Deena Abdelwahed: In Conversation

Halfway through my interview with Tunisian techno artist Deena Abdelwahed she stops me briefly to correct me on my my pronunciation. “You know it’s Khonnar with a ‘hkk’ sound, not Rhonnar,” she says, in reference to the title of her acclaimed debut LP. Mortified, I scan frantically through my papers for the article I’d sourced my faulty phonetics from, but Deena begins to laugh. “I’m so sorry — that’s InFiné actually. I said Khonnar and they said Rhonnar. I thought it’d just be easier to explain afterwards.”

There’s no malice in this correction, but it’s indicative of Deena’s manner as a whole. She’s precise and clear-eyed, but also compassionate and quick-witted. Our frank discussion of the serious plight faced by civilians in the Arab world inspires flashes of anger and humour in equal measure, unveiling a thread of dark comedy that runs throughout much of what she says. It’s laughter as subversion; satire as disruption. It’s a way of deconstructing the severity of the issues facing her ancestral home in Tunisia.

With the release of Khonnar (not Rhonnar) last year, Deena laid bare this contorted vision of the world. Inspired by her own contemplations on what electronic music would sound like if it had been born in the Middle East, it circumvented typical rhythmic structures, tumbling between dense sonic patterns in a manner that felt portentous. The release of a remix EP for Khonnar on February 22nd through InFiné therefore poses an interesting question on the nature of legible musical messages, and how artists stamp each other’s work.

In the past week you’ve dropped a remix EP of tracks from Khonnar. How hands-on were you in the process of choosing who was involved and what tracks they worked with?

InFiné said they wanted ‘Tawa’ to be the first single from the album, so it made more sense that ‘Tawa’ was the centre of the remix EP. They asked me for a list of people I wanted to work on the EP, so I sent the twelve names… and they hadn’t heard of any of them. But that’s what I like about InFiné: they’re so open-minded.

They were amazed by M.E.S.H. — of course! I told them that he really liked my music, and I liked his music back, and that he’d very beautifully accepted to do a remix. Okay, done. Then Basile3 was a French guy I’d met who came and lived in Toulouse. I loved his music, I loved his EPs, so again I proposed it to him, then spoke to InFiné and they loved it too. Once again, tick!

Karen Gwyer — same, I liked her music. I’d seen her live somewhere in Denmark when I was playing before her or after her…I forget. I was with my sound engineer and we were just like whaaaat?! She’s super nice and we just talked blah-blah-blah all night long. Third check…

Then Clip had helped me a lot with the album, so it was very logical to ask him. InFiné actually had the idea to work with him originally. They’d listened to the demos of my album, and they mentioned that Clip had a studio and that he could help me with the machines and all of that. I really had fun finalising the album with him: he’s the one who mixed the album. He has more of a conventional techno sound, so that helped balance the EP out.

Your first release on InFiné was actually a remix of Bachar Mar-Khalifé’s ‘Lemon’, which was far more confined and dense than the original. How do you approach deconstructing and reforming someone else’s work?

I’m actually working on a remix now and I’m really turning in circles… I always want to leave part of the song as a reminder of the original, so I don’t touch that one part very much. I just touch all that’s around it. I’ll supertwist what’s already there: I’ll take the hi-hats, sample them and then make them my own.

For me, remixes definitely should…not respect necessarily, but feel like a second part of the original. I really love the jersey club remixes of everything that’s pop — Beyoncé or something like that. You can recognise the song, but it gives you a whole new feel of it. That’s what I always aim to do. The old song is there, but it’s been expressed in a new way, without being too new…tada!

Your music is steeped in your Tunisian heritage, and yet your upbringing is cross-cultural, spanning Qatar, Tunisia and now France. Do you find yourself changing your approach to music in response to each new country you live in?

There’s a very big gap between those who listen to alternative music, and those who listen to regular pop; radio songs, Youtube, all of those things.

