A mixing desk at her fingertips, the artist known as Sarouna coaxed a haunting refrain from the bass track—music both about the past and the present. Like other popular names on the Palestinian electro scene, the 23-year-old, wearing a hoodie emblazoned with “Made in Palestine” in Arabic, creates songs by drawing on local folk music.
“Why would I go for European styles, which I don’t really feel attached to?” she said, in her bedroom studio overlooking the hills around Ramallah. “We will live this heritage so that we do not forget.”
The project was the idea of Rashid Abdelhamid, a film producer, assisted by Sama Abdulhadi, who many consider the first Palestinian woman DJ. They assembled 10 artists from the Palestinian territories, Israel, Britain, France and Jordan at a villa in Ramallah.
From this two-week artistic residency in 2018, an album of 18 songs was born, entitled Electrosteen—a word combining Electro and “Falesteen,” Arabic for Palestine.
Each with their own musical backgrounds, the artists worked from hundreds of pieces of traditional Palestinian music recorded about 15 years ago by the Popular Art Centre, a Palestinian organization based in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.
At first, faced with treasures from the rich local tradition, “we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t want to spoil them,” said Sarouna, the youngest of the musicians, her hair cut in a boyish style. “I listened, I listened, then I took a little piece of music, I put it in the software and I put a rhythm on it, similar to that of the music but with more electro accents,” she said. “Sometimes I added qanun,” she said, referring to the stringed instrument used in traditional music.
On March 1, artists involved in the project will take to the stage of the Arab World Institute in Paris for a performance.
Bruno Cruz, a longtime DJ who is also on the album, said he was fascinated by the project. In his studio overlooking the sea in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, he was recently mixing while surrounded by dozens of posters, reminders of his many concerts in the region and in Europe since the late 1990s.
“I had been trying previously to do this sort of mix,” Cruz said, but getting copyright clearances for traditional material was a challenge. They then came across the center’s collection, which made songs available to the Electrosteen project. “You could use them without worries. It was great,” he said.
Listening to the archives, he recognized rhythms and melodies sung by his aunt and grandmother when he was a child and also discovered a still wider musical heritage, which differed according to district. “Every place has a story of its own, even if, in the end, all this is Palestinian folklore,” the 35-year-old said.
He chose to integrate into one of his pieces a recording from the 1950s of a wedding singer from the northern West Bank and the traditional interaction between the performer and the guests. “There is a strange connection between traditional Palestinian music and breakdance or hip-hop, with an MC who sings and addresses people in the room,” Cruz explained, folding his hand as if gripping an imaginary microphone, mimicking a master of ceremonies leading the party at Palestinian celebrations.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the original music, as Electrosteen musicians have added their own stamp. “It’s not a remix of famous songs,” said Abdelhamid. The artists “have incorporated small instrumental parts, voices, atmospheres,” he explained, each one bringing their own musical influences. And if this new treatment of old gems changes preconceptions of Palestinian culture, so much the better, he said.
“The idea is to say, ‘OK, we Palestinians, we are caught in conflict, occupied, hobbled, but we make music and we like to have fun,” said Abdelhamid.
For him and the artists who participated in the album, “everything is political” as a Palestinian, whether one likes it or not. “It’s new music with techno accents, with hip-hop, dub, reggae, which can be played in discos and big festivals all over the world,” said Cruz. “It will take the Palestinian cause to places where the Palestinian Authority—the Palestinian government—cannot be heard.”
Abdelhamid is already looking to the future and said he would like to add dance to his future project and mix dabke—a traditional Arabic line dance—and hip-hop moves.