A Conversation with HAT and Hello Psychaleppo: Food, Music, and Community

From the moment you begin speaking to them, Hatim Belyamani and Samer Saem Eldahr both immediately warm you with their presence. Hatim Belyamani, known by his stage name HAT, is the founder of remix ←→ culture, a group that records audio and video of musical traditions around the world which are then made available to all for remixing. Hello Psychaleppo is a now-Minnesota-based Syrian electronic musician known for being a pioneer of Arabic EDM and the genre electro-tarab.

Robert Lehmann, The Cedar’s Marketing and Booking Coordinator, spoke with Hatim and Samer in advance their coming show on Thursday, March 21st, at The Cedar, presented as part of Alliance Française’s Mois de La Francophonie. Throughout the conversation, deep and connective ways of moving through the world surfaced as we talked about food, the importance of round tables and intergenerational conversation, changing definitions of home, thinking about art as a survival mechanism, and remixing culture.

HAT (Left) and Hello Psychaleppo (Right)

HAT (Left) and Hello Psychaleppo (Right)

Robert: Just easing into it, would both of you tell a favorite story from childhood?

Hatim: Well, I have a lot of favorite stories from childhood. I'll tell a couple, okay?

I was 13 years old when I first came to the US. I grew up in Casablanca, and I was already a little familiar with American culture because I went to an American school in Casablanca. My parents decided to take a gamble. It was a little house without enough teachers for all the grades. There was a third grade and a seventh grade and a 12th grade, just to give you context. I came to the US for a math program at thirteen, and so my first introduction to the US was in Lancaster Pennsylvania, in Amish country.

It was a four week intensive math camp. We had one weekend where we went on a field trip to the mall! It was my first time experiencing American capitalism in that form. We decided to see a movie. This is 1991, so we were excited to see Terminator 2; it had just come out.

We went into the movie theater and there were 20 of us. We're trying to find seats and as we're looking for seats, my friend said, "Hey we're in America! We should do it the American way. We should get popcorn!”

When you go to the movies in Morocco, you just watch the movie. There’s no eating, there’s no drinking. I said, "Okay I'll go, I'll get you some popcorn and stuff.” And so I go, and I’m a little kid, so I don’t know what I'm ordering. I'm like, “I'll have some popcorn and Cherry Coke; make that double,” and they're asking me the size and I'm like, "I don't know,” and she asks “Large?” and I'm like, “Okay!” And the large is this HUGE bucket! So, she gives me these two trays, full of huge buckets of stuff, and she’s like, “Are you sure you can carry this?” And I was too proud, and I was like, “Yes, I can.”

Everyone in the theater gave me a standing ovation. So I just walked up to the last row and I sat down. There was a guy who looked like Hulk Hogan who looked at me and he was like, “Can you do that again? I don’t need to see the movie.” That was my official introduction to America.

And so, I'm precariously carrying these trays into the theater. The theater's dark, because they’re playing a preview and everyone’s seated, I don't know where my friends are. I'm looking for them. I'm going down. And then finally, I think I see my friend! I start walking inside the aisle, and then, I hear her voice calling me a few rows back.

So I start to backtrack, and I hit the ledge that separates the aisles from the rows. I'm not kidding you, I actually threw everything up in the air and did some sort of half backflip in the air. And everything fell on me. Everyone in the theater gave me a standing ovation. So I just walked up to the last row and I sat down. There was a guy who looked like Hulk Hogan who looked at me and he was like, “Can you do that again? I don't need to see the movie.” That was my official introduction to America.

The second story is more relevant to my work. I was in a heavy metal band when I was in high school called Camel Spit. When I was in this band, I was looking to the US and the West in general for inspiration. One day, I was watching MTV, and I saw Robert Plant in Marrakech sitting on the floor with an old school gnawa m3allem and he's singing along with this traditional Gnawan tune, and it sounded amazing. It was the first moment where I realized, "Wow, I've been looking outwards, I should be looking, inwards. There's so much for us to do.” I had to wait for a foreigner that I respect to show me what my roots have to offer to me.

