Is Shamstep a Made-Up Genre For Hipsters—or a Defining Movement of Arab Youth Culture?

47Soul is a band whose politically-conscious style of Arabic dance music is catching on everywhere from Lebanon to London.

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Sep 2 2016, 9:30pm

Fredi Brinkworth

In the music video for "Intro to Shamstep," the four members of 47Soul dance through the streets of London over Arabic synth hooks and a driving, boom-thwack beat, holding their instruments and drums aloft. Next they're onstage at a mid-sized club, fingers flying across keyboards and hands banging on daff and darbuka drums as they rock the house for a diverse young crowd. Soon, the mood gets even more festive as they play before an even bigger audience in London's Trafalgar Square, at a festival commemorating the end of Ramadan.

You wouldn't think a music video of four guys goofing off while playing in their band would be a profound statement. But at a time when so many images associated with the Middle East have been so grim—from the haunting photographs of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea a year ago, to ISIS' gruesome videos of beheadings—this snapshot of Arab youth culture offers a necessary change of pace.

47Soul is a synth-driven band currently based in London, known for a politically-conscious style of Arabic dance music they call "shamstep"—a mix of traditional music like dabke with electronic elements. As members El Far3i and Walaa Sbeit pound out beats with drum machines and live percussion, guitarist El Jehaz conjures up textured guitar riffs over micro-tonal phrasings played on analog synths by bandmate Z the People.

While the four members of the group all hold different passports—El Far3i and El Jehaz are both from Jordan, Z the People was born to a Palestinian family in Washington DC, and Sbeit is from Israel—they all have roots in Palestine. As they sing in a mix of English and Arabic, they invoke their loyalty to their ancestral homeland: "Find the fruit on the trees / Send it off to wherever you please / Make sure that the money comes back home / Back to the peasants, to the fellaheen born," go the lyrics in "Intro to Shamstep."

Of course, what 47Soul is doing isn't exactly groundbreaking. Plenty of Arab artists over the years have merged Western-style musical elements with Arabic modal scales and traditional rhythms; bands that accompany dabke dancing routinely get the party started with drum machines and keyboards set to resemble traditional instruments like the mijwiz and arghul.

But shamstep is more than just a byword for hipsterfied East-West fusion. In 47Soul's home region, it's becoming part of the soundtrack for Arab youth. In war-rattled Damascus, the capital of Syria, for example, shamstep tunes reportedly play over soundsystems at local bars and clubs near the front lines. In the perpetually embattled Palestinian territory of Gaza, the 13-member band Dawaween recently covered "Intro to Shamstep." Over in Jordan, the hip local streetwear brand Jobedu produced a video in which "Intro to Shamstep" plays while cool kids in 47Soul shirts, sold at the store, bust out a time-honored Arabic dance called the dabke.

Even the genre name itself is loaded with a political message. The "sham" in shamstep references a historical region known in Arabic as Bilad al-Sham, which spans the length of the eastern Mediterranean and covers Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and parts of Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. Today, most Westerners are probably only familiar with Bilad al-Sham thanks to ISIS; their name is sometimes written as the "Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham." But even though Bilad al-Sham is home to people of many different religions, ethnic groups, languages and backgrounds, they share a common Arabic dialect as well as a way of life, says David McDonald, a professor of ethnomusicology and anthropology at Indiana University.

47Soul performing in Palestine (Photo by Ameen Saeb)

"There's a lot of things that make up a Bilad al-Sham cultural framework," says McDonald, who did extensive research in the region for his 2013 book My Voice is My Weapon: Music, Nationalism, and the Politics of Palestinian Resistance. "I can listen to someone speaking Arabic and immediately tell you if they're from Bilad al-Sham. I can eat Arabic food and immediately tell you if this is from Bilad al-Sham. I can listen to Arab music and immediately tell you if this is from Bilad al-Sham."

By invoking the term with shamstep, 47Soul wants to metaphorically stamp out the borders that have driven a wedge through their homeland and promote a broader, more inclusive state of mind. "We're not some group trying to gain independence and we have some sort of flag or something," El Far3i says, speaking over Skype from his home in London along with bandmates El Jehaz and Z the People. "Our whole idea is that we don't want to be divided."

"It's a very cool way to actually consolidate what the band wants to shout out in this one word," adds Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, a popular musician based out of Cairo, Egypt, who's been watching the band rise.

