An uncomfortable tension permeates nearly every moment of Deena Abdelwahed’s “Ena Essbab.” The track opens innocently enough, with rusted metal drums and staggered alien synths that place it neatly alongside the cutting-edge club sonics found on labels like Liminal Sounds and Halcyon Veil. Then the vocals drop. Posed against the oppressive instrumentation, a pair of human voices sing in a tone of such ominous defiance that it brings to mind the final chant of a doomed protest group, just moments before the riot police sweep in. The words themselves might be unfamiliar, but the emotion is as clear and compelling as it is unsettling. It keeps me returning to the song again and again.
Now over Skype, Deena is telling me that the sonic discomfort of "Ena Essbab" mirrors the real-life discomfort experienced by its subject: Tunisia's LGBTQ community. Deena has an easygoing manner, but a note of unmistakably serious resolve enters her voice as she describes the situation for queer people in her native country: "Society in Tunisia believes that if more people come out, God will punish them. If something miserable happened to a family, they would blame the gay member." The track, whose title translates to "Because of Me" is a subtle, but defiant clap back at a society that views self-expression as a threat.
Self-expression is certainly no fear of Deena’s. Since the release of her outspoken debut EP Klabb, released in March 2017 on the Paris-based InFiné label, she’s ridden a wave of positive reception that has seen her connect with kindred spirits in NYC’s Discwoman and Berlin’s Room 4 Resistance collectives, play a featured Boiler Room set, and book a number of notable festival and club appearances around Europe, including an upcoming set in Paris at the We Love Green festival. But before she began sharing her original music with the world, Deena spent years as a pioneering force in Tunis’ electronic scene, introducing the city to some of its first tastes of Western genres like Jersey club and Chicago juke.
Now, with the successful launch of Klabb and a debut album nearing completion, she has new goals in mind. Over the course of our conversation, Deena discussed imagining a timeline where global dance music was defined by Arab or African sounds, the importance of making club music that doesn’t shy away from social crises, and how bringing together artists from diverse backgrounds at festivals like We Love Green can authentically raise political consciousness.
“When I drop the synthesizer, I want it to feel like a siren.”
Your parents are Tunisian, but you were born and raised in Doha. What brought your family to Qatar?
Work. Definitely nothing romantic. I was there until I was 18, I got my school degree, and then I went to university in Tunis.
How did you spend your time during those 18 years? I know expat communities in places like Doha tend to be a little boring.
Oh boy... school! And the internet. Most of the time I spent bored in my home.
Was there any kind of music community in Doha?
I have no idea, because when I was there I didn't really go out at all. I don't think there was anything like bands playing real gigs. If there had been, they would just be "entertainment" bands playing covers, nothing beyond that. But I never had a chance to go to those places, because if there was alcohol involved, you have to be twenty-three. And also because I didn't really have the right to be going to places I shouldn't be. "I should tell my parents first" was the rule, and my parents weren't really into things like that.
When I moved to Tunis for university, I went with my older sister, and my parents stayed in Doha, so it was much more free. One hundred percent more free. So I kind of "rediscovered life," let’s say. [laughs]
What motivated you to move back to Tunisia for university?
When I was in Qatar, there was a big Tunisian community that went there for work. There was actually a Tunisian school, with the same educational system as in Tunisia. So in the books, and all of that actually, they were talking as if we were in Tunisia. But I was not really in Tunisia. So I was curious about it. And also because over there [in Doha], let’s just say it wasn't really welcoming for other nationalities. Maybe they're open more now than before, but in my era, it was not easy, especially for a woman.
I have this notion now that home is where I’m staying. It doesn’t depend on my identity or group. Home is wherever my closest friends are - like Tunis, for example. My real family are my friends, let’s say, and that’s my home, you know? When I’m in a group of people, they support me, and I can be as "easy" as I want to be. Where I can be really, truly me without any taboos.
How did you get involved with the music scene in Tunis?
