Why you should care
Because you should say “Umm Kulthum” 10 times fast.
Who would win in a fight between a velociraptor and a grizzly bear? What would World War II have been like if everyone had had an iPhone? You know these kinds of impossible questions — they are fodder for daydreams and procrastination. Entire YouTube series have been created from them. But here’s one that you’ve probably never thought of but will be glad someone did: What would happen if British trip-hop group Portishead melded with legendary Arab singer Umm Kulthum?
That someone is Samer Saer Eldahr, aka Zimo. The native Syrian, now living in exile in Lebanon, launched the project Hello Psychaleppo to blend popular Arab music of the ’50s and ’60s with the stylistic backbone of drum and bass, dubstep and trip-hop. Three albums later, and we can’t get enough. While he’s unable to return to his hometown of Aleppo, Zimo has been globe-trotting from his temporary base in Beirut to Germany, giving young life to the classics with respect — in some ways, he amplifies them.
There’s a sense of yearning to return and the understanding that it’s an impossibility.
Zimo recalls siting around outside the Aleppo citadel as a kid and listening to the likes of Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez. While still very popular, traditional music from the Arab world hasn’t been fused with as much ferocity as other styles. Zimo might be setting the standard, at least when it comes to trip-hop.
His latest release is a nostalgic song called “Shahba” (another name for his hometown of Aleppo), which is accompanied by an equally disorienting animated video. The brooding bass meshes with samples of Aleppian singer Nehad Najjar as the main character, Zimo, watches TV and drinks tea. On the screen are images of his hometown, which he crowdsourced on Facebook from friends. The tea proves to be hallucinogenic or transformative, turning Zimo into a white dove that flies over his Syrian home. There’s a sense of yearning to return and the understanding that it’s an impossibility.
Zimo left Aleppo in 2012 to show his art in a Beirut studio — he has a degree in fine arts and did all the drawings for his second album, Gool L’ah — just as the uprising against President Bashar Assad was heating up. His parents, having only one child, urged him not to return to Syria after the show, saying things were too dangerous.
Currently, the 26-year-old is working on his third album, which he says will take about a year. Let’s hope, maybe, he’ll get to play this album in Aleppo, where it was born.