How Toumba is taking Levantine-inspired club music to the next level

today08/02/2023 11

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You’ve just come up from Brussels, why are you in London?

I came to London on the 25th of October and then I’ve just been going all around every weekend playing in other places, but I’ve been based here.

I come out to London to tour. I only do one-offs for big gigs, like I’m doing CTM in February, that’s going to be a one-off, not part of a tour. I do the whole tour thing not for me, but for the promoters — the thing is with flights from Jordan, I can go to Budapest for like €50, London for like €90, because Wizz Air and Ryanair have started operating there. It used to be like €600-700, so it’s game-changing really. Instead of say booking me from London, if they want me in Brussels, it’s cheaper to go from Jordan, but promoters don’t know that so when I want to tour, I come to London because they feel more comfortable booking me in for their event.

That’s an interesting problem to be running into, where it’s the perceptions of promoters rather than the material barriers that hold you back.

It’s going to take time for people to understand this, but it’s actually cheaper and better for you in Europe to book me out of Jordan than it is to do a tour and stay in London. It’s a hassle, as every gig I go to I have to line up the bookings one by one. During this last run, I’ve had to be based in London for a month and a half and it’s super expensive. I could have done this whilst in Amman and spent a quarter of the money and gone back to my house where dinner costs me £3 or £4. We have a sick scene out there.

This is what I’m hearing, but it’s quite different from neighbouring Beirut right? My friends and family there give accounts of a nightlife fuelled by escapism, is what you have in Amman today different?

In Jordan – like many places – there is of course a bit of escapism, but maybe not in the same way. Like the way that garage and stuff started here, people are finding the spaces to build these experiences for that kind of music. Now we’ve got this venue called MNFA, and the boys that opened there are like brothers you know. I help them with curation – everyone’s involved. It is proper, it’s two floors underground, there’s no phone signal, no 4G, you stand on the street and you don’t know anything. We’ve booked TSVI, we’ve booked Swan Meat, FUMU from Youth played. Parrish Smith, we’ve been able to book a lot of people.

But the problem for us is not flights now, it is the fees. Booking someone for £700, that’s a whole month’s salary for someone in Jordan, but a lot of artists are willing to cut their fee by like a quarter just to come out there and play and the crowds out there are so far the best I’ve experienced. The average age of the demographic is 25 and I think because of the lack of a huge drug culture here. people are going for the music.

They’re really getting into it, everyone’s dancing, the club doesn’t feel empty at close, it’s always full from start to finish. People can play whatever; if it’s good music they’ll love it. People don’t come with expectations about what’s going to be played.

There are loads of different genres, people come knowing it’s going to be good music. It’s a totally safe space, great soundsystem, and great people. The owner does the door, the bar, and some of the sound. It’s pretty much in the middle of a residential area in Amman, it used to be the car park of a hotel. My mate found it and was like “I’ll clean it for you, I’ll pay you monthly if you let me use it as a club”, and they were like “Fuck it, sure”.

How does the club relate to the scene in Amman, can you go play there if you’re a new DJ? What are the networks like, who is DJing in Amman these days?

Yeah, if you’re a DJ and you want to play there, they hit us up, everyone’s welcome to play. A lot of people are getting into DJing in Amman right now, there’s a bit of a joke that everyone’s a DJ. It’s a good thing though, let everyone become a DJ! They’re gonna start digging for stuff and know what good music sounds like. At MNFA, we’ll always bring people on if they’re fitting the sound, we’re not going to reject anyone because they’re new, we just don’t want more commercial sounds and tech-house really. It’s just because people who come don’t expect a certain type of music, but they want that underground philosophy – we’re not looking for the Beatport Top 100.

2022 has been a mad year for you, you’ve dropped two EPs, ‘Rosefinch‘ with Hypnic Jerks and ‘115‘ with All Centre, as well as a single from your forthcoming EP with Hessle Audio – but this is the first music you’ve put out since you debuted with the self-released double single ‘Sabah Fakhri/Tidallal‘. Can you talk me through the process that you developed over those years?

