An Afternoon with Sama, the DJ Who Brought Techno to Palestine
A few weeks from her appearance at Transmusicales in Rennes, France, we met with Sama Abdulhadi to talk about her professional journey, the techno scene in Ramallah, and her reticence toward the "Arab-electro trend."
Photo by Tarzan Nasser
This article originally appeared on Noisey France.
In recent times, electronic music festivals have been seen as big levers of economic development for provincial towns. DJing has become a source of personal development—like yoga or scrapbooking—and the biggest names in techno approach their work with financial finesse. But amid this scene so heavily inclined towards creative libertarianism, so seemingly incapable of taking a stand on anything at all, Palestinian DJ Sama Abdulhadi draws heavily on militant inspiration.
Nearly ten years ago, Abdulhadi organized the first techno nights in the West Bank, in Ramallah. Since then, her parties have spawned countless copycats, even if she remains the only one in her country who plays techno that is both martial and cerebral. Today, her little Palestinian city boasts a half dozen electro bars, as well as 15 DJs. ("Three of whom are women!" she says proudly.)
This year, Abdulhadi is a resident artist at the Cité Internationale des Arts, in Paris' 4th arrondissement. That's where we met with her. "I'm here to put together my new album and to prepare my next sets," she explains. "Did you know this arrondissement has the same population as Ramallah?"
Noisey: What were your first impressions of Paris and the local scene?
Sama Abdulhadi: Before I came to the Cité des Arts, people had warned me about audiences and Parisian artists, that they could be quite closed-off and dismissive. But I haven't felt that at all—on the contrary, Paris has been a wonderful surprise! I run into lots of musicians here. I love the people at Parallèle, [a traveling party collective], for instance. I'm not brave enough yet to follow them into real Parisian basements, but that'll come with time [Laughs]. I like the integrity of their approach, the quality of their raves. In another genre, the Arabstazy really speak to me as well. I like their harshness—I like that they only play live.
If you ask me, there's actually a lot of kindness at Parisian parties. I've had the experience of going onstage with my stomach in knots just after a group—whose musicians then came onstage to support my set! It's incredibly inspiring. Same thing in Germany. I had this huge visa nightmare at the French-German border. I explained to the customs agent that I was a techno DJ and I had to get through, and you know what? He let me in and I was able to spend 48 hours at the Fusion Festival.
Do these kind of experiences give you material, ideas to put into your album?
If only! But honestly, no. At least, not directly. As far as Parisian life goes, sometimes I do a bit of field recording in the street, but I don’t remember ever gathering material that struck me as specifically French. If I want to reconstruct a certain ambiance, I poke around on Aporee, a sound "street map" under Creative Commons. You can sample thousands of songs—it's an incredible tool. Furthermore, I come from the classical world, so I don’t really venture too much into the field of Arab music. It's a great musical language, and I admire it. But it's too fast, too complex, and impossible to sum up in a handful of samples. And then this Arab-electro trend that's happening now, that’s an exotic trap. I honestly don't recognize myself in that stuff.
I've done a lot of sound design for film. It's made me hypersensitive to noises, to certain sound patterns. I work without a headset, with the window open. The sound of the city doesn't interfere with my work; if anything, it helps. I think that it's actually thanks to this atmosphere—dreamlike, a little misty—that I'm able to compose. For example, for the kick on my upcoming album, I used a real heartbeat as a starting point. Rhythm and beat are relatively simple to put in place. But composing melodies, now—to me that's a true feat. No one is born a composer.
Before classical, film, or techno, you spent a good amount of time in the Palestinian rap world as well.
Yes! I rapped, dude. I did dance battles. Breakdance was super hot at the time. The 2000s were the era of hip-hop, in Palestine anyway. That's when I played my first discs. Not long after, my brother came back from Jordan with two CDs. One was Tiësto, the other IIO. He told me, "You HAVE to listen to this." Immediately we organized a party, during which I only DJed those two albums. Well, I mean, I say "DJed," but back then it was more like push play/pause and fumble around with the fader. I had seen two or three guys play vinyl, but I didn't have a clue what real DJing was... And then, one thing led to another; I got into it more seriously. And people started raving together, other people started DJing and parties. Today, there are half a dozen places that host these parties in Ramallah. The city has about 15 DJs, three of them women! But you have to remember we're talking about a really small milieu. The biggest party in Palestine only brings in about 400 people tops. Nobody played techno before I started. And I'm still the only one who plays this particular type of techno.
So then what do people listen to at those parties?
Trance, psytrance even.
Yeah [Laughs]. People in Ramallah love psychedelic stuff. Me, I can't even handle a half hour. And afterwards I need a nap because the kicks all over the place and the speed of the BPM make the music truly exhausting... drum & bass and dubstep are really popular too. All the more so because lots of former b-boys hang out at our parties now! But sometimes our parties end at midnight—when they've only started at ten. The timing is super tight, and often the police want to stop the noise. Also, I should point out that this little scene only exists in Ramallah. In Hebron, Nablus or even Jenin, there's nothing. And let's not even talk about Gaza.
On that note, how is it with the local police?
Well, as with everywhere, drugs have arrived on the scene, together with their crowd who show up just to order glasses of water and do whatever shit they want. My audiences are more chill, though. They come to dance, crack open a beer, just relax and party. I worked for a long time in local restaurants as a waitress, so I've gone out since I was 13, and the police know me. I'm against police as an institution, but Palestinian cops are really very understanding. There's a sort of mutual agreement between us.
Even when a young woman "takes the lead" and speaks to them?
Honestly, yes. Obviously there are cases of discrimination and sexual harassment, but it's nothing like with the Egyptian or Lebanese police, who are much more brutal. I think they look upon us with a sort of benevolence, if anything—they just see youthful fun and partying. In the end, we're all Palestinians; we're all in this together. Ramallah is a town where you have Christians, Muslims, a bunch of refugee camps... The bars where we play are in highly populated neighborhoods, near lots of families who don’t necessarily want to listen to techno all night. So we adapt. During exam periods, in order to accommodate students, we don't have any parties.
You're playing this year at the Transmusicales; have people already talked to you about the Bretons?
It'll be the biggest event I've ever done. People tell me they rave a bunch over there, right?
Sama just received her French residency card. You can see her onstage in 2018 playing her new album, due out at the end of the year. She will also appear at the 39th Transmusicales of Rennes on Saturday, December 9, starting at 11 PM.
Théophile is on Twitter.