By then I was trying to listen to new music. I started with footwork was diving into all the other electronic music genres that involved a certain kind of dance culture. I had my little mp3 player, and I was on the train going back home when I met this guy. And he asked me what I listened to. [So I showed him the mp3 player] and he was like "What is this music?? I'm a DJ but I've never heard this. Normally I play dub."
So of course I asked "okay, what's dub music?" And from there he introduced me to certain guys from his collective, World Full of Bass. That was a big part of it. And also I would hang out with people who would have a part time job at a bar, and we would, let's say "appropriate" the bar. [laughs]
“I love the unknown. I love what isn’t yet understandable.”
I've heard you were one of the first DJs to play genres like juke in Tunisia. Who was hosting those club nights?
[laughs] Alright, this is the shoutout section! There was Zied Meddeb Hamrouni (Shinigami San) from the World Full of Bass collective, and there was also the Waveform collective. Their director, Ogra, was the artistic director of a new club that had opened. Really it was the only club that actually had proper artistic programming and a sound system. He would invite me to play Thursdays, Saturdays. And sometimes me and my friends organize events we called BOMB BASS TECH. We would just clear a bar and turn it into a club.
What kind of music were you playing?
I always, always tried to find an alternative to house and techno, the conventional house and techno sounds. To be honest, I've never really liked that "genre."
So you’re playing music that these folks have never heard before. What was the reception like?
Oof. It was really hard! It was hard to make them dance to those sounds. People go there to drink, to laugh, to have fun, right? They were like “no, Deena!” [laughs] "Let us dance with you!" Because I was the only one who was dancing. I was playing so much Jersey club.
So the Jersey club was really fast for them, but I was like “Guys. You haven’t seen an ounce of what’s really fast." [laughs]. Every time I would finish my sets with footwork. I never wanted to play music just to play music, just to make everyone dance. So I tried these things, and when I was ready, I started to do my own music. I had my ideas.
Let's talk about those ideas. Your SoundCloud bio translates to “searching for the future of Arab music.”
The future is very important because it makes us want to live today. If there’s no future, you won’t have the motivation. Something to run after. That’s how important the future is. I love the unknown. I love what isn’t yet understandable. I said “future Arab” in that bio, but its kind of like irony.
The future will be worldwide! I hope. That’s the point of the future I guess, it’s always unknown.
Speaking of time, you've spoken before about creating music that imagines an alternate history where Arab peoples invented house and techno. That's fascinating.
It’s funny. I said that, but it's so difficult to really know. I would like to know what it would be like if the dance music scene was invented by Arabs. Why does it “belong” to the west? It used to belong to specific communities, but then it became a worldwide culture. What did that not happen for other music genres? Why didn't they become worldwide? It’s just questions! If you look at house and techno music, and compare it to dance music in Africa especially. Boy, for me the dance music [in Africa] is much more rich, much more...how can I say, it’s lived much longer. It has experience. Techno music, it’s a four by four beat. And it’s really simple.
I think maybe it’s that. Why did that kind of music go all over the world? Instead of music which is so rich, which is which is groovy, whatever you want to call it. So that’s actually the point. It’s a question, and I don’t want to [necessarily] find the answer. It’s the kind of thing you talk over during a night in the bar.
"Ena Essbab", one of my favorite tracks from Klabb, translates to “Because of Me.” What’s that referring to?
It’s for the GLBTQ community in Tunisia. [Society] there says: “if there are more gay people coming out in this country….God will punish us.” It’s really hard. It’s very orthodox, like very Catholic, very religious speech. But the real problem is that everybody is saying that. If in a family, something miserable happened, they would blame the gay member of the family because he had attracted “bad luck”. Which some people really believe in, in Tunis.
How did your Tunisian friends react to hearing the track?
Well I’m in the LGBTQ bubble, so they know. It’s what we all say. It’s the same speech that we all share, so they are with me.
Along with the struggle of Tunisia's LGBTQ people, what other political topics were on your mind when you were creating Klabb?
