Motion sickness: Beirut-born producer Thoom talks the rhythm of Iowa’s industry while in the midst of Lebanon’s October Revolution

9 December 2019

“Everything I do is always a reaction to my environment!” exclaims Zeynab Marwan, in reply to the question of whether context is important in her music. If you’ve ever listened to the Beirut-born artist’s production under her Thoom moniker, it’s pretty much a given. That’s whether it’s in the stark and speedy Arabic percussion and clipped crashes, sweeps and oscillations of ‘Mikal Jackzon’, or the clattering rhythm of US American industry in ‘حركت السكوت (No Speech)’ on the Blood and Sand.

Thoom, Blood and Sand (2017). Album cover art. Courtesy Club Chai, Oakland.

Released via Oakland’s Club Chai label in 2017, that EP embodies the furious, nervous energy of change and upheaval; a kind of uncertain though optimistic intensity that also comes through in the artist’s email correspondence. Having been spirited away from Beirut following a performance with Tunisian producer Deena Abdelwahed on the eve of Lebanon’s October Revolution, Marwan is back on the ground in the capital city of her birthplace, having only recently moved to Berlin from Chicago.

Born in Beirut before emigrating to the tiny Iowan town of Ames in the US, Marwan has been moving between the two countries, while maintaining her connection to both. Representing the kind of peripatetic existence of many a diasporic identity, her work sits comfortably amongst the hybrid and international approach to production shared by a number of post-club artists and labels exploring a global sound.

Thoom has worked with the likes of E-Saggila and Scim in the past, is a part of New York’s Discwoman roster and has a couple of new solo and collaborative releases in the pipeline. In the meantime, Marwan will also be performing in support of The Transcendence Orchestra at Berlin’s Traumabarundkino on December 13, where she’ll present a special set using repetitive compositions, utterances and song oscillating between the vulnerable, the playful and the confrontational. It’s that kind of urgent and apprehensive force, that’s clearly a part of Marwan’s area of expertise.

Thoom (2019). Press image. Courtesy the artist.

**You were in Beirut when we were organising this interview, are you still there? Was there any particular reason you were there this time?

Zeynab Marwan: I go back to Beirut as often as I can afford, all of my family lives there. I happened to be there the night the revolution started over a month ago. I was playing a show with Deena Abdelwahed and I had a flight to Milan the same night at 4 am. So as soon as my set ended, my friend was like, you have to leave right now, they are burning all the trash and closing the roads, the airport roads are closing, everyone is calling for a revolution… I left and came back to Beirut because it is an urgent moment right now. For the first time people are assembling together regardless of their sectarian affiliations and religion because they want a new government. Every single day we go down, we are reclaiming public spaces, spaces that have been privatized and diligently excluded the majority of people that live in Beirut. The level of organization in all of this is astounding; there is free food everyday for protesters, discussions and tactful meetings around lebanon every day.

Thoom (2019). Press image. Courtesy the artist.

In compassionate gestures and moments like these, you can really see and start to imagine a world and structure outside capitalism, a possible future. Going from that, it is completely maddening to be standing in a German grocery store waiting in line… “Bitte schon, danke schon…” So yeah, I went back. 

**You mention you are from the area of Tarik Jdideh, rather than Beirut, is there something specifically singular about that district that made you want to distinguish it from the rest of the city?

ZM: It’s a very specific place in Beirut and it feels like I always inherently reference what it means to me and my time there. 

**I ask because I’m interested in this description of you music in your bio as “digital Arabic percussion and rhythm mixed with aggressive arrangements that call forth the metallic repetition of midwest American industry”. Can you elaborate on how this Midwestern industry figures in your sound and approach?

ZM: Yeah, I think as a result of spending so much time of my life in Iowa, living by the train, being surrounded by agriculture, farmlands, industry, there is a certain soundscape you constantly hear. It’s a rhythm like any other rhythms.

Thoom (2019). Press image. Courtesy the artist.

**Tell me about how you work, do you use any hardware and do you sample much? Who are some of your major influences? 

ZM: My influences are pretty broad and not only music based. I was making visual art  for most of my life before I started making music, so I really love and admire artists working in multiple mediums, like Chino Amobi. I use samples, of course. But I haven’t used hardware that much. It has never really been accessible to me. 

**I’ve seen you’ve done a few collaborations with other producers. Do you tend to work remotely or IRL, are there any pros and cons to either of these approaches?

ZM: Both. I don’t really like to make music alone too much. Making music with other people whether through stems or IRL is the most incredible and romantic feeling in the world!**

Thoom is performing in support of The Transcendence Orchestra at Berlin’s Traumabarundkino on December 13, 2019.