Basically, that was the first tune that I ever made. The thing that got me into production was hearing SHERELLE play TSVI’s track ‘Hossam‘ at an afters at my house that I used to stay in – there was a party and she came back to play after, she dropped that track and I was like I’ve never heard acid samples and this sort of music so I literally jumped behind the decks and was like what is this?

She gave me the ID – I listened to it and I was like yeah, I’ve done music since I was a kid, I’ve played guitar – classically trained – and I was playing rock and metal all of that stuff. I studied it and from my engineering background it was easy for me to understand the technicalities of music production, so when I heard that track, I was like I can do this, it’s familiar to me.

I like what TSVI and DJ Plead have done, but for me as someone who has lived there my whole life, I just listened and thought there’s something that’s missing – you know what I mean?

Like the authenticity of the track?

Not even authenticity, it is just about when you lived with that music all your life. all you’re thinking is how to take it to the next level, and when you haven’t lived it, you wouldn’t have such a great grasp on it, to change it completely whilst maintaining the essence.

I think DJ Plead’s recent stuff has been doing this very well, he’s Lebanese, and he’s getting into it more and really pushing it beyond the samples.

When you say classically trained guitar, do you mean Arabic style or Western?

No, I mean Western, the standard scale but all of it translates you know. When I heard that tune, I was like, I can make that stuff, and I bought Ableton. At first, I was like I’m not gonna go straight into deconstructing, I was just gonna play around with something and see how I feel. So, I made the ‘Sabah Fakhri’ track and it was alright, you know?

What’s the sample?

It is from ‘Foug Elna Khel’ by Sabah Fakhri, the late tenor whom the song is named after. I took inspiration from other tracks, mostly the TSVI stuff. So I made this track and I sent it to him a couple of weeks later and he played it in his Bleep Mix, this was an early version of the track, and when he did, I was like “right I can do this, but I can do more,” so, I finished that and put it out as my first single.

I didn’t even care what people thought, I just put it out. Now looking back, it’s really important, if it’s something that you like, to not wait for some big label to along, it makes you do more. Even if only five people have heard it, five more people know it exists.

So, you see this experience as really formative? First discovering artists like DJ Plead and TSVI, you saw a way that you could add to what they were doing? And secondly, there’s the issue with how people listen to and relate to “oriental” music or the way that in the West, music from SWANA is played in quite a generic manner – little attention seems to be played to the musical differences between track as long as there’s an oud and a tablah.

Exactly – it’s more about the feel in the track that’s tough to replicate when you’ve recently discovered this kind of music. I don’t want to say there are rules but there are components to the timbres, the swing, the tonality. It’s not in your face, but it’s there, and if you haven’t been living with that music you might not pick up on it.

A track might accidentally have something that’s in the Arabic music that you wouldn’t pick up on, and it goes far beyond the types of percussion or instruments and that’s the feeling that’s slightly missing in the stuff that the diaspora, or people that studied the music, might miss out on.

The stuff I’m making now, if you hear it, it has no resemblance to Arabic music. It’s much more subtle. If the people from the region listen to it, they think “this is cool, this is familiar,” but I avoid the typical instrumentation. I didn’t want to parcel it up like “this is Levantine music”– so if you know, you know.

Is this what we can expect to hear in the Hessle Audio EP?

Basically, the release I had on Hypnic Jerks I finished in 2020, so it was a bit more in your face, but I was still learning production. In the Hessle EP, there’s stuff that from a while ago and stuff that’s very recent, and the more recent work is much less in your face. You’ll be able to tell. Then my stuff that’s coming after that is going to be completely different from these two – it’s an evolution.

On ‘Istibtan’, what I thought worked well about that was you have these clean synths rolling in building a disharmony that resolves with the introduction of the traditional instrumentation, that’s pinned down by the coarse bass for a really unique production.

