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Robert Cusack

Hello Psychaleppo: 'The world is pretty surreal right now'

Samer Saem El-Dahr - AKA 'Hello Psychaleppo' [Facebook]

Date of publication: 17 March, 2017

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In an exclusive interview with The New Arab, the Syrian electronica DJ Samer El-Dahr, AKA 'Hello Psychaleppo', talks about his new album and being trapped by Trump.
Samer Saem El-Dahr - AKA Hello Psychaleppo - left Syria in September 2012, leaving all his music behind. He was sure he'd be returning home soon.

"I thought I'd be back within a month, because I thought things were going to get better," he said from his new studio - in Minnesota.

"I had a gig in Lebanon a couple of months later, but I didn't have anything with me - the files, the sounds - nothing.

"I'm like a Palestinian who left with the keys to their home - expecting to use them again."

A hugely successful music producer, El-Dahr has so far released two albums to a hardcore fan base. He sold out a gig in Hamburg within days - it was scheduled for March this year - but he has since had to cancel, because of President Trump's ban on Syrians entering the United States.

"Everyone is saying just don't leave, you know?" El-Dahr says. His voice becomes sporadically despondent whenever he discusses issues related to his ability to travel.

As a Green Card holder, El-Dahr legally should have been allowed to travel freely but, at the time of our conversation, President Trump's travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries was in full swing.

"I'm from Syria - you think that your struggle at a certain point is not gonna go further, you know?"

"Things are gonna get better, but I'm just surprised by how the world is right now - it's getting more surreal."

To reflect this surrealism, El-Dahr creates music he calls 'Electro-Tarab'.

He meticulously sources and samples rare recordings of Bedouin Arab musicians and mixes them with electronica to produce something completely original and fantastically surreal.

On his new album, expected to be released in late summer, El-Dahr wants to address some of the issues that come with living as a Syrian refugee.

"I'm 80 percent sure the album's going to be called Tayyur - it means 'Birds'".

The inspiration for the new album came from a famous book named Muntiq al-Tayr - meaning "The conference of the birds". Written by the 12th century Sufi poet, Attar of Nishapur, it explores the human condition and its search for the divine.

That's your first priority [as a human] - to reunite with your family and that's something that might not happen.

"As a Syrian, birds symbolise many things for me - immigration, peace and the freedom of movement.

"Even the freedom of expression - so you can just chirp out loud."

El-Dahr became occasionally despondent during our conversation when talking about his inability to travel or about issues related to his freedom.

"Yeah - I feel powerless - like 'why is this happening?'," he said.

"As a Syrian, it's so hard for me to reopen subjects like racism - because we're beyond that - it's 2017."

His face crinkled into a smile again: "But then you look at the world and you realise that nothing has changed."

One of the biggest frustrations that El-Dahr has to face, along with hundreds of thousands of other Syrian refugees around the world, is that he may never see his family again.

El-Dahr's parents currently live in Beirut, having previously lived in Jordan for three years.

Under the current political climate, it appears unlikely that his parents will ever be granted a US visa.

"That's your first priority [as a human] - to reunite with your family and that's something that might not happen."

"That's crazy - I'm their only child as well. This is life-changing for me."

El-Dahr cannot and will not talk about a number of issues, either for his own safety or for the safety of others. From the beginning of our talk together, he made clear that he doesn't want to discuss politics because he "doesn't understand it".

"For me, I'd rather talk about the people - the Syrian people - because those people are struggling.

"Whatever they're doing, wherever they are - outside Syria or inside - I just have full respect for these people."

How does he cope with this struggle himself? He immediately lightens up in response, his eyes expressing an overflowing passion.

"I make music - seriously - music has been the exit for me from all of this. It gives me a sense of a proper reality where it's not as surreal - it's something that you can control."

If I'm going to use a track that's 70 years old from the Arab world - there's no way that I can go to a legal organisation and say 'hey, I want the rights to this song'.

Making music is an alternative reality to which El-Dahr devotes almost his entire waking life. 

A lot of this music is sourced from online archives, as El-Dahr can no longer travel to his homeland. Originally, a lot of his tracks were sourced from old record sales in Beirut and other parts of the Middle East.

The travel ban has placed an extra burden on his work, and this is something that he believes is down to racism - racism against Arabs and against Syrian refugees in particular.

Despite all of these challenges and more, El-Dahr remains a proud Syrian and proud of his home town -his performing name a mashup portmanteau of his musical style - psychedelic electronica - and his home city - Aleppo.

"For me, Syrians are heroes no matter what they're doing - anywhere, no matter what, because they're not on the power side."

There is one alternative name that El-Dahr may choose for the album - one of the main characters in The Conference of the Birds.

"It's 20 percent likely going to be called Simorgh," he says.

For me, Syrians are heroes no matter what they're doing - anywhere, no matter what, because they're not on the power side.

 

Simorgh, meaning 'thirty birds' in Persian, is the name of the phoenix found at the end of the birds' journey across seven valleys - a journey survived by only thirty birds.

The imagery is strong, and his eyes glisten as though his little surprise has been discovered.

"Yes, Simorgh is the birds all collectively coming together and rising from the ashes."

And does Simorgh represent the rebirth of Syria?

"Yes. That's a poetic scenery of maybe what Syrians collectively think or where we're heading towards."

Ultimately, El-Dahr is one of the lucky ones. He married an American and he made it to Minnesota, but that is not where his story is to end.

For many Syrian refugees, many of whom have seen harrowing and blood-chilling atrocities, another struggle is about to start in Trump's America. Different people react to their realities here in different ways, and El-Dahr has chosen to reflect the 'alternative facts' of his current life in his music.

"The whole world is pretty surreal right now.

"I make this [surreal, psychedelic music] because I live in such an environment. My music's going to get as crazy as it is outside."

Follow Rob Cusack on Twitter: @rob_cusack
And listen to more of Hello Psychaleppo right here



This article is part of The New Arab's series on the music of the Arab Spring. If you enjoyed it, check out 47 Soul, the Palestinian electro outfit who are big in exile. 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...

Join the conversation: @The_NewArab

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