Can These Female Techno Stars Change the Middle East? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Get ready for the techno sounds of liberation from the Arab world.

  • From Tunisia to Saudi Arabia, Arab female techno artists are leaving a mark and gaining acceptance.
  • They’re also preparing the next generation of female artists.

On a rainy night in Tunis last September, at a hip beachfront venue, the British live-music-streaming-platform Boiler Room debuted in Tunisia. The only Arab woman in the lineup was Deena Abdelwahed, a fast-rising star on the global techno scene. Her 50-minute performance was a dizzying aural journey of rhythms and melodies, punched with a deep techno vibe. By the end, the crowd was chanting her name.

Held back for decades by the region’s conservative landscape, Arab female techno artists are finally breaking through to grab a share of the global spotlight, thanks to progressive platforms and festivals that are giving them a public voice. It’s a shift slowly sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa.

Deena Abdelwahed’s Boiler Room performance in Tunis.

In December, Nouf Sufyani, aka Cosmicat, Saudi Arabia’s first female professional electronic music artist, participated in the MDL Beast Festival targeted at EDM lovers. She performed alongside headliners like David Guetta and Steve Aoki — and no, she wasn’t wearing an abaya, veil or headscarf. Last July, Palestinian Sama Abdulhadi made her debut on BBC Radio 1’s Essential Mix show — an iconic platform for the tiny, war-scarred Middle Eastern territory’s first major female techno performer to gain international recognition. Manar Fegrouch, aka Glitter, is a rising techno star from Morocco. And in 2018, Sabrina Terence, an open-format artist, became the first woman to play at a restaurant or lounge in Saudi Arabia, albeit in an abaya and behind a partition.

We’re lucky to be born now.

Sama Abdulhadi, Palestinian techno artist

Their emergence comes as leaders in the Arab world portray themselves as reformists. Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has started encouraging festivals like the one that Sufyani participated in. Much of Saudi Arabia’s efforts are window dressing — women still don’t have many of the basic rights in the kingdom that men do. Still, these attempts are creating opportunities that didn’t exist before.

“Women got a voice like yesterday!” says Abdulhadi, 29, with a laugh. “We’re lucky to be born now.”

It helps, say industry veterans, that there’s a growing appetite for alternate, native sounds. There’s a demand, says Susanne Kirchmayr, aka Electric Indigo, from many music lovers in the West for performers who help them “counteract the increasing xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia that comes from the ubiquitously rising right-wing populist parties.” In 1998, Kirchmayr founded Female:Pressure, an international network of female electronic music DJs, artists and producers.

The electronic music scene in the region isn’t new. Beirut regularly hosted some of the biggest parties in the 1990s and early 2000s. Israel is known for its trance and psychedelic music.

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But with growing regional political instability in the past few years, the arts went underground, funding became scarce and borders became difficult to cross. In the West, Islamophobia is commonplace, limiting access for artists. “The hardest thing I’ve faced is to frequently deal with mobility issues because of [difficulty in getting] visas and residence permits,” says Fegrouch.

However, a rapidly changing demographic means there’s growing regional demand — and desire for change. The region is estimated to add an additional 24 million people in the 15-to-24 age group, between 2015 and 2030, according to UNICEF. And concerts and music festivals have picked up, fueled by the internet and local talent. Abdulhadi, Fegrouch and Sufyani all toured the region before their stints in Europe and other parts of the world.

Cosmicat at MDL Beast in Riyadh.

These women aren’t looking to escape their cultures — they want to reshape them from within, through techno. Their personal experiences have helped. Abdulhadi’s father prodded her to study audio engineering in Amman, where a Canadian DJ taught her on the side. “Most people ask me, ‘Does your father know what you’re doing?’” she says, laughing. Musicians like her often confront skewed ideas of Islam in the West. “Most people can’t relate Islam and music,” says Abdulhadi.

These artists each have their own style. While Abdulhadi’s music is funky and sometimes mixes up field recordings, Sufyani digs into percussion-heavy sounds. Fegrouch attempts to transcend borders by connecting traditional African and Arabic music to modern electronica — expect ululation or texts by Chikates.

Abdelwahed’s music is dominated by a genre known as leftfield techno. “The music you hear in Arab cities … is not rigid 4-4,” she says. “So I try to evoke the diversity of non-Western dance music in my DJ sets.”

Sexism remains rampant, so women have to work twice as hard to prove they are good DJs, says Terence. “Women here are fighting to find their place creatively … and to be taken seriously,” says Fegrouch.

Sufyani, 28, recalls how male artists wouldn’t give her a proper platform. “I was viewed as someone who’s cute rather than professional,” says the techno geek, who was working as a dentist until mid-2019. But things have started to change, she says: “I have been lucky to receive local support and appreciation for being a female artist willing to put myself out there.”

Local programs to nurture future artists would help, say industry observers. Most of these women are self-taught, which reflects in their bold, raw sounds, but skill building is a necessity in techno. Abdulhadi trains upcoming talent in Ramallah, who, in turn, teach others. “It’s getting better thanks to new promoters trying to move forward,” says Fegrouch. 

Still, it will take a lot before these changes begin to take root. “Stay stubborn to make things happen,” says Abdulhadi to Arab women trying to carve a niche. “Open the door for others.”

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