Meeting Hello Psychaleppo in person has been a treat. It is really satisfying when you get to know an artist of his caliber and finding out how he’s in control of the music; how he has such a grasp of what he’s creating: a project fusing Arab heritage music and electronic sounds. Rare melodies of the bedouin “Mawwals” and choirs of old Tarab are carefully crafted with electronic solos and traditional “old school” arrangements giving this music a highly distinguishable and contemporary feel. I caught up with the Syrian artist hours before his album release in Beirut and learning about the background of his latest album, Toyour, only made the experience of listening to the album live even more intense. Find out all about bird species in the interview below:
1. You started experimenting with music in Syria and you established your sound in Beirut. Tell us how your separation from home helped establish that sound and how would you describe your project, Hello Psychaleppo, today?
Aleppo isn’t very exposed to electronic music. We’re more into traditional and classical Arabic music. I remember when I released the first unofficial Hello Psychaleppo album people didn’t really get it. It was downtempo experimental and I had only sampled Arabic music on one track. However, moving to Beirut which is very rich with its electronic venues and releasing my first album here, some people listened to the music and thought it was good and asked me to play at Metro Al Madina. People’s feedback got me motivated. If I was still back in Aleppo I wouldn’t have the energy to try further. I released an official album here and now I’m based in Minnesota. The project is growing and I’m understanding what I’m doing more and understanding my audience better. I am trying to make better quality of what I do. As for how I describe the project, the most obvious way is through the genre. It’s a mix of Arabic traditional music and electronic tools and some of the electronic principle. It is EDM as well. It’s a combination of two worlds that are far away from each other and I’m just trying to find the links.
2. Because this pleases you?
Yeah, yeah. I come from a place where I’d listen to Oum Kolthoum, Abdel Halim and Nazem AL Ghazali… who all define my memory of music. Then when I found the tools to mix this music, it all made sense to me.
3. Some of the tracks you sample aren’t exactly “tarab,” they are more populist “shaabi” songs. Why is that?
This kind of music attracts me. It is very mesmerizing. I love the voice of the “shaabi” singers, it’s very sharp. Also, depending on the area you get a different sounding plus it’s like wedding music. It’s very fluid, you get a vibe that, I think, is more present and more dancy than tarab. Tarab has a lot of music and a lot of music theory while “shaabi” is like we’re just here to have fun. It’s more street in a way and the subjects it deals with are more varied. If I want something that is more present and loud I would go for “shaabi”. If I wanted something more mellow and explore more the music theory, I would go to classical Arabic music.
4. Which is more present in the upcoming album, Toyour?
Tarab is definitely more present in Toyour. You feel the album is more musical; it has more music than a dance kind of vibe. It is still danceable but it’s more something you would analyze like “oh he changed the scale here, or he played a different time signature.” You could also analyze the theory as I’m trying to understand Arabic music. It’s different from the previous albums. Toyour completes my vision of what I want my music to be. I’m going directions that fulfill the next step of modern Arabic music.
5. You’ve researched a lot for this album. Take us through your process and tell us why is research so important to you?
I do a lot of research and I researched further specifically for this album. I’ve been collecting bird related songs from the Arabic music archive. It started with randomly working on Asmahan’s track Ya Toyour and now I have 300 tracks from the Arabic archives either mentioning birds or flying or even specific types of birds. I have a theme on this album and that took a lot of time especially trying to find the resources, the right quality and understanding how they wrote the songs; the theory, the phrasing and everything that relates to the music theory. The research is about what they’re saying as well as the music and the quality of the sample. It took me 3 years to pick 10 songs to sample from.
6. Why birds?
I was inspired by a book called The Conference of The Birds by an old Persian Sufi poet called Farid Ud-Din Attar and it’s such a beautiful journey. It’s the story of a group of birds going to meet the Simurgh; he’s all the birds combined. He’s the god of birds. At the end they figure out that, once they cross the seven valleys, they’re the Simurgh. It’s a very inspiring story and relatable especially in our world when you’re really crossing the seven valleys in a different context trying to reach comfort, piece of mind, freedom of expression… Listening to Asmahan and reading the book all made sense in conceptualizing the album.
7. You’re trying to find the Simurgh?
Kind of, you can say that whatever it is in our real world, I’m on my journey.
8. So you have a background in fine arts, and we’re talking about the concept of your album and how it started with a poem and then turned into research. How does fine art help you conceptualize all these things? How are the visuals part of your project and what’s their purpose?