Last year, I had the chance to meet Robert Plant, and I told him the story.

Samer: Oh that’s so cool. My memory is very blurry when it comes to childhood. The only story that comes to mind is when I was two years old. The only record I have is my parents telling me the story, and some pictures.

Sabah Fakhri is a very old Aleppo singer, one of the pioneers of Tarab which is Arabic traditional music. When I was two, I think through his friend, we got invited to his house in Damascus and there was big gathering. People were eating. And then he put on a VHS of a concert of his. This guy used to sing for like 10 hours straight; he’s crazy. And as a kid, my dad told me I danced for two hours straight. I was raving on that thing.

After a while, Sabah, he told my dad “Your son is going to be a musician.” And my Dad asked, "How come? Are you kidding?” and Sabah said, “He's actually dancing to a rhythm and that's early for his age.” After that - I mean, I don't know how true that story is, but ...

Hatim: But here you are as a musician.

Samer: It's funny because he's one of the pioneers of Arabic traditional music who is still alive.

Robert: Could you both tell us a little bit more about your musical journey?

Samer: I started exploring when I was 12. I was into hip hop a lot until the age of 16-17. I recorded at home on lame software. It was super bad, (laughs) both quality and content.

Hello Psychaleppo performing “Celebration Blue” Live, courtesy of hellopsychaleppo’s YouTube channel.

But then I got to playing keyboard and I played with a couple of bands mostly covering rock songs, the classics. After that, I started writing my own Arabic indie music and singing as well. I learned to play the guitar and did some lead vocals in a couple bands, but my side project, was Hello Psychaleppo. I would just go back home and work on stuff instead of gaming.

That took off with my first official album that I released in 2012 while I was back in Syria. Now I'm performing as Hello Psychaleppo, and since then I’ve gotten more into electronics and synthesizers. I still play the guitar every now and then.

Hatim: My musical journey is long, but I'll keep it short. I started with classical piano. I'd been learning classical music for several years and one day I was with my parents at a hotel and there was a piano and my dad is self-taught, so he was just kind of playing some stuff. Then he said, "Now, I'm gonna let the maestro play." And I was like, "Uhhh..." And I sat down in front of the piano, and I didn't know what to play, because I didn't have a piece that was memorized.

I thought it was so stupid that, here had been learning this instrument for several years and I'm in front of it and I can't play it. So from that point on, I thought, "There's gotta be a better way to be with musical instruments. I should be able to play them.”

Fast forward to teenage years, I picked up the guitar, and I learned on my own. Someone gave me a Metallica tape, and I got into heavy metal. I started writing songs, mostly for the guitar, and also cheesy acoustic singer-songwriter stuff. On the piano, I was more interested in understanding harmony and eventually got into more jazz. In college, I started to discover a lot of different jazz and loved it. I started practicing guitar and piano more.

Then, I discovered electronic music and it felt like, "Wow, this is the thing for me." So, I did all kinds of electronic music projects. Some were super crazy; they're kind of hard to listen to now. Fast forward to 2012, and that's when I started remix ←→ culture before I even knew it was remix ←→ culture. The years preceding that, I was very much inspired by my younger brother, Amino, who is an amazing musician, piano player and multi-instrumentalist, and he had released an album of his compositions, Ssahha, where he was playing the piano, but the piano had quarter tones instead of half tones.

Every song was in a different maqam (musical scale or mode) a some of them were Arabic maqams. Some of them were Berber maqams, but they're all Moroccan maqams. He got super nerdy about it, because he knew he had to perform the whole album in one sitting, so he had to figure out how to tune the whole piano so that he could play the different maqams without retuning.

