Politics is intrinsic to the Golan Heights landscape. The region, disputed by Syria and Israel since the mid-1960s, lingers in an unresolved state, which influences its people’s everyday life, culture, and music. That is why, even if you do not want to be meddled and muddled with politics, you inevitably end up being part of the wider frame.
That is what has happened to the most upbeat band coming from the Golan Heights: TootArd. The four musicians, who debuted six years ago, always looked at their homeland through more pristine and unadulterated lenses and they have constantly found themselves keen to put into music what their eyes were seeing around them and what they were experiencing first-hand, rather than what was happening in “smoke-filled rooms”.
We reached, by phone, Hasan Nakhleh – guitarist and vocalist of the band, as well as its founder member – with his brother Rami, to puzzle out the open-ended nature of his project and land, starting from their very own definition of TootArd’s style: ‘mountain rock’.
“We could hardly tell where we fit as a genre so we thought, ‘why we don’t express what we feel about it?’ I mean, emotionally! That is when we developed the concept of roots rock-Jabali or ‘mountain rock’. We all lived and grew up in the same village called Majdal Shams, which lies down in a mountain called Mount Hermon, the highest in the Middle East. We were inspired by the location and we thought, ‘why don’t we call our music in that way?’ During that period, we were also listening to a lot of desert rock, so we thought, ‘since there is ‘desert rock’, why don’t we call our style ‘mountain rock’?”
The strict bond between TootArd and their region is not just embodied by the music that they play, but also in the subjects of their lyrics and what the musicians stand for.
“Our lyrics speak about nature: since our first album, we have been widely inspired and influenced by the countryside, next to the political situation of the area. We live on the borders and there is a lot of activity going on all the time. That is why our lyrics reflect these two natures. There are many songs about freedom but in a wider picture. Just because we grew up there, those topics have always been part of our lives.
We never wanted to be a political band. We have always just wanted to play our music, have fun, and let people dance to it, but, somehow, just by mentioning where we come from it becomes a statement and whatever we say becomes politicised. The Golan Heights has a very special political situation: essentially, they are undefined and not many people know about it and what is going on here and that’s partly because it is not such a famous case. For this reason, people are curious about who we are, what we think we are and where we come from, and that immediately becomes such an important and defining moment, even if we’re there for the music in the first place”.
Despite Laissez Passer being easily considered the first bite of notoriety for TootArd, the story of the band goes back a decade and even further.
“The musical journey of me and the drummer Rami, who’s my brother, started when we were kids. We were playing together with some friends at that time, mainly covers, just to have a band and play together. Then we started to write a few original songs, which are also on TootArd’s first album, but we wrote them just to have fun because we were playing for fun. After a while, we started to go out and perform the songs in bars and venues here and there and we noticed that people liked our music, so we decided that it was time to establish ourselves in the local Golan music scene. Then we moved to the Israeli-Palestinian region, but mainly for the Arab audiences. We did this for a few years and eventually, released the first album (titled Nuri Andaburi and published in 2011). We went on for a while re-arranging our repertoire and having fun with it, without writing any new songs but trying to discover something new in what we’d already got. That took a while; also, because in 2015 and 2016, we took a break from TootArd. Then, with Laissez Passer, things changed quite a bit”.
TootArd’s second album represents a break-through in the band’s career. Not only has the quartet started touring the world and signed for a well-established and committed label like Glitterbeat, but also the sound of the band has distinctively matured.
“We’re really happy about Laissez Passer. We are even happier that such a good label like Glitterbeat has released it internationally. We were already fans of the label and it was a pleasure to work with them, also because we have a bit of Baba Zula, Aziza Brahim and Tamikrest in our music and they’re all signed for Glitterbeat, so to release an album with them is to feel like a part of the family. We have quite a good feeling about the album and we have had good feedback and nice reviews, but, at the same time, we are already looking forward to our third album. Once you work so hard on one album, you almost have enough of it and cannot listen to it anymore. That is when you say, ‘now is the time to move on. It’s time to create the third one’, and that is what we are doing. We are also kind of feeling that it will be even better than Laissez Passer, but you never know what will happen. I think it will be ready later this year or in early 2019.