I’m a fine art graduate. I graduated from the University of Aleppo as an abstract expressionist. I’m a very visual person and I practiced for four years academically so at first I do have a lot of passion for that, and I don’t get to do that as much as I’m occupied with making music. So I get back to it with the visual identity of the album. I get back to drawing and painting and all of that. That fulfills one of my visions. It’s more in harmony and more together when I’m working on the music and the visuals for it. I know exactly what it should look like, so I think that really helps me understand the final outcome as well for the people who would go like, “Oh, this is the music, these are the visuals, now we can understand both worlds”. Our input is sound and vision, so I think that kind of fulfills my vision of the album. Picking up his album and pointing to the art, Samer continues, So the Simurgh isn’t there, right. Actually there’s a story, that a Simurgh went somewhere above Asia and people didn’t see him, they saw the feathers of the Simurgh. The feathers had so much color, thirty colors. So people were like, ‘woah what is that’ and that’s kind of the scenery that I imagined. And having the birds like out of the frame or out of the scenery makes it more sacred, you know. He picks a metallic feather that is put in the album. I wanted something to represent the thirty colors. So the hologram kind of served as the material. It’s all hand made. I hand printed this. We’re becoming more digital, so it’s just the idea of having something that’s really worth buying, and that comes from the heart of the project.
9. Coming from “war-torn” Syria and playing in the West must be challenging. Do you intend to represent your country or do you create music that only represents you?
I think it’s a big thing to say that I’m responsible for the image of a certain country, and I would never take that position. I only represent myself especially when it comes to the music. I really represent the project and maybe the culture. I’m very proud to be Syrian obviously. But it’s a lot of responsibility to represent Syria- I can’t give that title to myself. If anyone would wanna say that, I’m fine with it but do I wanna take the stand and be like this kind of guy? I love my country and I would give all I can to it but it’s a lot of responsibility to say such big things.
10. The audience in your gigs is extremely vibrant, alive. How does that impact your performance? Do you ever improvise?
For sure, I do improvise. I do play my solos live, I do record things on the spot, but because my music is very progressive I do have some of it written already just to make it more dynamic and more practical. The whole form is improvised, the music, lines, but certain beats change a lot throughout the set. It’s like you’re conducting an orchestra while you’re playing an instrument yourself. So I have control of everything that’s going on. Some of it is programmed and most of it is improvised on the spot. And as well, I feed on the energy of the people and it’s a lot of give and take. If I feel like there’s a good energy, I give more. It’s like at Wickerpark, if people want more, I’ll play more. I’m not like “I finished my set, give me money and I’m out,” I’m very dedicated and when I play I really wanna earn it, I really wanna be there. You want another track, I’ll play another track for you, and another and another. If we’re on the same wavelength I’ll take it further.
11. Your music was “discovered” in Beirut and I have enjoyed every single one of your gigs here. How is the crowd here different?
In Beirut people understand the language, so that really helps with understanding the context of what’s happening. Especially with such an album as Toyour; people really understand where the birds come in with this track, people understand the context. And the energy obviously, that’s where I started my career, my official career and when people really appreciate something they really do. They appreciate the artist and that’s all I ask for. It’s how it started, that one gig at Metro Al Madina, I just felt good after it, I was like I’m going to work on a whole album right now, and I did.
12. What is one classic tarab track you wish you had originally composed as an electronic piece?
I would say maybe Sabah Fakhri’s songs. They have their own dancey kind of tarab, and he’s very smart with actually adding things because he added to traditional music. A good amount of his stuff is actually traditional, it’s not his but he added some rhythms to it, he took it further. It’s like exactly what I did with the tools that he had back in the day. Obviously, he had the most amazing voice ever but I mean he was writing the music as well and adding to it. So he kind of did the sampling but with his tools, with his voice, and he had his band with him. I would go with the concept of more than just one song. I love how he thought of it and how he executed it. But if I had to choose a certain track I would choose Toyour by Asmahan because how it is written, it was a combination of opera and classical Arabic music so it was something that happened once in a lifetime. I think that, as well, changed the standard. She was so good at singing opera and classical and very good at singing classical Arabic. And it’s so hard to have this combined in one person without making it sounding not right.
13. How would you describe the underground music scene in the Arab world right now?
It’s definitely going somewhere. I listen to a lot, not specifically electronic artists, I listen to a lot of hip hop music. I’m a hip hop head, so I listen to Nasser Din Al Touffar, El Asli, El Far3i from Jordan, Abyusif and Ali Talibab from Egypt, Abdullah Miniawy sings and does slam poetry… I can name rock bands, Tanjaret Daghet are so good, Autostrade from Jordan, 47Soul and so on. The scene has become very vibrant and very big. People are demanding this kind of music. Record companies are gonna meet our standards because people are demanding such things. Things are changing, it’s a matter of years and you’ll see more alternative music festivals. I see a hopeful future for the Arabic music scene.