Like you said when you recognised the traditional instrumentation and stuff, none of these are samples, it’s not using ‘oriental’ keyboards or plug-ins. I use Massive X for everything. But because of the way it’s played and the notes I’ve selected, it resembles more traditional stuff.

Though this is quite old, I made ‘Istibtan’ around the same time that I made the ‘Rosefinch’ stuff. The other tracks on the EP are much more experimental and it’s gonna be apparent when you hear the other two that this doesn’t sound as Middle Eastern or Levantine as other stuff, it’s just normal breakbeats – or that’s the reception I’d expect from a listener who hasn’t grown up with this music.

But for people from Jordan who know this type of music, they’ll be like ‘oh shit I’m actually familiar with this and it sounds like that’ which is cool. Because when you just use samples, it’s just not as interesting when you’ve grown up with the music. For some producers in the diaspora, they’re re-engaging with this whole new culture which is great, but to us it is familiar. You just put a breakbeat or kick drum on what we listen to every day and call it a day.

I think someone from the UK would make much more ‘typically Middle Eastern’ stuff than someone from Jordan, but someone from Jordan would have the essence of Middle Eastern music in the track. Because they understand the music so well, they can take it to the next level while keeping the essence of it.

In my opinion, this can be a feature of diaspora experiences more broadly, if you want to explore your relationship with a ‘homeland’, I think that these experiences can either be coded through a Western lens or transformed by that sense of longing.

There are levels of people in the diaspora: there are people who’ve spent their childhood there, then moved on the one hand, then there are people that have never been.

It’s quite differentiated, it’s a scale. I feel like the two scenes are both different even though they seem to be bunched into one. The diaspora scene and the people from the region play two different roles. They both have their place and you can really take away from the experience of the diaspora, but the stuff that would come out is very different.

The diaspora are shedding light on our kind of music, motivating people to get a foot in the door and explore this kind of stuff. But when you really want to explore the region’s music, then you’ll need to see what people from the region are making. From my perspective the diaspora is not where you’re going to find a full, innovative expression of the music from the region.

You seem to have a real appetite to push the sound to new levels and take the lessons from those earlier experimentations with the sound and depart from it? You don’t want to rely on the same instrumentation anymore, it’s more like you’re saying that no one you know plays these instruments and they’re not a good representation of what contemporary music making practices from the region might look like.


I’m interested then in ‘Istibtan’, why do you choose the Levantine Wedding song, even if you’ve shifted away from the formal instrumentation in your rendition?.

The wedding song has been in every article that I’ve read, but it’s not necessarily a wedding song – typically you go to festivities and weddings and stuff and there’s a keyboard player. It’s a very integral part of that music, the person with keyboard and they’re usually crazy – very, very good.

I try to mimic their playing style in ‘Istibtan’, I also try to mimic some of the motifs and rhythms without overstating it. It’s not sampling that kind of music, just the way it’s played and structured is reminiscent of that kind of music you typically hear at a wedding.

Where does the rhythm of that song come from?

I think it’s close to dancehall, especially with the placement of the snares and some of the percussion. But it’s done in a slightly different way and the instrumentation is very different. It’s close though, and a lot of music is related to each other, not because of stuff that’s happening now but because people used to move and travel and trade a lot, and music would bleed into each other between Africa and the Middle East. Because the Levant is in the middle of it all you get a blending of some of these influences.

I’m just talking out of my ass, but I think that’s sort of what happened. Looking at rhythms from the Middle East, looking at dancehall, looking at kuduro, there’s a lot of cross over. The hard part is – because it’s so reliant on these exchanges and influences – knowing what sets Levantine music apart other than the instruments used. Because if people back then had different instruments, what would it sound like, that’s what you want to know. You don’t want to rely too much on the tools.

Written by: Tim Hopkins

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