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Holding space: Mitte’s Traumabarundkino hybrid program disrupts the rapidly gentrifying map of Berlin from the eye of the storm

27 November 2019

As goes the age-old adage about any one place where you stand still for long enough, Berlin isn’t what it used to be. It’s a city that had seen countless regime changes since it was founded in the 13th century (not mentioning the three in the 30 years between World War I and II) long before it was synonymous with the emancipatory club culture that occupied the abandoned power stations, warehouses and office buildings post-reunification. Within the contemporary reality of accelerated capital, however, the very vibrant art and music scenes that have flourished around these often industrial or working-class areas has succumbed to the common cancer of gentrification and corporate crawl. Where once there were cooperatives, are now shared workspaces; where there used to be squats, now stand well-appointed pre-war apartments for rent on Airbnb.

Curl @ Traumabarunkino for 3hd Festival: ‘Fluid Wor(l)ds’ (2019). Performance view. Photo by Ink Agop. Courtesy Creamcake, Berlin.

At one and a half years old, Traumabarundkino does something different. It’s barely six months older than the new build on the old railway yard where it’s situated—between the Hauptbanhof central train station and government district of Berlin-Mitte—and yet it still holds space for the dynamic underground community it both supports and promotes. Wedged between a billiard hall, an architecture firm and a CrossFit centre, the relatively new hybrid venue has come to represent a haven of the old Berlin within the corporatised urban development around it since June 2018. The bar and cinema played host to 3hd Festival’s club night and screening program in October this year, where musicians and producers, artists and filmmakers performed and screened work in the dimly lit and grated interior. Hyph11E, bod [包家巷] and Sophie presented DJ sets, while Yen Tech, Curl and Akinola Davis Jr. played live in the encompassing multidisciplinary environment located on the East Berlin border.

Away from the usual subcultural centres of Neukölln and Kreuzberg, the diverse programming of Traumabarundkino has seen it collaborate with a spectrum of creative organisations and artists. It spans progressive showcases by CTM, Room 4 Resistance and LSDXOXO‘s Floorgasm event series, and the more established avant-garde of musicians like Alva Noto, Anne-James Chaton and New Age modular synth legend Suzanne Ciani. In its short history, coucou chloé, Golin, Faka and Giant Swan; Juliana Huxtable, Ziúr, Angel-Ho and Gabber Modus Operandi have played, along with a special event by Amnesia Scanner, Bill Kouligas and Harm Van Den Dorpel‘s Lexachast project. More recently, London-based producer Klein landed for the Berlin leg of her Lifetime album tour with Australian Bedouin Records artist Corin and Objects Limited affiliate Rui Ho. The list goes on.

Suzanne Ciani (2019). Performance view. Photo by Isabel O’Toole. Courtesy Traumabarundkino, Berlin.

Traumabarundkino’s relative isolation from the distinct networks and closed communities of East Berlin’s underground allows it to explore art removed of its usual context and in opposition to the venue’s very corporate environs outside. While the nearby Quartier Heidestrasse describes its mission as a “sustainable and future-proof” centre with all the amenities, this subversive pocket applies a similarly multipurpose approach to serving its entirely non-conformist ends. With an eye for running it independently in the near future, Traumabarundkino’s developing film program has screened Zach Blas’ rumination on internet-enabled state oppression and accelerated capitalism in ‘Contra-Internet: Jubilee 2033’. Artists Constant Dullaart and Jesper Just have shown work too, while queer dance and fashion has also found a home within the unconventional confines of the bunker-like space on the margins.

In reverence to this spirit of community, collaboration and survival in the face of capitalism’s neo-colonial imperative, Traumabarundkino will be presenting a night of contrasts headlined by ‘Birmingham sound’ industrial techno producer Surgeon’s The Transcendence Orchestra project with Daniel Bean on December 13. Their ambient drone uses electronics alongside esoteric instruments to explore its effect on consciousness, in the same way that Caterina Barbieri and Carlo Maria Amadio’s Punctum support looks at perception within minimal composition and analogue synths. Beirut-born, Chicago-raised Club Chai artist Thoom reflects on the constantly shifting landscape of the politically volatile Lebanese capital through her tense constructions of Arabic percussion crossing themes of Midwest American industry. Closing with a specialist DJ set from sound artist and composer Hatam, the event is just one of many evidences that the radical potential of art is still there, you just have to look harder to find it.**

The Transcendence Orchestra, Punctum, Thoom & Hatam perform Berlin’s Traumabarundkino on December 13, 2019.

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