It has some math involved but it's beautiful. It's an arrangement for jazz orchestra with some Arabic instruments with oud, ney, daff, bendir, qraqeb, and guembri. It's a beautiful synthesis of all of the Moroccan heritage from various parts of the world. That was an eye-opening experience and I got more into the different subgenres of traditional Moroccan music. That led me to then, in 2012, explore on my own and I started going to villages, and meeting musicians and learning stuff that I didn't know about. Eventually, it evolved into remix ←→ culture and what I'm doing now with celebrating the music through videos and audio, and then also remixing it.

Mourad Belouadi performing “Mawama,” courtesy of remix-culture’s vimeo.

HAT performing “Thru the Center of the Earth” live, courtesy of remix-culture’s YouTube channel.

Robert: What outside of music do you like to do?

Hatim: There are a lot of things I do that aren't music related... I'm hesitating to answer because I’ve found that as I've been working on this project for the past seven years or so, all the elements of my life seem to converge into one indistinguishable whole. Outside of music meaning outside of me? Outside of life? I'm trying not to think in terms of fragmented pieces.

I’ve found that as I’ve been working on this project for the past seven years or so, all the elements of my life seem to converge into one indistinguishable whole. Outside of music meaning outside of me? Outside of life?

The reason for that shift is because I used to be working for someone else and had a day job, and I was doing that thing for a while, and when you’re in that mode you have that separation, “This is my work. This is my life.” Maybe there's an overlap, but they’re not whole.

I feel that every single day I'm exploring different manifestations of my desire and hopes to be a more connected human. Music is one of them and traveling is another and I’ve found a way to combine them.

A game of Go

I also like to play the game Go. It's like chess but more sophisticated.You can teach anyone the mechanics of the game in two minutes, but it takes a lifetime to master and I haven’t mastered it.

I spent a lot of time playing it, getting deeper into it. It's one of the tools that I've used to be more mindful and more patient, and more connected to things in life. It's a very spiritual game. It's considered to be the only non-physical martial art. It's also the oldest continuously played board game; the number of possible permutations is greater than the number of atoms in the universe.

When you play, you realize if you try to go after the territory, you're going to lose. But if you focus on building strength and being patient, not being greedy, then you will be rewarded. It's this weird sort of counter-intuitive but also intuitive way of being that's a healthy way of being. And it's the antithesis of what the capitalist world is teaching us to be.

Samer’s album artwork for Toyour

Samer: For me, I’m originally a fine arts graduate. Visual art was supposed to be my career, but my hobby was to make music, and now, music happens to be my career and art is my hobby. I do a lot of painting, drawing, and dealing with multimedia graphic stuff.

Whenever I'm in a bad place or just want to zone out, I cook. Especially after leaving home, seven years ago. I used to live with my parents, that’s how we do it back home, so I was used to good food all the time. After that, you're on your own. So, you want to recreate a sense of home. There's a smell; there's flavor. It takes you places. I feel cooking is really a getaway for me.

I might open a restaurant one day. The city where I’m from, Aleppo, Syria, our pride is to cook food. We spend hours. It’s very complex. It would take five hours just to make one meal. I used to appreciate my mom doing that, and I have the same kind of patience.

My whole day is cooking, making music, visual art, and changing diapers, of course. I'm a master in changing diapers, right now!

Robert: Ah right, because of your child!

Samer, you talked about recreating a sense of home. What does home mean to both of you? What from home would you share with someone else?

Samer:  That's one of the hardest questions. What home means really changes conceptually throughout time, and I don't think there's one answer to it.

What home means really changes conceptually throughout time, and I don’t think there’s one answer to it. Right now, home is the people
— Hello Psychaleppo

Right now, home is the people. It's more than the land. The land is very important, but I think you value people more when things hit the fan. You appreciate those people being safe. Because the land, you can get back to it, you can work on that, but once you lose people, they’re irreplaceable.

