Dabkeh & Hip Hop: A unique mix of sounds by Austrian group Restless Leg Syndrome
Hip-hop musicians often find their samples in unexpected places. For his 1997 single “C U When U Get There,” for instance, the U.S. musician Coolio sampled Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.” Rapper Xzibit based his “Symphony in X Major” on Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No.3.” It is not entirely surprising then, that traditional Arab music also lends itself to the form.
The Austrian group Restless Leg Syndrome last week released its second album, entitled “Dabkeh,” a hip-hop take on Lebanon’s favorite folk dance form.
The group’s aim is to select a different genre of music for each project and hip-hop-ify it, sampling original tracks as it goes. Its debut album, “Swapping Swingers,” was based on 1920s swing music. Now it’s dabke’s turn.
Restless Leg Syndrome is a three-man team of DJs and producers, known as Chrisfader, D.B.H. and Testa. D.B.H, whose wife is Lebanese, was inspired to create a dabke-based album after hearing Algerian DJ, songwriter and producer Imhotep’s 1998 solo debut “Blue Print,” which samples North African music.
“D.B.H. has been collecting Arabic records, tapes and CDs since the mid-’90s,” Testa (aka Lukas Ljubanovic) explained in an email interview from Vienna. “After hearing Imhotep’s album ... he knew he wanted to do something in the same direction. It took some time but we finally started working on it as a group last year.”
The group sampled music from old songs from the 1960s and ’70s, Testa explained, pairing them with percussion from a music production library used by producers of contemporary Arab pop.
“Most of the samples we used are from traditional and orchestral recordings,” he said, “but also some instrumental belly dance music. We got vinyl and tapes from flea markets, friends and family in Lebanon and Austria.”
Hip-hop beats can incorporate any musical genre, Testa observed, so sampling dabke wasn’t so challenging.
“We especially like the contrast between the slow and the fast tempo and the intensity of it,” he explained. “For us it seemed to be the perfect source for our danceable beats. ... We spent a lot of time listening [to] and selecting the samples and getting used to the different rhythmic patterns. It took about a year to finish the record from beginning to end.”
The resulting album, which consists of nine tracks, is upbeat and playful, provoking the listener to move – whether an awkward deskbound head bob, a spontaneous shuffle ’round the living room or a lively dabke-style line dance.
Restless Leg Syndrome paired up with local hip-hop and graffiti duo Ashekman, who provided feedback on the material, as well as creating a range of T-shirts and other merchandise marked with the word dabke in Arabic calligraphy.
Testa says that the group is keen to perform in Lebanon and hopes to visit sometime next month.
A skillful blend of Arab and Western percussion, rhythms and vocals, “Dabkeh” will appeal to aficionadosof both genres.
Repetitive, driving beats and bass lines are offset by dramatic interludes and intros. In “Sharitt Casette,” for example, the gradually building strings in the dramatic intro call to mind the climactic moment of a Bond film – as the villain attempts his getaway, only to haplessly plummet off a cliff. In Restless Leg Syndrome’s version, the villain lands in a sports car and drives away one handed, casually nodding his head to the beat.
While the up-tempo numbers are likely to get people moving – whether break-dancing or waving handkerchiefs and kicking up their heels – the quieter numbers are more dreamy and introspective. “Hammasichanimmada” is reminiscent of Nitin Sawney’s British-Indian electronic fusion or the laid-back electronica of Brazilian producer Amon Tobin.
Lyrical tracks, such as “Habibi” – it wouldn’t be dabke without at least one habibi – are contrasted with edgier, sarcastic numbers like the percussion-driven “Britney Spears.”
Possibly derived from encounters with members of the public, the lyrics consist of the words: “Can you play some hip-hop? You know, like Britney Spears. Play something famous, ’cos I can’t dance to this. ... You need to change your playlist.” Set over a derbake accompaniment, the result is surprisingly effective.
To listen to or download “Dabkeh” visit restlesslegsyndrome.bandcamp.com or visit Ashekman’s store in Beirut where the CD and vinyl are on sale.