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Big in exile: The sonic journeys of 47SOUL Open in fullscreen

Martin Armstrong

Big in exile: The sonic journeys of 47SOUL

In 2016, 47SOUL played in Europe, New Zealand, Palestine - and at Glastonbury [Supplied]

Date of publication: 17 March, 2017

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Before relocating to London in 2014 the four members of Palestinian electro outfit 47SOUL had never lived in the same city. Exile has proved a springboard to their career.
It isn't uncommon for bands to switch cities, or move to a new country, in order to find inspiration, open up new fan bases, develop industry contacts to push their careers forward, or simply to get away from it all.

David Bowie famously spent time recording some of his most memorable work in Berlin in the late 1970s, far from his Brixton homeland. Earlier in the same decade the Rolling Stones shacked up as tax exiles in France, and later, in the 1990s, Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder famously went awol attempting to re-discover his musical mojo (and lots of crack cocaine) in the Caribbean.

But for Palestinian electro-band 47SOUL, relocating to London two and a half years ago provided a springboard to their career.

"We moved because of the weather here in the UK," jokes Tareq Abu Kwaik, speaking to The New Arab, during a break from touring that in recent weeks has seen 47SOUL perform in Grenoble, Zurich, Exeter and Edinburgh.

Big in exile: Relocating to London

Before moving to London, the four members of the group, united by a shared Palestinian identity, had never lived in the same city.

Abu Kwaik (traditional Arabic percussion) and Hamza Arnaout (guitar), grew up in Jordan, Ramzy Suleiman (synths) in Washington DC, and Walaa Sbait (percussion), as a Palestinian citizen of Israel in Haifa.

In Amman, in 2013, Abu Kwaik and Arnaout - whose parents were made refuge in Jordan by the 1948 Nakba - began collaborating with Suleiman.

Having met through a mutual friend they started laying the groundwork for 47SOUL's distinct sound.
In London, it is easier for us to move about, to work together, and we also had some connections here that we thought could help set us off
Tareq Abu-Kwaik

But Sbait was based in Haifa, and mostly communicated with his bandmates via Skype calls, voice messages, and emails, in order to relay blossoming ideas.

Although Sbait has performed with his 47 bandmates in Amman, holding an Israeli passport limits his travel in the Middle East. Abu Kwaik and Arnout, meanwhile, both face extensive waiting periods applying for European visas, occasionally complicating travel.

"In London, it is easier for us to move about, to work together, and we also had some connections here that we thought could help set us off," says Abu Kwaik, touching upon reasons leading to the move to London. 

Around a year after relocating, 47SOUL released their debut EP, Shamstep, put out independently with the help of a crowd-funding project.

They have since developed a reputation for energy-packed live shows - members of the group and audience regularly break into impromptu dabke dances - winning cross-over success and fans outside the Palestinian and Arab diaspora communities, touring in Europe, and even New Zealand.

"Ramallah and Glastonbury were both amazing experiences but for different reasons," reflects Abu Kwaik, reflecting on 2016 gigs.

"Playing in Palestine for the first time, two sold out shows with half an hour break in between was a big moment for all of us… and then Glastonbury, with 25,000 people at 2am... wow."

Endeavours towards an inclusive sound

47SOUL's sound sees a reinterpretation of traditional Arabic instruments, modal scales and rhythms found in chobi and mijwiz wedding music - and paralleled in the Egyptian electro-shaabi scene - using drum machines and electric keyboard riffs, additionally blended with influences from western genres including funk, dub, hip-hop and reggae.

"The centre of our collective interest and focus is Palestinian shami [Levantine] music, but because we are an electronic band it gives us the flexibility to introduce a lot of different instruments, and sounds," says Arnaout.

"Additionally, we have our personal and shared tastes, and different musical backgrounds."

Before 47 formed, Arnaout played bass in Jordanian reggae-rock group Autostrad; Abu Kwaik was a member of Jordanian post-rock group El Morabba3, and was also held in high regard as an MC ["el-Far3i"] in the Middle East's underground hip-hop scene; Suleiman performed individually as Z the People, experimenting with soul, jazz, and hip-hop riffs on tracks such as the poignant, melancholic slow-burner Can You Ever Stop the Rain. Sbait, meanwhile, was a member of Palestinian reggae-dub-influenced group Ministry of Dub-Key.

The frenetic, at times off-kilter energy created by 47SOUL's blending of sounds and influences is evident on album opener Intro to Shamstep, a jumpy hype track fronted by hynotic, warbling chords offset by steady metronomic percussion, in which the group announce their arrival on the scene - replete with an accompanying video showing the four members wandering the streets of London, instruments in hand, and over shoulders as the chorus asks:

"What's the soul of the 47?"

Lyrical and sonic manifestos

Beneath 47SOUL's floor-filling sound there are identifiable political messages, reflective both of the group's varied backgrounds, and shared identity as Palestinians.

Issues of subjugation and occupation - common themes in Palestinian diaspora artistic discourse - segue with an emphasis on freedom of movement, critiques of geographical and ideological barriers, and an emphasis on inclusivity - paralleled in the group's openness to experimenting with different musical styles and influences.