There’s a disrespect coming from both sides — both sides are intimidated by each other. People who have an alternative lifestyle think that the others are violent, narrow-minded, soccer hooligans. Then people from the conventional side think the alternatives are all Westernised; they all went to Europe, they drink alcohol… so much. The relationship is based on false rumours because we never meet each other. It’s not like Europe.

In the Arab world we all have our own cars and we all go to our specific places. You always see the same people, we don’t mix. My motivation for my music is to mix these two worlds. Those who listen to alternative music and think they’re intellectual and read French and English books and know all about philosophy and history with those who think we are rich or whatever. We’re not!

When I came to France, or Europe in general, what I updated in my music is my sound design. It’s very easy here to go to a music store, have a conversation with the salesman “Yeah these are the latest machines; those are Swedish, those are from Berlin” and you get closer to the machines and the people who’ve developed them all.

In the Arab world we don’t have that. When we order something from outside it doesn’t come! Unless you know someone in the police, and you give them twenty dinars so you can get it in no problem. Not having to pay taxes or having to say this is really for music, not some bomb machine. You have no idea how much that can affect everyone’s music and productivity.

You’ve spoken in the past about your music being a direct response to the Sidi Bouzid Revolt in 2011, which led to the creation of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia. Eight years on, do you believe that there has been sustained change?

It’s still not sustainable, but everyone is trying hard. The government as well: we don’t see it, but they are trying hard, just with the old manners. That’s a problem with all elderly people, no? They always use the old fashioned way. Don’t you understand we’re in 2019! But they still insist on using the old way.

We have an expression in Tunisia: if your intentions are good then what you’re doing is good. The civil society has boomed as well. There are more and more political activists growing up like mushrooms, and they all have something to say. For me it’s not in eight years that we will see the result. The most important thing is that people are trying as hard as they can. Everyone’s trying to make their place in the country and the political sphere.

From a removed perspective it seems that Tunisia was the sole country to enact lasting change through the Arab springs protests. Do you believe that positive political transformation is still on the horizon in countries like Egypt and Syria?

It’s a complex question. Tunisia is a bit poorer compared to these countries; it’s a police state but they don’t have as much weapons as Syria. If they had, they would have killed us, yes. What saved us is really poverty…

The police back then in 2011, they were out of weapons. They’d been shooting us, but then it calmed down — and I strongly believe this — because they ran out of ammo. Egypt is a big military force, and that’s why it is where it is today. Same with Syria.

The revolution itself was predated by the rebellions of the Tunisian youth, as in the fan chants for Club Africain Ultras. Were these protest chants a mode of inspiration for your use of vocals as dissent?

The vocals and the chanting is more from what me and my friends discussed — society and politics. On my first EP I sampled , who is a video blogger who’s very famous. We’d put on his videos and watch them together.

I didn’t actually record any of the protests, but some of my friends did. One of my friends did and I still have a CD in my house, but it’s very direct for me. I don’t like having clear sounds and messages.

Do you think that music concerned with political strife has to be jarring, as on Khonnar? Is there room in your future work for a softer sonic palette that carries the same messages?

Uh, no. If you listen to other people producing in Tunisia, they are very, very soft in comparison to my music. Well, mellow. But it’s not really soft to live there, by comparison to here. Toulouse in the South of France, this is soft man! People back home say, oh you’re in Europe, why not live in Berlin or Paris, and I say I’m done with big cities. Just give me a cow and some land. Over here I can see the density of my music more rationally. I can control it more.

My favourite track off Khonnar, ‘Al Hobb Al Mouharreb’ roughly translates to “love as refuge”. How would you develop this thesis statement on how Europe should move forward with the migrant crisis?

The lyrics were written by Abdullah Miniawy, who’s Egyptian and moved to Europe recently like me. I actually came to Europe for love. My ex-girlfriend is French, and she’s been living in Toulouse for eight years. We had a distant relationship when I was in Tunisia, and she was always coming to Tunisia to see me. She was my first foreign girlfriend.

