Blue fades to purple, fades to red. The neo-soul singer douniah looks up at a sunset-illuminated sky on the cover of her debut EP A Lot, Not Too Much. Her hands in front of her chest, the image freezes a body in motion. Both colors and movement play a special role in the Agadir-born and Hamburg-raised musician’s creative process and the emotional journey of the EP. I meet the douniah on a rainy autumn day in our shared hometown of Berlin. We sit down in a noisy café/bar and douniah shares insights into her music over a cup of coffee.
To Berliner soul and jazz fans, douniah is a familiar name. The artist has worked with many singers and musicians from the local scene, including Ebow, Move 78, okcandice, and Pachakuti. Her catalog includes various features and a whole collaborative album with High John. With influences from neo-soul, jazz, electronic, and RnB, douniah moves fluidly between genres. A Lot, Not Too Much is her solo debut. And listening to it, we get to know her a little better.
The singer started making music at age 14 and honed her craft by making music with friends. “Most of what I know, I taught myself – maybe I would not say taught but rather explored,” douniah says. However collaborative music-making and creative community have played a key role in the making of this record as well. A Lot, Not Too Much is produced by Dhanya Langer and includes features with the singer okcandice, saxophonist Pachakuti – friends and long-term collaborators of the singer.
“In the process of writing and recording this record, community was essential. Community is an emotional and musical anchor for me.”
Coming from a background in freestyled poetry, douniah tells me that the lyrics to many of the songs on the EP are based on improvisation and were recorded in single takes. Her voice is soft but assured as words in English, Darija, and German roll off her tongue. “I learned how to make music by improvising and following my intuition”, douniah explains. This free-flowing approach to art still resonates today, and the entire record is based on “poetic freestyles” as the artist calls them. On A Lot, Not Too Much the songs blend into each other with such ease that the transition might go unnoticed. It is a wave of sound slowly unfolding from the quiet intro “Half Water, Half Milk” to the gently percussive groove of “New Life”, while the lyrics transform pain into poetry.
“Through poetry I understand our history
Sharpen my tongue in case I have to self-defend
Carry my words with me and I still have to pretend that I am safe here.”
– “Sabah Al Noor”
The EP is a record of motion, douniah says: “The sound that I created translates directly from and into movement. That is the way I make music.” This is reflected in the visuals as well. The singer works with blurry images on the covers of “Sabah Al Noor” and “Runnin’” featuring okcandice. Movement, like improvisation, is an essential part of the creative practice and connects to the improvisational nature of douniah’s songwriting. On “I Left, An Open Door”, she sings of being in transition, and on the intro “Half Milk, Half Water” she speaks over mellow electronic jazz instrumentation: “Can’t think when I stand still, is that generational pain?”.
“Music usually grows out of dark moments in my life, periods of depression, instability, and isolation. In those moments, it is important for me to feel my body. When I am depressed and don’t feel my body, there is not much left to feel. I use sound or movement to trigger feelings. Throughout the entire process of the EP, I felt like I needed to stay in constant motion.”
Through music and movement, douniah manages to stay in touch with her emotions. The film released alongside the EP is an attempt to translate that music into images as the singer goes through different stages of movement. The clip begins with douniah waking up alone by the oceanside in her birthplace, Agadir. Veiled in a red cloth, she slowly moves to the mellow instrumentation on “Sabah Al Noor”. The fluent movements of her body resemble waves. The song “Runnin’” deals with grief, expressed through blurry images lit in red of the singer moving and running at full speed. In the next moment, she sits in a car as the lights of a distant city race past the window. Finally, the artist finds rest in the last scene and sits down in the shade of a large tree in the sunny countryside. Movement is not just a tool to stay in touch with the body, it becomes a symbol of resilience, taking up space, and freedom.
“When I visualize my sound, I think of moving body parts as a sort of liberation. There is the notion that as long as I am moving, everything will be fine.”
In regard to movement, the visuals have a full-circle character, but the music is everything but. It is a snippet, a page ripped from a journal. The visuals to the EP have drastically different moods, but the songs follow a cohesive sound of warm jazz and neo-soul instrumentation with a broad range of influences from electronic, to RnB, and traditional Moroccan music like Gnawa and the Algerian Raï, which shaped the singer’s understanding of music from childhood on. This musical blueprint and the connection to her Moroccan roots influence the way douniah navigates life in Germany and echoes in the multiple nuances of her music.