So, what I would share from home? I think specifically what I enjoy the most about Syria is its music and food. The best times for me were just going to the center of the city. We have a citadel, like one of the most ancient citadels still out there, and you have coffee shops around it. They used to put on Umm Kulthum’s music, or really old traditional music. And you have your Hubba Bubba and play cards with your friends. I'd love to have my friends here to go back and share that experience with them because it's beautiful. There's something very ancient and huge around you and there’s very good music and it's twelve, midnight. Very romantic.

The Aleppo Citadel at Night

The Aleppo Citadel at Night

Hatim: I also struggle with the definition of home and agree. It’s a shifting definition, right? It's just like identity. There’s the identity that you were given with a piece of paper when you were born, which is your name and passport. You’re a blank slate when you’re born, but you're already put in a box. But it’s a framework in which you develop actual connections. You become more Moroccan, because you’re hanging out with Moroccans in Morocco!

But what does it mean to be Moroccan? I've seen that shift in my lifetime, for myself and for people around me in and outside of Morocco. As cliche as it may sound, I can’t think of a better definition than home is where the heart is. Because that... that can shift. And you could have multiple homes.

I feel like I have a home in Casablanca, where my parents still live and, by extension, other parts of Morocco. I’ve made a new home for myself here in New York, and by extension, other parts of the US. What I would share from home... I’ll focus on Morocco.

It's something similar to what Samer was talking about, in terms of how important food is in a culture. When I recall my childhood memories, most of them involve a circular table with at least three generations of family sitting sharing a meal, usually fed by our grandmother.

Our grandmother isn’t there  until the very end of the meal, because she’s been hosting and cooking all day long. We know that it's part of the dynamic where we have to express a frustration that she's not there to share the meal with us, but we also know that this is what makes her happiest and that eventually she'll come sit with us. We have to have this ritualistic dance.

When I recall my childhood memories, most of them involve a circular table with at least three generations of family sitting sharing a meal

Those meals take a long time, not only to prepare. From the moment my grandma would wake up, until five hours later when we start the meal, and even just entering the space, you don't just show up and eat. You show up slowly and you talk, and it's an hour before we get settled and then we get settled and we're at the round table, and we're still waiting another 10 minutes, but we're already seated at a table and then the meal lasts another two hours.

In that process (and the round table is key) you have three generations or more of family members who learn about each other. You’re learning about various layers of connections, because it's not just about what my grandfather does for a living, or what my aunt and uncle think about my cousin who's applying for colleges. It's also about what society we live in, what the politics of the society are. It's every layer, and I think it's the most formative experience. And if we have that on a regular basis, then we have a much more acutely aware citizenry.

Now, is that enough to create the conditions for truly just and equitable societies in our countries? I don't know. But I do feel those meals were a very important part of building character, and having much more insightful conversations about the societies in which we live. The fact that it's this connection between the personal and the collective is powerful.

Robert: Have you found communities like that stateside?

Hatim: The people that I'm drawn to more and more in the US are people who share that desire. There's a growing movement here in the US to be more in community.

It's not the same, because it doesn't have that ritual around cooking, that happens very regularly, that’s inter-generational and all that. It's more like a remixed version of that. We're all, as postmodern citizens of this crazy world trying to reconstitute a family. Me and my partner are starting family potluck dinners.

Robert: That resonates a lot with me personally, and also with what I've been feeling as a larger societal trend recently. I've been pretty isolated for a while here, just as I've recovered from some hand injuries that I had, but I feel like now is the time to grow in community again.

One more question and then we’ll leave space for you both to ask each other questions. What kind of world do you hope for, and how does what you do push you and those around you closer to it?

Hatim: That's the ultimate question; you found the jackpot.

(Everyone laughs). So do you want to go first, Samer?

Samer: Sure. I'm not a very optimistic person. The world is becoming more destructive. I don't see hope, as much, that's why I don't know what kind of world I would want. There’s a lot of weird energy. If you look at all of the leaders around the world right now, you have to ask, "What's going on?"

I don't feel there's sanity, anymore; you have to find it, it's not out there. You have to find it in the people that you love; you have to find the positivity and sense in your life.

A self portrait of Samer.

