This Collective Is Destroying Western Clichés About Arabic Music

This Collective Is Destroying Western Clichés About Arabic Music

A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey France.

“Stazy is here for the ecstasy, you know,” says Amine Metani, founder of the Arabstazy collective. “We’re not the police of anything, not of any group. The music that inspires us doesn’t belong to anyone.” On the contrary, their stories are complex, dense, branching off far beyond sub-Saharan Africa—similar to Stambali, the ritual ancestral possession music that survives in a few areas of Tunisia.

This young collective of DJs and producers between Paris, Tunis, and Berlin typically nourishes itself with this very mystical sound, specific to trance ceremonies. It’s a knowing and instinctive dive into the battered heritages of countries that continue to hope for a second wind of democracy. The key sound here? An electronic Pan-Arabism, capable of infusing the Tunisian, Egyptian, and even Syrian underground cultures with a sort of united independence—in another way than through the prism of recovery or Western-style whitewashing.

It’s a bare and anxiety-provoking aesthetic, a murky production suitable for parties spent hiding under your hood. Project Chaos, from Mettani, Deena Abdelwahed, Waf, and Shinigami San, will soon deliver the first portion of a three-part compilation called Under Frustration. In the works for years, this discographic project from the other side of the shore will be distributed in France by the record label InFiné and by the Portland-based label Boomarm Nation in the US. Amine Metani, the Franco-Tunisian master of ceremonies who’s been at the helm of the collective since 2014, tells us that, when faced with choosing between instinct and contextualization, he prefers to “seize [his] heritage.”

Noisey: N3rdistan, Wetrobots, Shinigami San, Deena Abdelwahed, Sama, Mettani, SKNDR and the videographer Waf… Those are just some of the people you might bump into at your parties, from Paris to Cairo or even Tozeur. So just what is Arabstazy? A series of black masses for North Africans who’ve immigrated to France?
Amine Metani: [Laughs] Yes, there’s a bit of that! Arabstazy is first and foremost a creative framework. An open one, with slightly unstable edges, but above all geared to the music—secular, modern or experimental—that comes from the Arab-Muslim world. It’s a group of people, spread out from Tunis to Berlin, who are thinking about how to shine a light on this diversity, with integrity, while deconstructing Western clichés.

Which are…?
The habit—it’s almost systematic—of looking at the Arab world as just one culturally homogeneous block.

But how do you take into account this complexity, plus the diversity of music—all while getting people dancing?
Well, when you go to the Museum of Contemporary Art, there are two ways you can do it. Either you go around led by pure instinct; you let yourself be filled up by whatever you see at that moment, in a totally raw kind of way. Or else you can go around in analysis mode, contextualizing and intellectualizing everything. Personally, I’ve never chosen between the two. Because both work. When you create, I think that you can—and must—offer up an infinity of different possible interpretations, all tied together. Give your listener different levels of depth, all linked. Otherwise, you’re only making superficial music.

Do you think that electro-Arabic music, that whole scene and the groups that have emerged these last years, are suffering from a lack of that depth?
I’m not a consumer of that scene. I’m not close to it; I think I listened to it when I was a kid. Today, it doesn’t do much for me. When I listen to it I don’t hear an “other,” a stranger, the “something different” that I’m always looking for. So I don’t have much of an opinion on it. I would say that it has no trouble being approachable and accessible, even if it’s unconventional. Whereas with Arabstazy, we’re getting people to dance to super weird rhythms. And yet we’re not doing it on purpose. It’s not a pose. It’s that we’re constantly exploring. That’s the idea—to be always researching; above all, never to repeat any systems.

To do so, Arabstazy digs deep into the Arabic music pantheons, especially possession and adorcism ceremonies…
We draw a lot on a word that [French president Emmanuel] Macron and his predecessors love: heritage!