On the opening track “Half Milk, Half Water” douniah speaks and sings in her mother tongue Darija. Her slowly recited poem spreads over playfully surging electronic sounds. When I ask about this particular song, douniah says it holds a special place for several reasons. It is the first song the artist produced on her own after learning the basics of Ableton during the collaborative production process with Dhanya. She grins as she remembers: “It was an amazing feeling to have created this on my own.”
The song is based on a deeply personal conversation between the singer and her mother. douniah remembers: “We were talking about how she deals with transgenerational pain that has been imposed on her, that she inherited. And that I inherited, too.” During that conversation, the artist took notes and wrote a poem based on them. In the lyrics, douniah paraphrases her mother’s words in Darija and Tamazight – an intense and emotional experience. “My mother can express her emotions differently in Darija and Tamazight. Both languages are very poetic, and she uses a lot of metaphors. I wrote them down and translated some of them. The song is based on this collection of idioms and phrases about transgenerational pain.”
“The title, ‘Half Milk, Half Water’, to me sounds like nothing whole and nothing half. I don’t feel whole, and I don’t feel half with the things that I carry in me. My body is half water. But my heart is white, the color of milk. It is not the color of blood; it does not feel functional. In the lyrics, I kind of say, ‘My heart is white because I will not forget what happened to you’ and ‘What happened to you also happened to me’.”
Looking for Meaning
douniah moves in a triad of languages. The voice stays the same, it sounds familiar throughout, but the timber changes. The softness of the English, to the edges of the German lyrics, and the low rasp of the verses in Darija. “I have a lot to say, and I cannot say it all in one language”, the artist says. During our interview, we speak German but douniah slips into English expressions every once in a while. “Depending on how I feel, I think in a different language. I associate different emotions, relationships, friendships, and phases with different languages.”
Each language has a different connection, and together they make up the mosaic of douniah’s lyrics. In the single “Sabah Al Noor”, the singer examines these relationships to language. Written during the pandemic, the song is a search for meaning in the banality of everyday phrases. “Every day, I say ‘Sabah Al Noor’ to my mother or somebody else. Every evening, I say good night. I started thinking about what that really meant because I have not had a good night in a long time,” douniah muses on phrases of greeting. During lockdown, she started thinking about these phrases and how they lose meaning in constant repetition. “At some point, I was stumbling over every banality and phrase because everything about the day pained me. Everything repeated. I did not understand the repetition and I could not escape it.”
“For me, art is about looking for meaning, for something that matters. I was reflecting on my everyday words and phrases and tried to find meaning in their banality. ’Sabah Al Noor’ was made during the pandemic when banalities became so complex.”
Red Light Lamps
A Lot, Not Too Much is a search for feeling. It pokes at and questions the banalities of the everyday, it demands there to be a deeper meaning. Led by intuition and realized with the backing of the Berliner music community, douniah invites you to join this chapter of her journey. Moving to the sound of the music, it is a liberation, a questioning, an open door. It deals with a lot, with a lot of pain, a lot of emotion, but in the end, it is not more than we are used to: it is A Lot, Not Too Much. Blurry and red – the movement and the heart – are the visual translation of this.
Towards the end of our conversation, it is already dark outside, and the city still rushes past the window. Berlin and Germany can be overwhelming places. Places in which you need a sharp tongue because you don’t know when you need to self-defend. But douniah has also found her ways to tune out and to pause the world for a moment. The color red in her visuals is a symbol of those calming energies. “Red and orange are the most calming colors for me. To unwind and reconnect with me, I like to put on a record, maybe ‘Space 1.8’ by Nala Sinephro, and turn on my red light lamps. The light and the warmth that I associate with red make the color a visual translation of the topics of the record.”
Let It Go
The EP sounds and feels decisive and confident in its sound, but it is not a record, douniah emphasizes before we head back out into the night. To release the songs as an EP and not an album was a conscious decision. The seven songs have been in the making for a long time and were finished already in 2022. A Lot, Not Too Much is an introduction, one episode of her artistic life, that douniah wanted to share now.
“Publishing it a year later felt like a step backward at first, but now I consider it more of a step outside. I am stepping out of this project, like being on a train waiting for your stop. When it arrives, you get out and watch the train continue in its tracks. You let it go. It is a piece of my story that represents my journey and my community.”
This conversation was translated from German to English by the author.
Consider donating to organizations working on rebuilding the regions in the southwest of Morocco affected by the earthquake in September 2023. Find more organizations linked in douniah’s Instagram highlight.