I'm not the happiest person. When we go more in depth, maybe take Syria, for example. I think the positive part is doing the right thing, because it's very easy to be involved in conflicts. When I see people that are creating and being positive, spending time listening to a song instead of, whatever the other options are, that is a good enough influence. You might go to an exhibition and think, "I'm gonna go back home, and doodle,” and that's a good thing.

Hatim: Before I answer that question, can I ask you more explicitly, are you even able to envision a future for Syria that is not the present?

Samer: If I want to be positive, I’d say yes, but maybe in the next 10 years. I'm just throwing that number out there, because people are still too busy; there's still blood out there. Once that is done, there's space to talk and really find reconciliation, but personally, I really don't know.

When I was back home, you always kind of predict what's gonna happen next, and you always predict the good things because the worst shouldn't come. And when you predict the good stuff, and that doesn't happen, then you're disappointed. Then, you try to do that again, and you're just disappointed again. Eventually you decide, “I'm just not gonna predict anymore. I'm just gonna be an outsider. I have no idea what's happening next."

I'm not in the loop anymore because I got disappointed. Not only me, but me and my friends. We used to sit every day, and talk, "Oh this is gonna happen, and that's gonna happen," and then, none of that happens. After so many cycles, you just shift to a different place mentally, and just think, "I don't wanna think about that anymore."

Hatim: It's like a survival mechanism at that point.

Samer: Exactly. Memories become something different. Then you would forget them. That's a mechanism; if I don't want to remember that, I don’t.

Hatim: But you don't think that people are tired?

Samer: Oh, everyone is so tired. Syrians inside Syria, and outside - all of them are tired. I have family back home and all of my friends, they're struggling just to make a living in a new place with new language and culture; it's very challenging.

But on the other side, lots of people are doing great and I feel proud seeing them. You did that, you made it; you're working hard, you're accomplishing lots of stuff. What makes me feel positive is seeing people doing good things like getting degrees.

Hatim: (pause) It's hard for me to answer this question about the world that I envision for several reasons. The first one is that, in our culture, we say alhamdulillah, which means thanks to God and that's a phrase that comes to mind more and more these days. I see more and more, we have privileged people around the world, including myself who complain.

And you know, everyone has their right to complain about things. We live in a society that really creates sickness. Everyone's depressed; everyone is working jobs that they don't want, but also there's a part of me that always feels like, “Well, okay, but alhamdulillah.” At least we're not having to run for cover, when our whole city is being bombed. Then I think about the difference in the purpose and approach of an artist who is in a more sheltered or privileged situation versus one who is doing their art as a survival mechanism.

I recently watched Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy on Netflix in my privileged home (laughs). He decided to go to war-torn places of the world and discover what people were doing about humor. He goes to Iraq and he meets this guy who got into comedy as a survival mechanism, because he was being tortured with his friends. He found that by making jokes to these oppressors, who were about to torture him, that he got off the hook a little bit. Eventually he started the equivalent of The Daily Show in Iraq. After that, they go to Liberia and it's really intense.

So, the world that I envision is one where that is the winning energy and that everyone, whether you are an artist or activist or whatever, that we feel that connection. If we’re fighting for something small in a local place, in a privileged place but it’s still meaningful to that local community, let’s also think about how it’s connected; think global, act local

These people have been through just horrible atrocities. The art becomes a way for them to survive as individuals and also as a way to spread that survival energy throughout their communities and lift everyone up.

So, the world that I envision is one where that is the winning energy and that everyone, whether you are an artist or activist or whatever, that we feel that connection. If we're fighting for something small in a local place, in a privileged place but it's still meaningful to that local community, let's also think about how it's connected; think global, act local. We have an opportunity today since we are much more connected in terms of the web and transportation than any time in the past, but at the same time the fact that we're so connected is threatening to our survival, you know. The latest UN reports about climate change are very concerning.

