x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Running interference: Tashweesh have come a long way from hip-hop roots

The Palestinian collective Tashweesh have reinvented themselves since their days as the hip-hop outfit Ramallah Underground.

A grainy but evocative still from a Tashweesh live performance.
A grainy but evocative still from a Tashweesh live performance.

The video starts on a rather cheery note. Grainy, black-and-white footage of youths frolicking on beaches, merrily singing in restaurants and generally enjoying themselves under the Mediterranean sun in an innocent “first-half-of-the-19th-century” way is cut and pasted together with upbeat trip-hop drum loops and a few piano chords.

But just half a minute in, the mood swiftly changes. The seaside settings make way for blurry footage of explosions, confused crowds on the streets and scenes of mass panic, while sombre news reports in Arabic talk over the top. A woman emerges from the smoke clutching a small child. A car speeds hastily away into the countryside. A bomb-blasted house lies in pieces.

Without understanding a word, it’s clear from the stuttered and looped clips that a catastrophe has occurred: a violent disturbance has hijacked the initial happy introduction and forced an unimaginable human evacuation. Then the drum loops start up again. But this time the footage takes a different turn, one of rebellion, of uprising, with protesters waving flags, scarf-shrouded soldiers clutching automatic weapons and further scenes of destruction and despair, interspersed sporadically with shots of handshaking politicians unable – or unwilling – to put an end to the hostilities.

The video, simply titled Intro, is under four minutes long, but to even the most untrained eye can be seen in some way as a condensed lesson of the Levant’s troubled modern history.

“At the heart of it is a reflection on the contemporary picture across the Arab world using both old and new material,” says Basel Abbas, one third of the Palestinian audio/visual collective Tashweesh behind the visually stunning and captivating piece. “In that way we are always seeing the past and present as part of the same moment, they are very much connected when you look at it politically.”

Abbas, 27, an installation artist based in Ramallah, cofounded the hip-hop group Ramallah Underground in 2003 with Boikutt, a 27-year-old composer who has worked with films and theatre groups. Ramallah Underground, often now credited as being among the founders of Palestinian hip-hop, alongside DAM, went on to receive global recognition, praised for its rhythmical depictions of life under occupation and invited to perform at various international events.

The group was eventually joined by the visual artist Ruanne Abou-Rahme, 24, who would collaborate for live video performances. Wanting to move beyond the boundaries of hip-hop, Ramallah Underground broke up two years ago, but Abbas says that with Abou-Rahme on board they had already begun to take a new direction.

“In the end we felt it was time to develop something new and less constricted to a particular style,” he says, adding that it was difficult to shake off the image of Ramallah Underground as strictly a hip-hop outfit. “When Ruanne began working with us it already felt like the beginning of a new phase. That’s at the heart of how we decided to create Tashweesh. We wanted to have the space to explore what we are interested in now.”

And as Tashweesh, the trio have already begun to develop a global fanbase. In August last year, they performed in Glasgow and Edinburgh as part of the Beyond Borders arts festival, then for several shows in Copenhagen before heading to London’s Southbank Centre in November for a collaboration with the poet Suheir Hammad in the annual Poetry International event.

“We worked three days non-stop with Suheir and the results were magnificent,” says Abbas. “There was a real connection between her words and our images and sounds. The performance was sold out and we received lots of great feedback.”

Abbas admits that people find it difficult to label Tashweesh, and that many are surprised to hear that they are Palestinian: “It somehow breaks a lot of their conceptions about art in the Middle East.”

The closest links musically are perhaps the trip-hop sounds that emerged from the English city of Bristol in the early 1990s, a genre Abbas admits has been a heavy influence. But with the politically and regionally charged visual accompaniment from Abou-Rahme, coupled with Boikutt’s explosive lyrics bursting occasionally into each show, there are multiple additional layers to Tashweesh’s creative force.

“People feel they have experienced a very different type of performance in terms of the close relationship between the video and sound, the politics and emotion of it,” says ­Abbas.

For the live shows, the trio often appear hunched over a table littered with laptops and controllers. “Ruanne does the live video, while Boikutt and I do the sound,” says Abbas. “The performance constantly moves from arranged sound and video elements layered with live elements, to completely improvised segments.”

Despite the use of video footage and pre-recorded samples, the material can differ widely from one show to another, says Abbas. “We definitely shift and change the performance, depending on the space and audience, which keeps it interesting for us. We may have three shows after one another, but each one will be different.”

When Ramallah Underground first got together, Boikutt said he wanted to help rejuvenate Arabic culture by creating “music that Arabic youth can relate to”. And, despite the lives shows across Europe, this is still something that drives Tashweesh. “We hope to perform at lot more around Palestine and the Arab world this year,” says Abbas, who claims the few live events they’ve put on in Ramallah and Nablus were met warmly. “Surprisingly for us, it’s the older generations who are especially interested.”

The material that is spliced and diced in each of their shows comes from far and wide. “Like the sound, the video is sourced from anywhere and everywhere, from films, ads, personal and public archives, newsreels, found footage and material we shoot,” says Abbas. Abou-Rahme is also an installation artist, and Abbas says a lot of their work is reused in the live shows. “We see Tashweesh as very much connected to our other artistic practices, essentially bringing our different interests together in a performance setting.” Individual contributions are reused and reformatted “to create different connections, meanings and narratives”.

The recent explosive round of regional uprisings has obviously provided material for Tashweesh to utilise, something Abbas says the group has been looking at. “We’re currently working on a sound and video piece which reflects the current situation, but it will probably take some time as we’re busy with so many different things.”

Intro, which can be viewed at www.tashweesh.com, is currently the only taste of the collective’s work available online, with the members still having to make space for their other commitments. Boikutt is working on the music for a contemporary dance performance in New York, while Abou-Rahme and Abbas have been preparing for a solo exhibition of their installation work in the UK this month. But Abbas says more should be uploaded in the coming months. “We’ve finally worked out how to translate some of the experiences for our performances into a video.”

The recordings might not approach the intensity and improvised creativity of Tashweesh’s live shows, but if Intro is anything to go by, they’ll still be a visual treat worth experiencing.

Tashweesh, quite aptly, means “interference” in Arabic.

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