It’s very socially involved. Socially, and also politically. For example, “Jalel Brick Rumi” [which samples vocals from notoriously subversive and vulgar Tunisian cyberactivist Jalel Brick]. The way he was cursing the government was really something.
I watched his Youtube videos. Even though I don’t speak the language, it’s fasciating because there’s so much rhythm and energy behind his words. It feels like poetry, or music.
Exactly. It was like poetry, and thus “Rumi” [in the title]. He was cursing! He was creating poems out of curses. He’s not diplomatic at all. That’s what I really liked about him. And that’s what I want to do. Musically, it can't be all “la vie en rose”, like [mockingly] “let’s fight government with music." I don’t want to make "beautiful" music. I want to make sophisticated, social music. I try my best to fill it with the most energy that it can give.
The atmosphere on Klabb is dominated by oppressive and claustrophobic sounds. Was that connected to its politics?
Of course. For me, Klabb the way I imagined it, when I drop the synthesizer it feels like a siren. It’s an apocalypse. For me, what we are going through now is really catastrophic. People are suicidal. People aren’t able to express themselves, to eat, to find a job. Everything is oppressive. And I don’t want to say “oh no, it’s okay.” I’m not the one to say that. Maybe that can be for other artists, but not for me. I want to wake up and look at whats really happening. And I would like to provide a soundtrack for that consciousness. To say “alright. we’re really in a bad, bad era now.” So I’m really happy that you felt that oppressive feeling, because it really is.
I think it comes through very clear, but there’s also an element of resistance. Was that something you were looking to communicate?
Kind of! [She pauses to think.] When I tried to do that, I thought about the gay community. When I go to gay clubs, especially male-dominated gay clubs, it’s always Madonna, Britney Spears, etc. So I didn’t want to… it’s like a painting, I wanted to do a [translate]. I wanted to leave a symbol. So it was a [translate] for those nights. Because there’s an element of joy to a lot of queer performances. That’s the idea.
Can we expected a continuation of these themes on your upcoming album?
Most of the songs on the EP I made while I was in Tunis still. All of these new ones, they were made after I moved to France. I also had the opportunity to go to many European cities and meet many European young people. And also Arabs who are here, who are trying to figure out how to survive in Europe. So of course I’m going to also bring this immigration perspective, about the privileges that any nationality can have - and why we give it to this one, or that one.
It will be about political and social crises, but this time as an Arab living in Europe. I figured out actually, [the crisis] is not really really just in the Arab countries. Shit is going down in Europe as well. I still haven’t been to America, but I guess you guys also. [laughs]
Oh, yes indeed. You have a busy upcoming performance schedule, including the We Love Green festival in Paris. We Love Green is a little different that most fests, since they’re based around an explicit political platform. Do you think it’s important that platforms and fests like We Love Green have a political mission?
Of course. Gatherings [need to raise consciousness] like that. I’m hoping it can be in the spirit of something like Woodstock. I think these festivals - the ones who try to bring [artists of diverse backgrounds], together more are very important.
Because there are some groups who are much more directly involved, directly touched by the oppression of the government. What is really striking, in French politics for example, is that when I see the speeches, when I see people criticizing them - after that, they can have a party. They can go home and eat. They aren’t really affected by it.
In Tunisia, in Egypt, if a government spokesman says anything. It will affect people directly in their daily life. Which is what’s really great about a festival bringing people together, bringing people who are really affected [by politics]. Because maybe their energy can affect the audience, and they can go back to their homes, and be like “okay, now I’m angry too.”
Do you think your performances help communicate that message?
I really hope so. To be honest, thanks to journalists and articles about me, people can relate a little bit. Because I sing in Arabic, and the music when I DJ is not necessarily political, it’s more about art. It’s the end in itself, I don’t know how to say. For my live sets though, its really thanks to the press.
What is really important for me is to help people in Tunisia. If I ever have the luxury for it, I feel like it’s my duty to help. The next generation that’s coming after me. I would like to help young people, to have people not be violent in the way that my parents were, that their parents were, and that their parents' parents were.