They're talking about refugee problems on a scale that we've never seen before, way higher than the Syrian refugee crisis, and so we are all part of this problem. We need to adopt the same outlook as that Iraqi guy as he was being taken into a torture chamber, that we are all facing extinction or a mass genocide to our species and the species around us, and it's our responsibility to use whatever tool we have. Whether it’s humor, whether it's music, whether it's fund-raising: every single one of us has to be activated.

I don't know how to do this exactly, but this is something that me and my partner think about a lot; my partner does sound meditations to help people get out of their worse selves and reach for their higher selves.

She's very much inspired by the Bodhisattva in Buddhism, where the idea is that enlightenment is not just about you, and the enlightenment is a tool that then becomes a responsibility that you then have to go and make other people enlightened so that other people can free everyone and all beings from suffering.

I've been doing more of that work with her and it's been informing my work with remix ←→ culture as well, but it's always a struggle to ask if I’m just doing it in a cocoon and just being privileged and remaining there or if I’m actually taking it a step further.

We’re starting with music and creating healthy human relationships around the music, healthy in every way. Healthy in the sense that we’re bringing different people together so that they get to learn from each others’ stories, and not just be afraid because they don’t know someone else’s culture. Breaking down those barriers is key.

I think about it all the time. With remix ←→ culture I think there's an opportunity to make a contribution. I don't have any illusions about remix ←→ culture saving the world in any way, but I do have a grand vision for it to be that kind of, like I was talking about the Iraqi comedian, thing that spreads energy in different communities and empowers people to think more about collaborating and not destroying each other.

I recently wrote a longer internal paper for my board of directors, about the long-term vision. It's a way for us to think about what we're doing now and then how what we want to do in 20 or 30 years is connected to what we're doing, so that we are building and trying to create that world. We’re starting with music and creating healthy human relationships around the music, healthy in every way. Having fair trade economic models. Healthy in the sense that we're bringing different people together so that they get to learn from each others’ stories, and not just be afraid because they don't know someone else’s culture. Breaking down those barriers is key.

I also have ideas about bringing that more to life in the real world, and having different kinds of events where different parts of the community come together around that idea. The first inspiration for remix ←→ culture was to go to Israel, and Palestine. I've always felt I had a responsibility as an artist to do something about the bloodshed and violence in this world, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a central point in North African and Middle-Eastern politics.

The idea was to do this kind of work that I'm doing now with remix ←→ culture with Israeli and Palestinian musicians, and to help foster more of a dialogue. I still want to bring remix ←→ culture to more challenging places. Right now, I've been doing it in safer places.

So we'll see.

Robert: Sure, sure. What questions do you have for each other?

Samer: I have one question for now. It's food related. If I was to go to Morocco, right now, what would be the spot to go to and have some really good food.

Hatim: Really good food?

Samer: Yeah, food. Could be a restaurant...

Robert: Grandma's table?

Hatim: Yes, my home! Of course, my mom makes the best food. Everyone says that about their mom, but seriously, you will freak out.


Samer: So my other question is, what's your favorite meal to cook?

Hatim: You know, my partner has been doing most of the cooking, so I haven’t been cooking as much recently. I would like to get back to learning my mom's recipes and really doing them justice. One dish that I have been proud of myself for pulling off is the tajine beldi.  means popular or traditional. It's a staple of Moroccan cuisine, and it's chicken, but the chicken is beldi chicken which means it's wild chicken, which means darker meat, closer to jerky. It's not like the white industrial chicken that you would find here. It’s cooked with lots of herbs and spices and olives and preserved lemons.

Basically, there are no vegetables, but of course, a Moroccan meal has a lot of other dishes around the round table and different kinds of salads. You always have these small dishes around, and the main dish gets put in the center. Then, they take away the first main dish and they put out the second main dish. And they take away the second main dish, and they put out the third main dish. But you have the salads throughout, so even if a main dish is just meat, you'll have a balanced meal.