Our sound has changed quite a lot in these years. There was a time, around four or five years ago, when we thought that we were a Ska band because we were playing all these upbeat tunes. While other times, we were more reggae-oriented. I think we went through many styles, always looking for our own sound. Now, with Laissez Passer, we are finally starting to define and establish our own one. Of course, it has many different influences, from Sahrawi music and desert rock to Middle Eastern sounds and reggae. Maybe we are not there yet, but it’s a work in progress and continuously developing”.
As is in continuous development Hasan’s music tastes…
“My parents are musicians – my father plays the oud and my other brother plays the kanun. My first approach to music was through Arabic classical music. Then Rami and I started to find out about other styles when we were teenagers. We were listening to different styles thanks to the Internet and doing our research every day. That is when we first got into reggae and Bob Marley and we both simply loved it. It was very special for us and we played reggae for many years, mainly covers. In this way, we learnt how reggae musicians were making their bass lines, arranging their songs, and how to groove.
Today, we listen to a lot of world music, mainly from Africa, but also to musicians from India and Latin America. It is very hard for me to pinpoint single artists. I’d say that, for this album, we mostly listened to Tuareg music, but next to it we had many other influences”.
At the same time, they also listen to what is played and produced in their region and in nearby Palestine…
“In Golan, despite the region being very small, the music scene is developing right now. For example, I can suggest to you another band called Hawa Dafi. Even if we have an established music tradition, there has never been too many projects. We are also connected to Palestine, where you can find a proper music scene. Even if the Palestinian scene is small and everybody knows each other, because we are about 20 bands in total, something is moving there.
In Palestine, if you want to play and record your own music, you need to be independent. There is not much support, and no business and production structure, for sure not anything like the Israeli scene. Since we aren’t related to that scene, we only have a few studios in which to record our music and no labels or distributors so we have to do pretty much everything by ourselves. We have to release, promote and sell our music, the same for our gigs because we have to find them and sell the tickets.
I like the Palestinian scene because it’s fresh and there’s also a good vibe. The audience is growing and you can see that they enjoy our music. Recently, an important event started in Ramallah, which is the Palestine Music Expo. It was organised for the first time last spring and there were many people coming from Europe or related to the European music industry who were interested in what is going on in Palestine. That was something really helpful for us because, thanks to the Expo, we met our European booking agent and we signed a record deal with Glitterbeat. It was really important for us, but I think it was really good for the entire scene because of the lack of structure. Luckily, it will happen again next spring and I think it will bring even more exposure to the Palestinian music scene”.
TootArd is already bringing some exposure to that scene, having already travelled, and the band is ready to travel again in Europe with their sound…
“Last September, we played at the End of the Road Festival in front of a thousand people. We had a really good reaction from the audience, even if most of them had never heard our name before and didn’t speak Arabic. I think our music has so much more power than just the lyrics when we go abroad. Our lyrics are indeed 100% in Arabic, and that’s why we feel the need to explain them on stage before or after we perform. Even if I don’t like to talk too much between songs, I can see that it’s important to do it to connect with the audience. In this way, they can better understand what our music is about.
In a few weeks, we are starting our new tour in Paris, England [Rich Mix in London and Cobalt Studios in Newcastle], Scotland [at Celtic Connection in Glasgow], and then we are going to Belgium [Brussels], then France again [Sochaux], the Netherlands [Amsterdam], and Germany [Berlin], so we have quite a few cities where we are going to play and promote our new album”.
For those who still haven’t had the pleasure of listening to one of the most surprising acts of 2017, to close our chat Hasan had a few words to explain what TootArd’s music is about…
“I’m enjoying reading the reviews of Laissez Passer and seeing how different people describe it. I did not know myself how to define our sound, but now I have a better idea about it because of how people react to and describe it. Our point of view is more related to the emotional one: we are the ones who created the music. I’d say that it’s ‘quarter tone’ music. That already makes things a bit different and gives our sound a strong and spicy flavour, maybe there’ll be more of this on the next album”.
We cannot insist enough on having plenty of the strong and spicy Middle Eastern flavour of TootArd. Plus, they are en route to Europe, so try not to miss them.