Tunisian producer Deena Abdelwahed needs no introduction. Since the release of her debut EP Klabb, she made no missteps, collecting a collaboration with Fever Ray and widely acclaimed debut album and EPs. The elements behind this success are an outspoken and maximalist political vision mixed with great elegance, taste and a lot of digging, which furthermore we find in her great skills as a DJ. And it was just her hybrid and mesmerizing DJ set that should have animate one of the nights of Sparks Festival, one of the best festival in Apulia, alongside with a lot of great artists such as Not Waving, Dj Nigga Fox and The Mauskovic Dance Band. But, as a result of what is likely an excess of zeal, or worse, a tragicomic witch hunt, Sparks Festival was cancelled, because of the restrictions due to the pandemic. However, we had the chance to converse also about this in our talk with Deena Abdelwahed.

The title of your debut album, “Khonnar”, seems like a one single word which could reflect an entire manifesto. Is it right? Would you like to explain it’s meaning?

Khonnar, in Tunisian dialect, means an undercover group of problems that is about to go to a state of scandales. I named my album Khonnar because I wanted to tackle that we are all aware of the problems that we are facing today in society but; some people are the victims, others are the cause, others are silent, others are empathic but not directly impacted… so it’s not about to talk about the problems in a direct way; it’s about how each of us would situate her/him self in these circumstances, in this « Khonnar ».

I was astonished by the interpolation of the rhythm and the voice in the opening track “Lila Fi Tounes” of your last EP “Dhakar”, singing the melody line of Dizzie Gillespie’ “A Night In Tunisia”, even because of the incredible story behind the jazz standard. For the uninitiated, Art Blakey used to tell he was there when Dizzie composed it in Texas on the bottom of a garbage can, and it’s name was just “Interlude”. But the melody recalls of Middle East so, when Charlie Parker recorded the song, it’s name was “A Night In Tunisia”, and just after that Ella Fitzgerald performed it with the evoking lyrics we know. Now you finally take the song back home…

Thank you for the story! In the same story then, my will was to correct Charlie Parker’s fantasy about « Middle East ». His state of mind told him that this melody brings mystery and serenity… Whereas in Tunisia, the state of mind is to survive police brutality and societal obligations. I confirm that I made « Night in Tunisia » more stressful, machine-like and extra dancy in order to reflect the image of the survivors.

Talking about interpolation, how can we not mention your awesome DJ sets, full of hybridized combinations. What’s behind that? What are the records you grew up with and what’s your attitude through music?

I grew up in an environment where there’s not a lot of interest in music. Whatever music played in Radio or TV or shopping malls. There were two distinguish categories:
« Oriental » and « Occidental » (keep in mind that I don’t agree with the naming).
Each had their specific time and state: Oriental in car-radio, Occidental in malls radio, Oriental in marriages and family gathering, Occidental in birthdays and at school and so on… as a kid I was fan of Occidental’s music diversity and quality, but I was not able to fully consume it because of the language and what it is was about was alien to me. Like all teenagers in my class, Oriental music was not reflecting us because it was not conceived as a revolutionary music. It was classic and superficial, even though we easily can learn them by heart, because of the language and how monotone all songs are. Later on in my life, I made peace with the rhythmic part of Oriental music. It was a long process but it was revolutionary to me and I regretted that in my young time I didn’t notice the « diversity and profoundness » of Arabic rhythms. So eventually, that skill – to distinguish what I like in any international music – is a big part of my DJ sets.

During the last years bass frequencies lost a bit their central role in the “post-club” scene in a sort of contrast between the dancing tribes that we used to know and the current aesthetic of online simulation, but the call for physical bodies’ energy is always there, especially when we talk about music coming from outside of the western world. Is there among the people the urgent need of moving, dancing and maybe taking action against power?

I think « post-club » scene is searching for an alternative to bass frequencies to distinguish it self from other Dance music. The key is in the « search » process. It allows producers to freely navigate through all the sound and musical elements and decide what to bring forward depending on the public. The public now is strongly connected to internet, therefore connected to other civilisations worldwide.

What do you think about the way the pandemic is affecting music industry and live performances?

I think it is very saddening and miserable. It just made the voices of strong people stronger and the weak ones weaker. It made it very hard for innovative music. It’s only about one shots now and zero risks, like it wasn’t already the case.

Internet platforms are a good way to spread arts from all over the world, but at the same time colonial bad habits are always around the corner. What do you think about world music and cultural appropriation nowadays?

A lot of people are « woke » nowadays, so I am not super worried. For me cultural appropriation is when one uses another culture and claim that it is his creation, and ready to represent it without paying credit to where it comes from. Like Shakira’s « Waka Waka » song for instance, she insisted that she composed it herself despite the allegations and critics and that it is plagiat of a camerounaise song. So, for exemple, I am not against any person who’d use Arabic music elements to express her/his love or interest to Arabic music, She or he would naturally pay credit by mentioning where it comes from, even vaguely, or showing gratitude in any sort! I admit it’s very complexe but Culture is not a property,
in my opinion. For me, misrepresentation and misinterpretation of a culture is more dangerous. For exemple when a guy from Arabic peninsula walk in Qamis in London, he is perceived as narrow minded and hostile, and then you find a Londoner wears the same Qamis for Halloween with a funny or clownish attitude that goes with it, it’s ok, people tend to defend this behavior as ‘criticism’.
Musically; Oriental sonority in western music reflects this « hippie » feel, it’s shallow! Because it isn’t used by fans of Arabic music, it’s just there to compete the top charts. Whereas when you hear a fair combination of western and Arabic music, listeners would be less ignorant and therefore it may contribute for them to have less judgements… This is a debate question by the way, there’s no precise answer to this! LOL

Ritual question. Have you seen or heard anything good recently?

A lot! I don’t know what to mention!
I always keep an eye on weareinstert blog, ma3azef magazine, Timedance record label, NAAFI record label, Nervous Horizon, Infinite Machine, Polaar, Houndstooth… it’s all full of good music out there 🙂