Interview: DJ SAMA’, Jason Kaakoush & Rise 1969 – Techno from the Middle East (August 2019)

DJ SAMA’ shot to world fame with her Boiler Room set in 2018, which acquired more than 1 million views. She has been an emblematic artist of the Palestinian underground and is credited for bringing techno to Palestine. SAMA’ (which is Arabic for sky) studied audio engineering at London’s SAE, where she met two of her music allies, both Lebanese staple names on the Beirut music electronic scene: Jason Kaakoush and Rise 1969. She has performed her punchy techno, house and other darker sub-genres all over the world, including the International Summit of Music in Ibiza in May 2019.

Jason Kaakoush is an essential name on the Beirut rave scene, and his global sound has won many international prizes. With his Truth or Dare show on Lebanon’s MixFM, he introduced new sounds and mixes to listeners. His second EP from 2016 featured in the top 100 of the Beatport Charts.

Rise 1969 was born in the UK and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, where he works as sound designer and music producer. Besides collaborating with many music studios across the Middle East, he is working on his upcoming album under the mentorship of Sasse at BlackHead Studios in Berlin this summer.

We met them before their London gig at Elektrowerkz in Islington, a warehouse music venue a stone’s throw from Angel. DJ SAMA’, in collaboration with MARSM UK, curated a night of the best of electronic music by her musical peers and discussed the evolution of their music, techno scenes around the world and characteristics of music and places they perform in.

Rhythm Passport: SAMA’, can you introduce Jason Kaakoush (JK) and Rise 1969 (aka William Mahfoud)? Where did you meet and how did you meet?

SAMA’: I met Jason first. I met him when I was studying in SAE Amman, then I saw him again in Beirut playing at B018. He was playing really well, and I kept complimenting him. I love his music, how he mixes, and I dance more to his music than to anyone else’s music. When you listen to music, you sometimes hear little flaws, or you dislike a part of the track, or there’s something wrong with the flow, but this doesn’t happen with Jason. Then, I bumped into him at a James Zabiela competition in London where he was one of the participants, and since then, we’ve been friends.

RP: And what about Rise 1969?

SAMA’: I was studying at SAE London, and me and Rise 1969 met at university. We both graduated in 2013, and Jason came to the SAE in 2015. I made the second track on my first EP with him. It was his track, and I made the melody for it. It was called Rise of the East, which was on a London label called Itchycoo Records.

RP: Then fast forward to 2019, and you’re introducing the two of them to London audiences. Why them and how did the idea come about?

SAMA’: I always wanted to host a party and make a theme behind it, so I saw that Jason was playing in Oxford at the same time as I was participating in Boomtown Fair. I spoke to him, and I wanted to do it in Paris where my booker is based and where I have more listeners, but I have exclusivity in France, Germany and Holland. So, when I went to play with MARSM UK for the opening night of Shubbak Festival in June, I spoke with Khaled Ziada, the founder of MARSM UK, about it, and we made it happen. Then, I remembered that Rise 1969 is coming to Berlin for a residency, as he won the Beirut Berlin Express (BBX) competition, and then there was a party.

RP: What’s the next party you’re looking forward to?

SAMA’: Bucht der Traeumer before Oliver Huntemann in Germany. I love him. He’s one of my favourite producers, and I buy every track he produces. Him, Stephan Bodzin and Marc Romboy. Now, I’ll play before Oliver Huntemann, so I’m so excited about it.

RP: And Jason, what’s your next gig?

Jason Kaakoush: Damascus, in Syria.

RP: Techno in Syria? The situation there is tricky. Tell us about parties there.

JK: There’s that hunger. You feel that vibe, and you see it. It happens mainly in hotels, like the Four Seasons in Damascus, as the UN base is controlling it; that’s why I agreed to play there. I first played there two years ago, and the parties go on till 6 or even 8 in the morning. My next gig there is on 30th August.

RP: Are there local DJs?

JK: It’s a growing scene. The education there is growing; both men and women are DJing. You can find out about it through Facebook.

RP: Rise 1969, what’s your next gig?

Rise 1969: I’m going to record my album in Berlin. When I play, it’s more dancefloor-oriented, but when I make music, it leans more towards sound design. My influence comes from drum ‘n’ bass mostly, because the sound design is really forward. Also, dub, with deep dark sounds. I take everything that I like and make the album about me.

RP: How do you find that music reflects you?

Rise 1969: This is the beautiful thing about electronic music. It’s always been intercontinental. Techno started in Detroit, but they were influenced by Kraftwerk in Germany, and then the music blew out in Europe. Each artist gives it something special. It grows organically, free from the corporate business. Much of techno is becoming formulaic. We try to stick to the true culture; all about the party, the moment rather than the façade.

SAMA’: I love to dance to this music. In my last album, each track was from a different country with vibes from all over. I’m still trying to discover my own sound. How much that has to do with my origins and how Palestinian I am, or with the fact that I’m a woman, I can’t say. I’m not a person who likes to spread direct messages. I don’t use many vocals or lyrics in my music. For me, techno is the place where I find myself free. I realised that when I went to Beirut after the Second Intifada. The whole notion of being free, no curfews, no war, no one’s shooting; it was shocking for me. There was a drastic change between the Intifada and the nightlife of Beirut. Techno was the first place in which I had space to be on my own. The sounds aren’t real, so I’m not linked to a specific country or place. There’s no violins, instruments, love or revenge. I could just dance, and through that I could express my anger or happiness. All of these feelings can be felt in techno. I connected with the obscurity of techno and the idea that it builds spaces. It doesn’t restrict me. Rap and hip-hop are very expressive, but they’re very directional.

