanians, Syrians, Sudanese… all displaying where they come from, and that’s enriched me. And that’s why I don’t like to focus solely on my North African roots, because I’ve realised that things are exactly the same, no matter where you go! The only things that change are the colours, but we’re all up to our necks in the same shit!“
Having grasped the situation, it now seems entirely appropriate for her to don the masks of German photographer and designer Judas Companion, which let her play with these different identities and appear and disappear beneath these layers as the occasion demands.