Obay* remembers the nightmarish chain of events that forced him to flee from Syria. It started with the arrest of his cousin, who was locked up in one of the many prisons that the Assad regime shovels its political opponents into. Since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, these prisons have become death chambers where at least 10,000 people are believed to have died under torture, according to war crimes investigators. After the arrest, Obay lay low, rarely attending classes out of fear for his own safety. It was during these long spells at home that he started producing electronic music.
Under the tutelage of a friend named Amer Salek, Obay learned how to use tools like oscillators and DAWs. "[Syria] is a country where electronic music is so rare and limited to DJs playing cheap local pop music," he says. "I had to learn it all from YouTube." Going by the alias Khan El Rouh, which translates to "The Temple of Soul," Obay started producing sparse and smoky tracks that erupt with achingly beautiful melodies, many of them drawing their soulfulness from the wailing sounds of traditional Arabic instruments. It's hardly a surprise that he cites Nicholas Jaar and Jaar-affiliate Valentin Stip as his biggest influences.
Obay says that producing music gave him an avenue to express his anguish over the extreme brutality that has marked Syria's nearly three-year civil war, which has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 and displaced millions more. "I wanted to display the mental state of despair that got into the spirits of citizens in my homeland," he says, "I learned to [convey despair] with minimal sampling." His most recent track "Ya Welah," for example, derives its title from an Arabic phrase that expresses anguish and hurt.
Many of Obay's productions are built off samples chosen for their sharp political overtones. "My earlier stuff had hidden political messages taken from old radio shows, [including] a conversation about the power of youth," he says. The beginning of his track "Could This Be The End" came from a play by Muhammad al-Maghout— a famous Syrian poet and playwright who was repeatedly imprisoned and tortured for his affiliation with the Syrian National Party. Like Obay, he was forced into exile, but continued to produce work about injustice under totalitarianism.
Obay had been producing music for eight months when he received the devastating news that his cousin had been killed in the prison where he was being held. The situation quickly turned critical when a good friend warned him that it was only a matter of time before he, too, would be arrested. That's when Obay decided to leave his family, friends, possessions, and everything that he loved behind, becoming a political refugee in Cyprus, where he has been given political asylum under the Turkish government.
Although he recently was admitted into a local university and is being supported by money sent by his family back in Syria, Obay has been unable to produce music without his equipment. "I had to leave all my music gear behind—an electric bass, a zoom effect, and a MiDI controller," he says. To that end, even though he says he hates the idea of fundraising, Obay started a GoFundMe crowd-funding page where he hopes to raise $2,000 to buy himself the instruments he can't afford. (At the time of writing, the page has earned a paltry $30.) Nevertheless, Obay is hopeful that he will one day be able to start producing again, and give people courage to say no to oppression "not by using guns but by music."
*Obay's last name has been withheld to protect his identity
Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor of THUMP - @MichelleLhooq