JK: I always have a story to tell with my music. It’s story-based. I start with the track title, and I create a story out of it, then I create the music. I understand from the track title what the artist producing the track was thinking and what zone they were in, and from there I can understand their music more. This is how I put the puzzle together. I look for sounds that are aggressive, sexy, a bit twisted and heavy.

RP: SAMA’, what was behind your decision to move to Paris?

SAMA’: They gave me a visa! I applied to Paris, and I was looking for a residency. Paris was the first place I played in, and all the parties I had were booked in Paris. Then Palestinian musician and composer Kamilya Jubran encouraged me to apply for a residency, and she’s based in Paris herself. She supported me to the maximum. When I played at Babel Med, I met my booking agent, which helped to get a three-year visa. From there on, I got booked for the Boiler Room gig. Nothing of it was planned. It all happened by coincidence.

RP: Rise 1969, you’re moving to Berlin?

Rise 1969: I’m going there for a month to work on my album. It’s going to be an arts residency but also a mentorship. I’m going to be recording with a producer called Sasse, who also runs a record label called Nude Music.

RP: What are the differences between electronic sounds in different cities?

JK: The dancefloor is a real dancefloor, and people love to dance. They love to dance back home too. You won’t find this in Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin.

SAMA’: The standard of a night in Beirut is different. You know a couple of clubs where you know that the quality of music will be really good. In Berlin, even in Berghain, you don’t know if the music is going to be good. The fact that DJs are rarer at home makes the music more unique.

In Beirut, there are standards where there’s no way you can play if you don’t know how to beat match or align the tracks, because the people who run the five famous clubs in Beirut are already DJs, and they have high standards. But in Berlin, everybody can play. In Palestine, we used to have this problem, but you can ask the people I work within the Union/Naqaba Collective how particular I am with them. DJ Ya Z An, who’s the youngest of all and is 18; I’ve been teaching him since he was 13. The moment he goes off beat, I stop him and make him restart. These are basic technical steps that a DJ should have.

I was only booked in Beirut a year and a half ago, although the venue owners are my friends. But you have to work on yourself there. The resident DJs in Beirut don’t make mistakes. Beirut has a different standard. We should all go party in Beirut.

RP: Do you remember the first gig you played?

JK: I was very prepared. I even took my decks with me. It was in Beirut in a club called Silicon (in Sin El Fil, it used to be called Chocolate). I got this gig, and I was afraid of the decks there, so I brought my own. I had all my friends there.

Rise 1969: I have a lot of first gigs, but I think my first official one was at Ministry of Sound in London. But my first gig with lots of people was up in the mountains in Lebanon, and I was playing breakbeat and using CDJ’s 100. It was terrible. It was a Halloween party in 2007 or 2006, and I remember everybody being super smashed, and there was a doctors and nurses theme. But we don’t do sexy nurses, we do bloody nurses and zombie nurses. There was a lot of blood everywhere, and it was surreal.

SAMA’: I don’t know which one was my first gig. Me and my dad still argue about it. He says I was 9! But my first techno one was in Paris in 2015 at Petit Bain. I was in panic mode, had prepared so much, and I was shivering. There were 1500 people, and I forgot how to DJ. My parents were there, and a lot of friends too. 47 Soul had played before me, and all of a sudden, Z-The People from 47 Soul decided that it was time to go dance dabke on the stage. He grabbed Wala’ Sbeit, they came on stage and started dancing. Then Jazar Crew and my parents came on stage, and that made me loosen up, and then the bouncers threw everyone off stage! It was brilliant; it was the first time I saw this huge crowd in front of me, and that’s when my parents understood the importance of what I was doing.

RP: How has your musical style changed since then?

SAMA’: I started noticing stuff and focusing more. I listen to the advice other people give me.

Rise 1969: I can tell you how it all changed, SAMA’. Your music was always more laid back, more melodic, more progressive. And slowly, when you started playing to more people, you started playing harder.

SAMA’: It depends, in Germany I go way harder than in Paris. In Dubai I go fluffy. It depends, but I think that I started concentrating more on melodies when someone told me that I’m able to mix melodies, so that’s me realising what I’m doing.

JK: My sound evolved loads, it’s maturing. It was more fun and playful, and now it’s evolved into maturity, as I can read people and can tell what to play and when, depending on the line-up.

Rise 1969: I used to play drum ’n’ bass a lot, then I moved to London, and my ex was an Ibiza girl, and I started listening to techno because of her. It was easy for me, and I felt more comfortable doing it. I wasn’t initially aware of all the different sub-genres and how to build a set. It’s important to take people on a journey and build a set that bridges between those who play before you and those who play after you. That’s what makes a techno event different to a concert. I’m better at being diverse.

Photo ©: Renaud Bouchez