“Soundcheck is running late,” one of the organizers of the 47soul concert at La Vitriola last Friday tells me. My interview with the band was supposed to start at 8 p.m., but to my dismay I will have to wait another hour. As I sit at the back of the quaint venue, the band’s beats play in my periphery. I’m mesmerized only 15 minutes into their sound check, and I’m itching to start the interview. When they’re finally ready, they tell me they’re hungry. “There’s a great restaurant across the street. It’s vegan, but it’s pretty good.”
We crowd into a corner at Aux Vivres in between a couple and someone rocking a stroller. Two band members of 47soul, Ramzi and Walaa’, seem unfazed. Walaa’ patiently waits for his tempeh burger and tells me, “We’re four people who are originally from Palestine. Either our parents or grandparents were displaced […] so we ended up being born in different places.” He’s a native of Palestine (the Galilee); Ramzi was born in Washington, D.C. and is of Palestinian descent. Walaa’ continues, “Each of us had his own individual project with other bands in our own areas. We got attracted to each other’s music [and] each other’s personalities as friends. This is what brought us together.”
Ramzi sits in silent agreement next to Walaa’, who tells me that the group approaches its work from the basic concept that the members are “normal people” foremost, “before anybody puts us in the context of struggle and forces identities on us.” They call their music Shamstep, the “Sham” coming from Bilad al-Sham (the Levant), a geographical area that encompasses Lebanon, Syria, parts of Jordan, and Palestine. “We are the result of this region, and I think this is the first inspiration, our traditional music from Bilad al-Sham, and our desire to develop it [and] create a new sound.”
Their music can only be described as techno Arabic wedding music, or dabka, a traditional Levantine blend of music and dance.
Their music can only be described as techno Arabic wedding music, or dabka, a traditional Levantine blend of music and dance. When asked what the initial idea was for such a mixture of sound, Ramzi explains that dabka has been electronic for a long time now, “So it’s definitely not a new idea from us to make dance music. At the same time it’s something fresh that people in the West haven’t been exposed to. I grew up in D.C., and was influenced by go-go music, R&B, hip hop… Walaa’ soaked in a lot of reggae and dub influences.” What they want to do, Ramzi says, is put their own signature on the Bilad al-Sham dabka style – and they do this by creating a next-level musical fusion.
Walaa’ calls it “movement music.” 47soul wants to move Levantine peoples both musically and politically, and also to introduce Western audiences to this musical and political activism in tandem. “It can say a different thing about us as people from our region, that people can share the same way, that we celebrate and enjoy [life]. This is the context of it: we are not just a people who cry and suffer, we are people who create and enjoy.”
47soul’s Montreal show is the group’s second (and last) one in Canada. For their first Canadian visit, they had played the Toronto Palestine Film Festival the night before heading to Montreal. The artists were surprised by the turnout in Toronto, which remained sizable even after the unfortunate announcement that 47soul’s other two members were denied visas to enter the country. “We’re a collection of passports,” Ramzi explains when asked about the debacle. “It’s a time where there’s no equal treatment for Third World passports. Two of the guys have been victims of a very long and bureaucratic process that prevents them from being with us today.” Ramzi and Walaa’ played the festival anyway, and were greeted with an overwhelmingly positive response. For them, performing is about breaking borders and freedom of movement. Essentially, nothing will stop them, not even a Kafkaesque racist bureaucracy. “We’ve had many different formations [as a band] all because of visa and border issues. We’re here to still bring more awareness to that experience.”
“We’re a collection of passports,” Ramzi explains when asked about the debacle. “It’s a time where there’s no equal treatment for Third World passports. Two of the guys have been victims of a very long and bureaucratic process that prevents them from being with us today.”
Nantali Indongo and Meryem Saci from Nomadic Massive kick off the night to a fantastic opening set of funk, soul, and blues – think Nina Simone meets Tina Turner. Their lyrics, coded with political messages, garner obvious praise from the audience, sending the energy high before 47soul begin their set.
The second Ramzi steps on stage, the crowd fills the gap between the stage and the seats. Ramzi instantly starts busting out deep house beats, slowly infusing them with traditional dabka accents. He invites Walaa’ up to the stage, and the crowd goes absolutely wild. Walaa’ practices a type of singing called tarab, which combines singing with a religious style of sung poetry, usually acapella style.
Ramzi is full of energy, jumping all over the stage and spontaneously busting out dabka moves with Walaa’. “This one is for the resistance,” Ramzi enthusiastically yells into his microphone before transitioning into another high-energy track.
Everyone around me starts bellydancing. I’m simultaneously holding my notebook and frantically scrambling down notes in the middle of the raucous crowd when someone suddenly snatches it from me and tells me to start dancing too. I give in to 47soul’s beats, breaking out in a bellydance myself, and I couldn’t feel more at home.