Snaking synth lines and exotic chord sequences collide with vigorous bass-laden beats and housy bedrock foundations, as East meets West in irresistible, unpredictable Levantine soundscapes. Zenobia serves up ten by turns moody and euphoric tracks straight outta Haifa – a seaside town in the north of Israel-Palestine known for its relatively large numbers of Palestinian inhabitants, and its burgeoning electronic music scene.
The outfit has just come out with its debut LP, “Halak Halak” (which means “Welcome Welcome” in Arabic slang). The duo consists of Nasser Halahlih and Isam Elias, two Palestinian electro-pioneers who came together at the club Kabareet, headquarters of Palestine’s electronic avant-garde. It was there on the first anniversary celebration of the club that Nasser and Isam made their entrée – and where they were discovered by Parisian electro-Oriental act Acid Arab.
Zenobia are at the forefront of a fledgling parallel-culture of Levantine Oriental techno that weds dabke rhythms with western production values; a new cutting-edge genre that has yet to be fully articulated and that includes such acts as Acid Arab, 47Soul and Omar Souleyman.
The sound is never boring or monotonous, rather unrelatenting, intoxicating and imbued with an innate sense of drama, yes, even mystery. Particularly captivating is the high-pitched microtonal keyboard playing which approximates the sound of a zurna or bagpipe, full of trills and quick flourishes. Altogether Zenobia offers up the incidental sound of a modern Arab Levant rooted in folkloristic traditions.
So you guys are from Haifa, yeah? Can you tell us a little bit about the scene there?
Isam Elias: Yes, so we live in Haifa. Haifa is the city that gathers lots of Arabs; lots of Palestinians. It has the sea and mountains. And it is a very special place for artists, for Palestinian artists, because it has the biggest gathering of Palestinians. It is the biggest city for the villages in the vicinity.
Is there much of an electronic scene there?
Nasser Halahlih: Yes, in Haifa there is an electronic scene centered around a bar called Kabareet. I don’t know if you have heard about this place before. It actually hosted very big names from the electronic scene around the world. It’s a very small place; it’s a very unique place. And it’s the only place in Palestine for electronic music. Or let’s say it’s the main place of this music. Now we have like, two others. But Kabareet is the main location for this music. And it was on the bar’s first anniversary party that Zenobia played for the first time.
Can you describe your sound a little bit for our readers?
Nasser: Our sound is unique. Because there is no genre for this kind of music. It can sound sometimes like Acid Arab. It can sound like 47Soul. It’s not a genre like house or techno, or like any other. It’s very new. We are influenced by Arabic music – It’s a mixture of styles of Arabic music from our area – from the Middle East – with electronic production, or “Western” production. For many people we meet on the street it sounds very unique and a little bit special and different.
When you are talking about being influenced by Arabic music, you are talking about dabke, or?
Nasser: We are not making dabke. We are influenced by the music.
But if someone is listening to dabke, he will say this is not dabke. Because we are not making dabke. But we are using the rules that create dabke, how to compose music for dabke, and we are incorporating this in our music.
Can you tell me something about your musical backgrounds? I understand that one of you studied music. Tell us, please how you got into this music.
Nasser: Our background in music – we came from different places, me and Isam. I can speak about myself and Isam can speak about himself. I come from electronic music. I started to make electronic music in 1999. Some people call me the pioneer of Palestinian electronic music because till 2010 there was no one that did electronic music in Palestine. Just me. So I came from this place of electronic music. Especially progressive trance. But the influences come from all sorts of electronic music. It can start with experimental electronic music on the one hand and it can end with techno and house and everything. I also have my roots in classical Arabic music and classical music in general.
Did you study music?
Nasser: No, I studied by myself. That time, in Palestine, or in Israel electronic music was not an established field of study. So if you wanted to learn that music, you had to learn it by yourself. So I taught myself. And I took some courses here and there.
And have you travelled much? Have you been to Europe? Or did you just stay in Israel?
Nasser: Till 2009 I released my album on a German label. Since then I have released many tracks on different labels around the world, and I have traveled mainly in Europe with the music. Then I had a break for five years. Before Zenobia I had another project – it is more experimental music with spoken word. Zenobia was not something that we had planned to do. It just happened alone, spontaneously. Isam, you want to talk about your background of music?
Isam: Yes. I actually came from a different side of music. I came from the classical side. I learned classical piano for like, twelve years. I went to college in Tel Aviv. I learned more piano skills and singing skills and production. So my side was more the theory and the harmony.
And what encouraged you to make the transition from classical music to electronic music?
Isam: I think as Palestinians, this kind of music lives in us. We love it. We dance with it. We have it in all of our weddings. We listen to it, like our fathers and grandfathers. I think we always had it in ourselves. And until this project started I didn’t play those kinds of music before. But something happened between me and Nassar.
And what’s been the response in Israel?
Nasser: Sorry, I just want to make one note. We prefer to call it Palestine. Not Israel, ok?