When I first started to date her my friends were making fun of me — ah you want to get papers, you want to go to Europe now! But I said no, I really like the girl. That attitude made me think about someone like me from the South Mediterranean countries meeting a tourist — can that be real love? Is it the idea of going to Europe with her? Is it me being fed up of my situation in Tunisia?

I actually refused to go — she was begging me to come to France with her, and we wanted to be together after dating for a year. I said hey look, you like Tunisia why don’t you stay here? It made a bit of a problem. I didn’t want to go to Europe with her just to prove to my friends that that wasn’t why I was going out with her.

This kind of story is happening all over. You hear in the news ‘20-year-old Tunisian man marries 60-year-old woman’ and you see them saying “It’s real love! It’s real love!” The guy gets to Europe and they divorce… Nobody is talking about these stories, and they’re very human stories. You only hear immigration in terms of refuge from war, but these things are happening.

So Miniawy wrote this poem “I want to give you my love, I want to do everything to make our love a success, I’m ready to go the municipality and get all the documents”. It’s written in a romantic poetic way, you know — “I will break down any wall for you” — but it’s really ironically romantic. “I will bring any document for you to accept me. Oh! Juliet!”

Since the end of January you’ve been taking a live rendition of Khonnar on the road. How did reinterpreting the record change the dynamics of each song and the interplay between them? Was it an easy process?

Ohhh no. No no no. My first vocation was for DJing and dancing, I love the groove and the excitement when it’s live. For Khonnar I picked rhythms that to play live are very hard. I bought machines, I tried Elektron and tried da-da-dee da-da-da just to see, and no. They’re all conceived for 4×4 music, so it took me a lot of time to figure out how to play these rhythms – they’re just changing all the time.

After the album came out I was like okay, I need to figure out how to play this live, and I was like: Oh my god, what did I do to myself! So I started to do demos of the live set, just trying it out at festivals to see the reactions. Then I jumped back to my house and started to figure out how to make it as groovy as possible. What I wanted to have was something slightly different from the album.

The album is very mental, yes? To be honest I’ve heard a lot more mental music. I’m really sad when people say, ooh you’re music is so mental and dark. It’s not dark! So I made the rhythmics more clear little by little, it’s actually progressive so people can really feel it and understand. I sing a lot too — I opened my throat, la la la! With some people once they hear live singing they really feel the music, I don’t know why.

Looking ahead to the rest of 2019, what are you gearing up to?

There’s a second remix EP but we don’t have the confirmed artists yet, but I’m really looking forward to that. Myself, I’m doing two remixes but I won’t say what they are because I don’t know if I’ll deliver them on time… Maybe they will not be taken. My first priority is those though.

I’m going back to Tunisia in March for two weeks, and I’m going to talk to the guys there about doing a residency. You know like in Concrete or Berlin, I’m gonna try and host a residency in Tunis, and start to be more active.

Since I moved to Europe I’m just sending artists to gigs over there, but me I go there I literally drink and listen to the gossip. “Oh they’re divorced! Oh they have children!” and then I come back to Europe. This time that’s my biggest project,  to do a residency and stop the gossip.

Anything else outside of music that you’re working on?

Well, I’ve still not put effort into it, but I’d like to start a campaign like #metoo but #artistswithoutvisas. At least I have a schengen visa, but every time I go to the UK or Egypt I have to get a visa, and it takes lots of time and money. I just want to suggest to the authorities something like…well with humanist activists when they travel they can get the visa at the airport.

I don’t mind paying or waiting two hours, but for me I live in Toulouse, I have to go to Paris to wait for two weeks and to leave my passport at the UK embassy or whatever. I am touring! But I need to write it down and ask some other people, but I really think it should start now. Maybe it’s a very rainbowish, pink idea to not do all visas, but at least visas at the airport.

Tawa Remixes EP is out now. Buy it here.

Words: Blaise Radley

Featured Images: Judas Companion

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