It starts with distorted vocals resonating in the background and a string section intertwined with a piano melody. Then the ambient instrumentation fades into an electronic beat, vocals growing to a room filling timber. El Beyt is the first track on Yousef Kekhia’s second LP Polylog. The Syrian musician has been living in Berlin for quite a while now, making connections in the local industry while staying in touch with the musical roots of his hometown Aleppo. Sung in rich Arabic, his songs bridge the international Berlin music scene to local acts from the contemporary Arab music world.
I meet the singer on a grey Berlin morning in early December. After finishing his first record Monologue, the initial idea was to use to leftover tracks to release a follow up album called Epilogue. “Monologue is very much about me and my story. It is a very dark record. I wanted to call the next one Epilogue because that phase has ended,” Yousef explains. Monologue deals with his journey fleeing Aleppo to Berlin and battling cancer. “But when I started working on the music it did not feel like an ending anymore. The title Polylog is inspired by a synthesizer I have. It is called Minilog and when you play one note it is monophonic, when you play several it is polyphonic. So, I got from Monologue to Polylog.”
“That is what the record feels like; having several dialogues simultaneously.”
One dialogue and exchange that influenced the writing of Polylog is Yousef Kekhia’s dedication to feminism and learning about the struggles. “I am someone who grew up in a very male dominated society. In school, we were separated, and I spent a lot of time with men in my culture. My family is open minded and less traditional, still some things were just considered normal related to male dominance in the society. Through my sisters I learned a lot about how fucked up it is from a young age.”
“I don’t think there was a moment when I decided I will be a feminist. From the beginning, I noticed how unequal the situation is and I wanted to learn. And I am still learning. And I think that is what makes a difference. People are ashamed of not knowing but you have to allow that sensation and ask to understand and learn.”
The dialogue amongst each other is crucial to creating an understanding of what others might be experiencing. If you never dare to ask, you will always reaffirm the stereotypes you inevitably have in your head because of the societal structures everyone is raised within. This is not a monologue. It is a Polylog, incorporating different perspectives and realities from different people. “I think our ego also plays a huge role in this. We fear what we don’t know. But it is not about yourself, it is about the entire structure of society.”
“When writing this record, I listened to the stories of the people I met. It is a record based on those encounters and openness and I owe that to the people in my life. Polylog is about interpersonal relationships and exchange that is not limited to romantic relationships.”
Intro into Contemporary Arab Music
The word “Polylog” is actually coined by a German philosopher Wimmer and describes an exchange of intercultural experiences, Yousef tells me. That makes the title even more fitting for the record, as Yousef puts elements of a different culture into the context of the Berliner music scene. To bring the incredibly broad contemporary Arab music scene to Berlin, he curated a playlist with his favorite songs at the moment.
You can find the Beyond Borders playlist on our Spotify profile and it’s also linked below. The first song by Hello Psychaleppo taps into the experimental electronic field. Yousef tells me, he used to play rock music covers with the artist until they both discovered their love for electronic music. “He also did an awesome weird remix of one of the songs on Monolog, Bshi Yom”, Yousef grins. Smek by the Tunisian group Ÿuma is on the acoustic side of the spectrum with multiple voices and gentle guitar picking accompanying them.
I Miss Your Sky
“Smek is a very Tunisian way of saying – your sky”, the singer explains. It is derived from a traditional saying in spoked Arabic that could be translated to, I miss your sky. The expression comes from youth slang and means as much as, I miss the hell out of you – a very visual representation of how much a person can be missed. Another song on the playlist is Beta’ammer is by the Berlin-based band Khebez Dawle. “They are also from Syria and release a brilliant album about a person in the revolution times. It is very political but also about the daily suffering of the people, which is not shown in the media.”
Mashrou’ Leila are one of the more internationally known acts. They started like 10-15 years ago in the indie rock scene and influenced the scene a lot. Their lyrics are also about LGBTQIA+ rights and homosexuality – topics that were very much off limits. The other songs on the playlist include Laykoon by one of Yousef’s favorite bands El Morabba3, Shiva by rapper Bu Kolthoum, and many others.
The Music After the Silence
When speaking about the Syrian underground music scene, Yousef tells me that it has undergone a lot of changes in the past decade. “It is hard to describe because there are so many reasons behind it – one of them being the war. For a long time after that there was nothing. We needed to process. We are not very expressive in our art because we were not allowed to be and many were struggling to survive in general – not just your life but financially, psychologically, emotionally. I feel very privileged to be in a situation where I can make this comment. What happened was terrible but through time art comes to the surface again. Like that, it evolved a lot.”
Polylog is shaped by every single aspect of the singer’s life and incorporates all those dialogues to a polyphonic sound. Through his music different voices are heard, and different instruments come together to a conversation that strives remain open and eager to learn. Art is a communicator, whether it is the need to deal with personal struggles, like the artist did on Monologue or to create an open and fluid exchange between different people, cultures, and styles on Polylog.
Yousef Kekhia brings different voices together. Neither a dialogue, nor a monologue, Polylog sounds more like a Prologue to a story yet to be told than the Epilogue that it was intended to be.