Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 March 2018

47Soul on album Balfron Promise and using a theme of displacement in their music 

The band's Palestinian background means gigs can only be confirmed to fans at the last minute

47Soul made their Arabian Gulf debut this past week during Al Barzakh Festival at NYU Abu Dhabi. Getty
47Soul made their Arabian Gulf debut this past week during Al Barzakh Festival at NYU Abu Dhabi. Getty

It doesn’t matter how many flyers or Facebook notifications are posted, 47Soul fans know the gig is only confirmed by the band members themselves. It normally comes within a day or two of the performance after the band post the anticipated picture confirming they passed immigration.

In addition to causing promoters ulcers, such situations are sadly the norm for the Palestinian quartet.

Due to population displacement, none of the band have a permit to reside in their homelands and have instead fled to grow up in various countries ranging from Jordan to the US.

With the band now based in London, 47Soul’s energetic and futuristic brand of electro-dabke is garnering an increasing number of fans and has resulted in some spectacular festival gigs including a heroic performance as part of the Glastonbury and Womad festival in the UK in 2015 and 2016.

“Movement is an issue for us,” admits vocalist and percussionist Tareq Abu Kwaik, who is also known as El Far3i. “It’s not simple generally, let alone for a band. For example, right now I can tell you for sure that we can’t accept any offers to tour late next year. Because that’s when we have to renew our visas and of course that takes time. So if an amazing offer comes, we would have to turn it down and that’s frustrating. But we are here now and that’s the main thing.”

I am talking to three out of the four members (Hamza Arnaout was unfortunately unavailable) in the comfortable green room in the New York University Abu Dhabi’s Arts Centre, only a few metres away from the Red Theatre, where the band delivered a blistering show last Wednesday as part of the second Al Barzakh Festival.

Despite the big gigs performed across Europe, South America and an emotional 2016 tour of Palestine, Abu Kwaik says the Abu Dhabi date is a milestone for the band.

“It’s the first time we play in the Gulf and for us we feel it’s about time,” he says.

“There are so many places we want to perform here, places like Bahrain or go even further to somewhere like Sudan. I can’t wait for us to engage more with the crowd here.”

And they definitely have the tunes to back it up.

Last month, 47Soul released Balfron Promise, their assured second album, which is full of their dabke hoedowns and socially conscious lyrics highlighting the plight of refugees.

The album comes on the back of their 2015 crowdfunded debut Shamstep, which introduced them to an unsuspecting public and launched them into a seemingly neverending world tour.

With the band renowned for their electric live performances, 47Soul had the challenge of transferring that stage energy to the recording studio.

That was pretty arduous task for frontman Walaa Sbeit, who as the Abu Dhabi crowd witnessed is a marauding figure on stage as he engages in various traditional dances that can be seen in Palestinian street weddings.

“While that is difficult, I think the bigger challenge with an album is people may not understand what the music is about,” he says. “I don’t know whether we intended that on purpose, but people associate our music with wedding culture in Palestine, and with that comes celebration and big street parties.

“That’s what people see when they hear us live. I jump around a lot on stage, I dance and move so without people seeing that they may not get the full picture.”

Then again, listening to the band without context can also glean some revelations. The western press has praised the sheer urgency of the group and described their riot of electro beats, thumping percussions and passionate vocals in various terms ranging from punk to fusion.

While content to allow the public and press to make what they will of their sounds, the soft-spoken keyboardist Ramzy Suleiman, who grew up in Washington, DC, is weary of the tendency to overanalyse.

“Sometimes, they go a bit too far,” he says, “They would go on and say that our music is some tripped-out acid house music, which is prob­ably the worst description.

“We can’t stop people expressing their views, of course, but we are seeing more people now having at least a basic understanding of what we are about.”

Most of the time, that is achieved through the group’s strident lyrics. With an equal mix of Arabic and English, the group’s effervescent arrangements rub up against words that are fierce and uncompromising.

Formed in 2015 in Jordan, all the band’s members are songwriters in their own right and hailed from relatively successful groups; Abu Kwaik was a member of the Jordanian rockers El Morabba3, while Arnaout was with friendly rivals Autostrad, Suleiman had an electronic music alter-ego Z the People, while Sbeit also sings lead vocals for Palestine’s Ministry of Dub Key.

“We were a collective first, and then 47Soul grew bigger than what we expected,” Abu Kwaik says.

Considering all the talent on offer, Sbeit says there is a system in place to ensure all creative voices are heard: “Normally a person comes with a specific idea and we work on it together. We channel all our thoughts and ideas through that one person.”


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Abu Kwaik agrees: “In a way, that person becomes the chief song-officer. They are in charge of seeing it through from the arrangements to the lyrics, which to us are very important.”

Over bubbly synths and reggae-inflected riffs of Move Around, Sbeit almost barks lyrics of the displaced: “My people moved around/ More people moved around/ My people move around/ Before we all get moved around.”

While the dramatic Mo Light has a thrilling mid-section breakdown of tumbling darbuka drumming and buzzsaw synths, Suleiman delivers some fierce raps proclaiming: This is really from the Nazareth/ I know you must have heard about it/ As a matter of fact they’re really classist/ making money off the passion.

The track is the best distillation of the album’s central theme, which is of the dangers of gentrification. Upon moving to London, the group lived together in Balfron Tower, which was eventually sold off to developers and left its tenants to seek accommodation elsewhere.

For the band, the parallels between the Israeli occupation and modern-day gentrification were too close not to notice.

“It is another form of modern occupation,” Abu Kwaik says, adding that the album’s title is a sly wink to the Balfour Promise, the 1917 declaration establishing the state of Israel and in turn uprooting Palestinians from their land.

“The problem lies in this idea that developers think that we people – these refugees – who live in that tower are irrelevant and they mean nothing. It happens a lot.

“It’s like you want to build a mall, and then you leave this area where people live untouched, knowing that if needed you will just tell these people who live there and made plans there to basically get lost. To me, that’s the story of Palestine.”

Balfron Promise is out and can be heard on online streaming services