Nasser: Because it is a point that is very critical for us and for our audience.
Nasser: And the majority of our audience, doesn’t like to see this word. You can continue Isam.
Isam: Yes, I was saying, about the responses, here in Palestine or Israel, or elsewhere in the world. We always have this happy crowd. The guys here love this because it is new. And for the guys from Europe, our traditional kind of music is new for their ears.
Have you been to Berlin at all?
Nasser: We’ve played in Berlin many times.
When was the last time you performed?
Nasser: Last summer. We had two gigs at Gretchen. One was with Acid Arab and one was with 47Soul.
Now with Corona gigs are off, but do you have plans after the crisis to go back to Europe?
Nasser: For sure, but let’s see what will happen with this crisis. It looks like it will never end. Now it’s very confused all what’s happening now the last months in the world. And we are effected in a very bad way by this situation. Because it was supposed to be our best year with gigs outside of Israel-Palestine. So, almost everything has been cancelled. And even the booking agency told us to months ago, “Guys, let’s talk about 2021. Because this year is fucked up.” We cancelled all the shows. We are missing this thing, because we are supposed to be in the peak of the tour, in really big festivals this year. And, yeah, it’s not nice, it’s not good, but what can we do? We go with the flow in this situation.
How have you been received by the media in Europe?
We had a lot of stuff written about us. And now we have more, through the promotion of the label. The first response from the media in Europe, it was an article in The Guardian about something that happened in Ramallah called PMX. They even called us “Kraftwerk of the Levant”. It was like, too much to call us like this, but we were very happy about it. We hope that we are doing something – not like Kraftwerk, that kind of music – but doing something new, like what they did in the seventies. What we are doing is really fresh and new. And people like it. And we hope that there will be many artists and musicians making this kind of music. This is one of our missions – to make a genre from this music. And we hope we will see this.
Can you tell us about your influences?
Nasser: Actually, all the time when people ask us about influences – you mean music influences, or influences in general? Because what we are doing is a mirror for how we live. We try to be as original as we can. Musically for me: all of the classic Arabic music. Also, all what is happening in the electronic music scene, especially in the instrumental scene and the artistic scene, affected me a lot. Also Arabic pop and American pop and hip-hop. I like to listen to many different kinds of music. I am very open. I try to be very open and to try to test everything from every land.
There are some people who see keyboards as the bane of traditional music. They figure it is a bit of a shame that electronic keyboard music wipes out the full-fledged bands and orchestras. How do you respond to these trad-bound critics?
Nasser: I got you. It’s different. We don’t play keyboards. I will tell you what happened. If you play the regular keyboard or synthesizer, like a Korg keyboard or Yamaha, this keyboard comes with some built-in drum sections and bass and guitar. The keyboard gives you all the background, and you can play the melody on it. So this comes instead of the band, instead of the orchestra. Instead of a guy playing the darbuka, there is a loop of darbuka in it. But what we are doing is totally different from this. Because first of all, we are trying to build a different background for the music. And this is the big difference between us and keyboards. We are trying to create a kind of musical background that can “hug” the melody, or put the melody inside of it. And it’s totally original. We don’t use any pre-recorded stuff. We try to make our sound, our drum section, we try to make it totally live, from A to Z. I can understand the people who say they don’t like keyboards, they like the band. I also like the band, rather than the keyboard. But not in the situation of Zenobia. Because Zenobia doesn’t use keyboards. We are like a live studio. We are using everything live. We are composing everything live. We are not offering up something that was prepared before. This is the beauty of it.
Do you play darbuka as well?
Nasser: No.But I know how to manipulate darbuka on the stage, to make it fit with the music of Zenobia. This is the difference between us and the keyboards. Because in the keyboard you cannot manipulate anything. It’s like there, and you can’t touch it.
How did you guys hook up with Acid Arab?
Nasser: Acid Arab are very, very interesting guys. They have, let’s say, big ears and big eyes with regards to this scene, and this style of music. In the beginning I knew Guido from the people of Kabareet, because they performed there. And I thought that they would be interested in Djing our music. And I contacted him, and the rest is history. And they liked the music, they liked the band. And they believed that we should be on their level. And we are happy to be there because it’s more than business. It’s a friendship.
Do you find that they are knowledgeable about Arabic music?
They know a lot about music, in general, I think. They have really special ears. This makes them really great DJs. We had a chance to tour with them, and a chance to see them live and doing their sets. I’ve listened to thousands of DJs, and they are really among the best.
What’s the crowd like at your shows in Haifa?
Nasser: All kinds of people come to our shows, mostly Arabs who are open to alternative culture, and who came from the pop scene. This is the beauty of the music of Zenobia – that it can cross the ages and cross the styles. We had the same reaction in South Korea, in Chile, in Paris, in Berlin and in a small village in the north of Palestine.
Thank you for the interview.
Nasser: Thank you.