47Soul started as a loose-knit collective in Amman, Jordan in 2013 when El Far3i and El Jehaz, both regulars in Amman's music scene, met Z the People through a mutual friend in the United States. Later the trio teamed up with Sbeit, and as they started playing together, the term "shamstep" emerged.

"We tried to give references to each other with beats that we wanted to use, or a combination of beats," says El Jehaz. "It became something that I would say to Tareq—'OK, why don't we do this shamstep thing?' It was just a reference word, and then it became something."

"[Shamstep] is a very cool way to consolidate what the band wants to shout out in one word."—Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, a musician based out of Cairo

On Shamstep, 47Soul's debut EP from last year—which they recorded and self-released with the help of $30,192 they raised in a crowd-funding campaign—they simultaneously emphasize unity and diversity. Fat synths and moody guitars build into a moody, reverb-heavy mix in line with bands like Radiohead or Explosions in the Sky on a track called "Don't Care Where You're From." EP closer "Everyland," meanwhile, is an Arabic take on Jamaican dancehall featuring an upswing guitar rhythm and a chorus whose all-inclusive message is sung in English—"Every land is a holy land!"

Shamstep draws heavily from the wheezing synth lines and syncopated, reggaeton-esque beats that accompany the dabke, a traditional circle dance which originated in Bilad al-Sham and remains a beloved folk tradition native to the region. In six-step routines of stomps and kicks, the dabke is performed at weddings and other celebrations across the region, as a band gets the party going by wailing away on keyboards set to samples of traditional instruments like the arghul and the mijwiz.

But the dabke is more than just dope beats and rad dance moves. According to McDonald, it's a particularly potent tool for Palestinian musicians and activists, who have used it as a way to assert their identity while living in exile or under Israeli occupation in territories like the West Bank. "When they do it, they're more than just dancing. They're asserting themselves as Palestinian," McDonald says. "They're saying, 'We are here. We've existed for hundreds of years on this land, and when we stomp our feet we are reclaiming that land.'"

Two years ago, 47Soul relocated to London, in part because they lived in different countries, and travel restrictions made it difficult for them to all meet in one place in the Middle East. "It's always a problem for artists who try to create networks around the region," explains Abu Ghazaleh, a Palestinian who plays in a band called Alif that features members from Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq. "It's a big problem for Sudanese to take an easy visa to Egypt or Lebanon, and it's very difficult for a Palestinian to go to Haifa, or even to Gaza, the West Bank, Egypt, or most of the countries around. A lot of bands who've managed to meet somewhere outside aren't actually able to meet inside the region."

"[The dabke] is more than just dancing. They're asserting themselves as Palestinian. They're saying, 'when we stomp our feet we are reclaiming that land.'"—David McDonald, Indiana University ethnomusicologyprofessor

47Soul has since played festivals and clubs all over Europe, Chile, Australia and Egypt. But troubles with border restrictions—or the "global apartheid passport system," as Z the People calls it—came up again this summer, when Sbeit visa application was rejected by the U.S. Embassy at the last minute, forcing them to scrap their plans to perform in the United States. The band hopes to make it at some point to the United States, eager to change people's notions about Arabic culture.

"When I was growing up, the word 'Palestine' or 'Palestinian' wasn't even used in mainstream media, except in the cases it was used in the same sentence as 'terrorist,'" says Z the People. "Now we see the same thing with the word 'Arab' or 'Middle Eastern,' which is ironic in many ways, because we're the main victims of terrorism from Israel, Europe, America, and our region."

This is the power of 47Soul. While ISIS stokes fear and Donald Trump spews anti-Muslim hate speech, this group has built a multi-national, multicultural fan-base spanning from Lebanon to London. But at the same time, music comes first, and they're not trying to shove a political messaged down anyone's throat. One of the best songs on their Shamstep EP is a sultry slow jam called "Meeli." Over a fat synth bass, the four members trade off on the mic like a Shami Boyz II Men. One of them croons his heart out. Another spits a verse in Arabic. The bass drum punches out the regal rhythm of choubi, a version of dabke from Iraq; each bar is punctuated by an 808 snare.

Over Skype, El Jehaz translates the title of the song as "Lean on Me."

"It's kind of like, 'Lean on me from behind the border,'" El Far3i chimes in.

"And on the dancefloor," El Jehaz adds. "Whatever works for you."

47Soul play at STYX in London on Friday, September 2. Tickets here.

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