Anyways, I was really proud when I pulled off the chicken tajine. The trick again, was to give myself the time because the first few times that I did it, I would invite friends over and I'd be like, "Ahh, I'm running late," and then I'd crank up the heat and be like "Cook, cook, cook, cook, cook!" and of course, that just doesn't work.

The first time it worked out, I was like, "Hmm. This is a dinner party. I'm going to start at noon." I was taking my time and getting more relaxed, and there's more love into it and then you taste it and there's a huge difference.

So what about you? What's your favorite meal to cook?

Samer: Oh yeah, there's a bunch, but something we call Kebab Bil Siniye it's super easy. It's vegetables with ground lamb meatballs that are very well-spiced; it has garlic and parsley and lots of stuff.

You just eat it with pita bread. It has tomatoes, onions, and green peppers with some red pepper paste that you mix in as well. Really good stuff.

Hmm… a good spot to go? There are a lot, but I love how Armenian Aleppians make their foods. They're amazing and there used to be a place called Abu Hagop, which is a tiny cave underground. They have tiny tables and you eat the best food there. It's a whole different experience, and quality. Everything's spicy and just very tasty.

Hatim: Oh, I'd love to go Inshallah.

Samer: Inshallah, one day, I'll have you over. You and Robert, we'll do the interview there.

(Everyone laughs)

Robert: That would be great!

Hatim: I wanna ask you maybe, so you spent some time in Beirut… Can you, not to go back to the same question, but I want to get a sense, since Lebanon has been through lots of violence in its past. Do you feel that Beirut is a model for the future for Syria or not?

Samer: No, I don't think so. I think Lebanon has the most complex political system of the world with so many different political parties. Lebanon is this super small country compared to Syria. And the people over there, everyone is great, and there's the tolerance to what's going on right now. It's a very open country; everyone's very progressive and open to the world. It's one of the most open minded countries in the area. But I appreciate being in Minnesota to be honest after Lebanon, because I feel like...

Hatim: You feel more at home in Minneapolis than you did in Beirut?

Samer: Yeah, especially in Beirut. I mean, I'm legal here. I was legal there but the year I left, they released new laws that you have to either have a work permit or you have to be student. And I was a musician freelancer. I wasn't planning to come to Minnesota but it shifted because it had to.

Hatim: So why does Minnesota feel more like home?

Samer: When I was in Lebanon, I was always moving to a new place. When I got to Minnesota I felt like, “I'm legal here. I can settle down; I put my stuff in a corner and it will stay in that corner.”

In that moment, since leaving Syria in 2012 all the way until 2016, I felt like now, I'm settling down, again. That's why Minnesota gave me that sense of home. Because now I have a base in a sense, and that's great.

Hatim: Yeah, I have one more question. You said in a past interview, "We're not on the land. But we carry the culture." What ways do you carry culture with you? Aside from cooking.

Samer: The way I carry culture, is mostly through music. It’s giving the music that work to get the right understanding, and then to execute it in a healthy way.

The way I carry culture, is mostly through music. It’s giving the music that work to get the right understanding, and then to execute it in a healthy way.
— Hello Psychaleppo

That's one of the the most meaningful ways for me to preserve the culture and where I'm from. Both of us grew up with lots of music from back home. It's our sonic memory, and you reproduce that in your mind and in actual sounds.

That's a great way to carry a culture within. At least, I feel the most connected to my culture through music because when it comes to fine art, my reference is just visually in the composition and how things should look.

What about you?

Hatim: Obviously for me, music is my go to. Yeah, I'm not nearly as well-versed in the fine art history of Morocco.

Mosaics in a Moroccan Court

I mean, obviously, the fine arts are really everywhere when you walk down the street. Especially in the Medina, all the tiles, the mosaics in the architecture. There's such craftsmanship and such attention to detail that you can't ignore it. But I have a stronger connection, obviously to the sounds of the country.