On Don't Care Where You FromAbu Kwaik takes to the mic: "[Whether] you are from Galilee, the Negev, or the Arabian desert," briefly pausing, before his open-ended sentence is completed by Suleiman's matter-of-fact hook proclaiming: "I don't care where you are from, Where you at?"

This emphasis on inclusivity is evident in the group's use of the classical Arabic term bilad al-sham - designating the geographical area covering modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine - as a conceptual reference point.

Ideologically, its use represents an implicit critique of the division of the Levant into separate states brought about by the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration after the First World War, overseen principally by the UK and France.

Sonically, says Sbait, it is intended to highlight cultural traditions, discernible in shami music, shared by communities across the Levant, and even beyond, and to emphasise this commonality as a positive cultural discourse. 

The centre of our collective interest and focus is Palestinian shami (Levantine) music, but because we are an electronic band it gives us the flexibility to introduce a lot of different instruments, and sounds
Hamza Arnaout

"It is the representation of the evolution of culture that can unite people across borders," says Sbait.

"Now everyone is using electronics to talk with each other, everyone is using machines, that are made, and designed in the West, and in Japan, in many places, and we are using those instruments to elevate our own cultural sound, while also creating a sound that can talk to everybody," he continues.

"It is easy to get pushed into a corner, and pigeonholed. When the Western media focuses on the Middle East it is often through the prism of resistance, suffering, war, and a lot of the negative stuff, but beyond this there are also vibrant cultures that also go pass periods of suffering.

"We also love, we also hate, have fun, struggle to go to work, those everyday parts that they do not always ask you about."

Some of these ideas and dynamics are articulated on Meeli, a standout track on Shamstep, which contrasts approaches of the different band members - who all share vocal and production responsibilities - to the song's theme - ostensibly simply a night out and the prospect of meeting a girl - yet creating a textured and purposefully unsettling soundscape.

As the track opens over jaunty, uplifting synth chords, and a light-dub bassline - reminiscent of 1980s disco balls and LED dance floors, with a touch of G-Funk-era Regulate - Suleiman croons cryptically of the anticipation, adrenaline, and nerves of heading to a club, hoping to bump into a romantic acquaintance, while hinting that hopes might yet be dashed:

"When I came in the place I was looking for you… I remember your swagger from the photos you dropped, meet me at the clouds I'll unravel your suit… I moved to the floor - you were nowhere at all."

It is easy to get pushed into a corner, and pigeonholed. When the Western media focuses on the Middle East it is often through the prism of resistance, suffering, war, and a lot of the negative stuff.
Walaa Sbait

Later in the track, Sbait takes over, delivering a claustrophobic verse featuring references to "carrying IDs", checkpoints, love unfulfilled, and being turned away - not merely by night-club bouncers, but as the allusion suggests, by Israeli security officials, and on the macro-scale by divisive system of apartheid that effects Palestinians on a daily basis - even when just trying to head to the club.

The imagery presented on Meeli is powerful, made all the more so given the juxtaposition of the track's lyrical impetus and its syrupy-sweet, bouncing, almost nauseating beat.

Preparing for the difficult second album

"We have common interests, but also different perspectives," notes Suleiman, reflecting on the group's writing and composition process.

"When we agree a song we agree on a theme that we can all get down with, but the way that we approach that theme is different. We don't all just say the same thing. For example, if we decide to do a song about cookies, you are going to get four different approaches to that subject matter."

Now settled in London, 47SOUL are currently working on their second album, scheduled for release in June.

"Sonically it will be an improvement on Shamstep which was more of an introduction, and lyrically it is more personal," says Abu Kwaik.

At the moment we are not perceived as that controversial which is great. I would like to keep it that way, and just keep going
Tareq Abu-Kwaik

"We are all a bit older now. We have all rebelled, and critiqued, in our individual projects. I'm sure we will do so again. In 47 the idea is more about the whole unity thing," he continues, before reflecting on how being based in London has influenced the group.

"We have learned a lot as artists being based in London, and been exposed to new influences, interests," notes Abu Kwaik, pausing briefly, before adding: "We're all fans of grime."

Sbait nods in agreement, a most unlikely Stormzy.

"Skeptah lives down the road from us," he says, referring to the Tottenham-raised recent Brit Award winner, before Abou Kwaik continues:

"I was thinking on our next London show or on the launch day of the new album to thank London, in particular for the pads [percussion]. 'Like thank you Tottenham, thank you Bow, thank you London for our pads'.

"Not necessarily the melodies which are Arabic, or necessarily the beats, but yeah, the pads,” continues Abou Kwaik, with a wide grin.

"At the moment we are not perceived as that controversial which is great. I would like to keep it that way, and just keep going."


Check out more of 47SOUL's music, including their debut EP, right here

Martin Armstrong is a journalist with The New Arab. You can follow him on Twitter: @MKLArmstrong


This article is part of The New Arab's series on the music of the Arab Spring. If you enjoyed it, check out Hello Psychaleppo, Syria's very own creator of insane psych-techno. Or meet Big Hass, the mixmaster behind Saudi Arabia's first hip-hop radio show. And hang out with El-Rass, Tripoli's underground rap hero. And watch out for more...

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