Interview: 47Soul – London’s Middle EastEnders (December 2017)

If in the last four years, they have won over the Middle Eastern, British and part of European audiences with their distinctive electro-dabké (or, as they prefer to call it, ‘shamstep’), 47Soul are ready to do the same with the rest of world. The London-based quartet is one of the names on everyone’s lips thanks to their new album – Balfron Promise – and its relative global tour on the launching pad. 

On the night of their new release’s live-premiere, which went on stage at Village Underground, we met with Z The People (Ramzy Suleiman), El Far3i (Tareq Abu Kwaik), El Jehaz (Hamza Arnaout) and Walaa Sbait to have a better understanding about Balfron Promise and to learn more about their music, influences and recent story.

Z The People: The last three years saw us touring intensely and playing in many different countries, which has been quite a blessing for us because we were travelling and writing new songs at the same time, so we could already show and play those songs to our friends.

That’s when the Balfron Promise project started, more or less a year ago. I’d say that it was last winter when we decided to put together the first songs for the new album”.

El Far3i: The process of us creating the new songs was consistent and continuously developing. When someone was coming up with new ideas, we built on top of them, adding new elements. We kept on building more and more for a while. So the creative process was constant. Actually, that’s what has always happened with us since our first album and is still happening nowadays”.

If, at first sight, 47Soul’s music is a freewheeling and collective creative process, the musicians are keen to underline that it’s also possible to identify a path behind their new album. 

El Far3i: “Balfron Promise is the sum of many ideas that we have put together. At the same time, every time we were coming up with something new and trying to bring some order among the bunch of different ideas we had in front of us, they always followed the same pattern. So, if we have to identify a concept behind the album, it’s related to our lives here in the UK, our everyday experiences and what’s happening in the world around us”.

Z The People: “The first inspiration came from the block where we were living, which is called Balfron Tower in Poplar, London. In addition, exactly 100 years ago, there was this guy called Balfour (which has a similar sound to Balfron), who was the British Foreign Secretary. In 1917, he signed a declaration that promised to the Zionist Federation the Palestinian land. So we made a connection between that event, the current UK housing problem, and how the government controls the housing system. We feel that it practically represents the essence of colonialism – when you go to a different country and take the local people’s land”.

El Far3i: Yes, you can easily say that it’s unfair eviction”.

Z The People:I had just moved to Poplar at the time and I felt like I was taking someone else’s place, the place of someone who was part of that community and living in that neighbourhood for such a long time before me. It’s not that people shouldn’t share, but they shouldn’t be forced to do so. They shouldn’t do it against their will, and people there were clearly evicted by force”.

When it comes to their relationship with the London music scene, it looks like 47Soul couldn’t find a better second home for their sound.

Z The People:Balfron Promise is affected by and entirely reflects the fact that it’s now more than three years since we have been living in the UK. And, inevitably, we feel a big part of the scene. London has definitely helped us to develop as musicians”.

El Far3i:We have always felt very welcome here and we were also looking forward to being a part of the UK scene. Then there’s the fact that we are social musicians, so we talk about things that are happening around us. It’s a bit ironic that despite the fact that London, as a city, creates so much division in the world, since we moved here, we are breaching so many gaps between scenes and cultures. You feel that London is the place where international can become local and vice-versa. Here, everyone can talk about what’s happening in his or her everyday life, but also in his or her country of origin”. 

In the same way, even before their move to London, music has always represented a source of hope and inspiration for the four musicians, and it can work on the same level for many people.

El Jehaz: “Music gives hope to people. I don’t know if it can help people to overcome their problems or not, but it can definitely give them hope”. 

El Far3i:Definitely. Music can inspire people. It’s an inspiration to do different things. It’s a tool. The same with athletes and sportsmen: they can inspire people to stand up and fight. That occurred to us too. When we came together to form 47Soul, it was because we were inspired by other musicians and also listening to their music. So music has always been a big inspiration for us, and I think it is a big inspiration for people in general: it can move them”.

That’s arguably the reason why the band has decided to keep a sort of bilingualism in their lyrics. Writing and singing both in Arabic and English, 47Soul can reach, have an impact on and move a wider and diverse audience. The same happens with their music, mixing traditional Middle Eastern sounds with more contemporary electronic Western influences.

Waala: “We have always wanted to give access to both languages to our listeners. For this reason, in some way, we are different from other bands that sing in only one language. Since our mother language is Arabic it’s natural for us to sing in Arabic, but we also decided to sing in English because in this way we’re able to have a deeper relationship with our audience and relate with people who use different languages but can still understand English”.

Z The People:In the same way, if you consider our sound, we use our people’s music, which is music coming from our roots, but we also use the ones that we listen to here in London. We’re constantly trying to understand them better and learn from them. When you mix both of those styles, even if you don’t know from which direction people come to hear our music, we know that they’ll eventually meet in the middle and find a common ground. That can happen because we’re making some sort of fusion between the styles”.

El Far3i:People are usually going through this process with us. While there’s someone who always tries to separate our influences and identify what comes from where, that’s mainly because a lot of music has been globalized and taken out of context recently. Anyway, it all comes down to who listens to the music and the personality of who plays it. Both musician and listener are going through the process to find what’s the closest thing to their music identity”.

…and what’s the 47Soul music identity?

El Jehaz: “We’re definitely electronic Arabic music. Those are the keywords I would use”.

Z The People:Yes, I would also say Shamstep from Bilad al-Sham, which is the region where our music comes from because, if you listen to the popular and traditional style coming from that area, you understand that it is the basis of the music style we play. Then there are all of the influences that we have gathered in our lives and experiences – influences coming from all over the world. But, yes, I’d say that ‘Shamstep’ is the best term to define our sound”.

47Soul’s musical identity, on the verge between the Arabic and Western world, is inevitably embodied by the musicians’ listenings.

El Far3i:I’m listening to so many artists, that it’s a bit difficult to answer…”

Z The People: Personally, I’m listening to a new album titled Lekhfa, which is a collaboration between three really good musicians from the Egyptian alternative scene: Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, Maryam Saleh and Maurice Loucathey’ve recently produced this album and it sounds really great; and also, Lupe Fiasco”.

El Jehaz:I’d say Tame Impala and a lot of grime”.

Waala: “I’m listening to a lot of music coming from the Southern part of Syria and Iraq. Actually, it comes from the region of Raqqa, where the capital of Isis is. But I hope that people won’t think that it’s the music of Isis because it’s a style that was very popular years before the war and people are still playing it today. It’s very inspiring music, also because it involves traditional dancing”.

It was almost stage time for 47Soul, so we left the musicians to the calm before the electro-Dabke storm. Before wishing them good luck, we closed our interview asking what their plans were after their official album launch at the Jazz Café in London on Thursday the 2nd of February.

El Jehaz: “We are going to officially release the album on the 2nd of February, the same day as our Jazz Café gig. After that, we want to travel and take our music as far as we can. We want to keep doing what we do and play our music for all of the people around the world. From South America to Jordan, Egypt to East Asia – we want to bring shamstep to all of these places!