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Psychaleppo: Music to Listen to While Your Country Burns

On October 12, a couple hundred people filed into Metro Al Madina, a small cabaret theater in Beirut. Inside it was pitch black, save for images projected on canvas cubes: Eight-armed Indian goddesses danced. Rockets blasted into space. Then...
December 12, 2013, 12:49pm

On October 12, a couple hundred people filed into Metro Al Madina, a small cabaret theater in Beirut’s upscale Hamra district. Inside it was pitch black, save for images projected on canvas cubes: Eight-armed Indian goddesses danced. Rockets blasted into space, and happy concertgoers bobbed their heads. Death synths pulsed. Bass shook the room.

Silhouetted against this tableau was a slender young man, with glasses and a mop of curly hair pinned behind his head. Hunched over his computer, he swayed to his music. Samer Saem Eldahr, known by his nickname Zimo, is a 24-year-old art student in Beirut. He is also Syria’s preeminent trip-hop artist, and he is currently living in exile from his war-ravaged hometown, Aleppo.

"Hello Psychaleppo" is the name of Zimo’s project. His second album, which was released online last month, is a pastiche of twitchy electronic sounds and golden age Arab pop music of the 1950s and 60s. It is alternately danceable and cathartic, melancholic and apocalyptic. It’s Massive Attack meets Abdel Halim Hafez.

The musical peak of the record is the song “Tobayabooya,” essentially a supercharged version of the classic Abdel Halim song “Kol Maoul Touba” (“I regret all I have not said”). In Zimo’s version, a sample of the Egyptian megastar’s crooning is layered over a propulsive electronic track with bass so heavy that it veers in the direction of dubstep.

“I love heritage music," Zimo says. “That's what I grew up with. [But] as youth we have to put an identity to our music right now. What are we and where are we coming from?” When I asked what five records he would take to a desert island, he listed albums by Leonard Cohen, Abdel Halim Hafez, Umm Kulthoum, Infected Mushroom, and Portishead. At the end of the interview, he interjected that he wanted to add the Swedish singer-songwriter The Tallest Man On Earth.

Musically, Zimo is a paradox. The title of the project calls attention to his roots in Aleppo, but the music has almost no lyrics, and nothing that links it explicitly to the war inside Syria. "In a direct way I don’t want it to affect my production, because, to have a clear mind right now is something really precious," he told me in a phone conversation earlier this month. “I don’t watch any footage because I don’t want to see what’s happening to it [Aleppo] until I’m back there. I just read the news. I don’t watch.”

But the dark, disturbed aesthetic of the music betrays the emotional backdrop of Zimo's project: This is music you can listen to while your country burns. "I know for people inside Syria, they’re really suffering. They’re suffering the thing. But for Syrians outside Syria, it’s also hell," he told me, "To be departed from your country, from the people you love back there and from your memories and everything."

Born to mother working in NGOs and a businessman father, Zimo began playing music when he was in middle school. Over the years he played guitar and keyboards for underground bands, including a classic rock cover band called The Through, playing in basements and tiny clubs. When he was 14, his older brother died after a two-year battle with cancer that began with a tumor in his neck.

As an only child, Zimo filled his time by diving deeper into music and art. His parents supported his exploits, even if they did not fully understand them. His father paid for him to record a rap album. He also pursued painting, over the years developing an affinity for abstract expressionism. As he was completing his undergraduate degree in fine arts at the University of Aleppo, the uprising against Bashar Assad’s regime was in full force. Students were marching every day at the university.

In the summer of 2012, with the Syrian revolution transformed into an armed conflict, Zimo travelled to Beirut, looking for a gallery to display his paintings. He had only planned a short trip but once he reached Lebanon, with the regime escalating its offensive against rebel-held areas, his parents told him: For your own safety, don't come back. “Because I’m their only son they didn’t want to risk it. I didn’t want to leave, but I respected my parents’ opinion,” he says.

His parents later fled to Jordan. Looters raided his old studio. His parents' house stands empty. Once it's safe, he wants to go back to Aleppo, but he's afraid of what he'll find there. “I don’t watch any footage because I don’t want to see what’s happening to it until I’m back. I just read the news. I don’t watch,” he says.

In Beirut, he shares an apartment with Joan Baz, a Lebanese video artist who created, along with the French artist Marion Petegnief, the visuals for Hello Psychaleppo’s live show. She met Zimo when she gave a workshop in Aleppo in 2011. In addition to collaborating artistically, she and Zimo are close friends. “He’s like my son, in a way that normally I’m not very affectionate or motherly,” Joan says. “I feel like I have to take care of him. With his album I feel like more than ever I need to make him reachable. I need people to see how talented he his.”

In its use of traditional Arab popular music, Hello Psychaleppo reaches past the catastrophe currently unfolding in Syria and the revolutionary upheaval that swept much of the Arab world in the last three years. The chaos and the dislocation results in a nostalgia for the old. “Everything is moving so fucking fast to a point where, ‘hold on, I don’t know where I’m going,’” says Joan.