I grew up listening to all kinds of sounds. In my family, we listened to Beethoven, we listened to Oum Kulthoum and my dad plays the Oud and the qanoun, and he was always the entertainer at parties. When we would go to family friends and family members for small dinner parties, he would always bring his Oud, and after dinner, he would start playing Abdel Wahab. Abdel Halim Hafiz all the Egyptian classics.

I grew up listening to more Egyptian music than Moroccan music. We also listened to Moroccan music, but it was a small and narrow part of the spectrum. Cha3bi (which means popular) the stuff that you would hear at weddings and in other popular settings, which has very deep Berber roots, a kind of fusion, Berber, popular music. I have this emotional connection when I hear this sound. It takes me back to childhood.

Through my work, I've been discovering all the different variants that I didn't know, but it still leads to the same connection that triggers that emotional response in those memories. I carry the culture by exploring more and more of what Morocco has to offer and sharing it. It's my way of saying, "Well, even us Moroccans don't know how deep and rich our heritage is." I feel a sense of responsibility to keep unmasking it and sharing with the rest of the world. I just got a grant to work on the project with an all women's Sufi ensemble In Chefchaouen in the Northern part of Morocco later this year. It's an amazing whole other style.

So that's one way that I present Moroccan culture, in this remixed context.

And I think that that also is Moroccan, I think. In a sense, it's universal and is very much an oral tradition. And that's why when people talk about World Music, I think it's important to use language that does it justice. Sometimes people talk about ancient and tribal, because they don't want to say primitive. That was the old school "orientalist" way of creating that hierarchy saying "Well, we have high art in Europe and then we have this very interesting primitive music, played by the savages."

Today, we don't say that, but we say ancient, tribal, world, or whatever, but there's still this hierarchy. This is interesting, but it's like it's from the past. It's interesting because it's a museum object. But it's not.

Traditional music is as evolving as any other element of culture and that by definition oral tradition is not a static thing....Every person who spends the amount of time that is required to learn that song, which is a whole lifetime, brings their experiences into it, and remixes it, and there’s a constant evolution, [and] sometimes the instruments change over time.

Traditional music is as evolving as any other element of culture and that by definition oral tradition is not a static thing; it's static when it becomes written. Like Beethoven's Fifth symphony is static. It has a little bit of room for interpretation with the dynamics and everything but it's written, right? A traditional Gnawa song, will never be written; it's passed on orally. And so every person who spends the amount of time that is required to learn that song, which is a whole lifetime, brings their experiences into it, and remixes it, and there's a constant evolution, but sometimes the instruments change over time.

They just change in a different way; they change in a more rooted way, maybe slower and more nuanced, but the element of remix is part of the oral tradition. I feel that what I'm doing by doing this collage is I'm doing my version of something that people have been doing in Morocco and in other parts of the world for a long time.

And the final thing I'll say about the whole remixing thing is that Morocco is one of the most diverse countries in terms of its history. It's becoming more and more a destination for West African immigrants who prefer to stay in Morocco, than risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean into Europe, so we're having a new immigration wave. Throughout its history Morocco has been inhabited by all kinds of people. From the very first homo sapiens to the Phoenicians to the Romans, the Romans were there, and the Berbers were there, they were the first indigenous people, the Amazigh. Then the arabs came with the conquest of Islam and they brought slaves from all parts of sub-Saharan Africa, then the Portuguese, and the French and the Spanish.

In modern Morocco in the last 30 years we underwent this process where we're trying to figure out who we are. But more and more, there's this acceptance that we are mutts, that we're a mosaic of things. Even on the radio, on TV, people are mixing languages, in the same sentence, and that's officially sanctioned - it's crazy.

Also, I feel like I'm tapping into that spirit of being like, “Screw it. We speak English, Arabic, Tamazight, French and Spanish. Let's mix it all up.”

Mixing it up is exactly what HAT and Hello Psychaleppo will be doing at their upcoming show on Thursday, March 21st. Come witness their live performances and dance along in community to grooves from Morocco, Syria, and the world over. You can find tickets, here.