Photo by Cecile Meunier

On that point, what is the role of heritage, of national history, in the countries where so many of you are from? Tunisia, Egypt… Places that are undergoing pretty difficult post-uprising periods today.
The issue of identity is fundamental—particularly in our era, all the more so for those from the Maghreb and for young people. In real life, I’m a researcher for the CNRS [the National Science Research Center of France]; my education was in science. Therefore, I’m a precise person, especially with the terms that I use. So I think that the issue of identity, when it’s associated with shortcuts or approximations, leads to conflict. Or to withdrawal from one’s identity. You have to seize your identity, to live it proudly, but above all with precision. Anyone who delves into his history will realize his identity is a mosaic. No one is of pureblood origins; that’s just a political myth people invoke in times of crisis. To understand the genealogy of your family, the history of your town, of your country, is to understand a blend. It’s to understand that identities are fluid, that they’re perpetually flowing. In the end, I think above all we have to be generous with this issue of heritage. We have to let people dig into this stuff. The history of Arabic music is open; it’s being written in the present and doesn’t truly belong to anyone. Anyone can be inspired by it; there’s no copyright on Stambali, Gnawa, or Diwan.

So does this license with InFiné come at pretty much the right time? It’s pretty cool that they’re adding strength to your compilation…
You know, there are quite a lot of people who are lending strength to Under Frustration. A project of this kind reunites lots of people from the shadows. Like Roi Assayag, who chose the pieces with me and helped me find half the artists on the compilation. Or Olivier Chantôme, who made a series of photos taken in Lebanon at the Syrian and Israeli borders available to Arabstazy. Now our deal with InFiné, that dates back to the era when Arabastazy was a group. We were a trio, consisting of Deena Abdelwahed, our videographer Waf, and me. We were even a quartet, especially in Cairo with Shinigami San… When Deena took off to concentrate on her solo career, she signed for a first EP with InFiné, last year. The label had heard talk of our compilation, and we got a great referral from Deena. Today, her success has allowed us to sign a completely new Tunisian artist, Mash, who rounds off the compilation with a really cerebral track. That’s also part of the collective dynamic—bringing the success of one individual back to the ensemble.

The Parisian artist Fatäk kicking off Arabstay’s night at Champ Libre. Photo by Celine Meunier

Deena has a completely futuristic vision of electronic music from the Arabic world.
Deena’s the chick of the future, she’s totally into the new wave of Arabic electronic music. She’s the one who’s most into the whole Pan-Arabic 2.0 craze. Me, I feel closer to dark and lost aesthetics, to animism, marabouts, trance music, things derived from the superstitions that penetrate Maghreb societies.

Shinigami San, Deena Abdelwahed, Mettani, and Waf. Photo by Cecile Meunier

What are some of the other aesthetics we can hear on Under Frustration?
Mash has a very aggressive approach. This young producer from Tunis, was responsible for “Echoing”—one of my favorite tracks on the project. I love her approach—it’s so instinctive, very combative. In a different genre, The Triangle is a group that set itself up by composing their piece for the compilation. They’re a trio from Alexandria. I’d say the Egyptian scene is split in two. There’s this big dichotomy between the whole wave of Electro-chaâbi—a really ghetto movement documented in Hind Meddeb’s film—where you won’t see one single woman. Then on the other end of the spectrum you have the whole Cairo avant-garde, where you’ll find Rozzma, for example.

With a more intellectual approach?
A more electronic one. Quite a lot of people in this other Egyptian wave went to the American High School; they’re better equipped, better organized, more visible. I mean, musically, I prefer that. Even though here we’re talking about a scene that’s super tight-knit—like thirty, forty people total. Under Frustration also cast Muudra, the former boss of Audiocalligraphy. Now he’s a complete unknown, a guy who talks about himself in the third person, completely mysterious… We don’t know much about him, except that his track on the compilation refers to the Hemichis, a community of Islamized Armenians. And then finally we have the Tunisian Shinigami San, the father of the group. Frankly, a guy who names his collective “World Full of Bass” deserves all our attention, don’t you think?

Arabstazy’s compilation Under Frustration comes out May 25 from InFiné. You can pre-order it here.