"Maintaining the essence": Toumba is taking Levantine-inspired club music to the next level
Upon the release of his Hessle Audio debut, Toumba shares an exclusive mix and speaks to Fraser Dahdouh about dance music in Jordan and the difference between grassroots and diaspora scenes
Sounds from the SWANA region are becoming more prominent in club music, with DJs hailing from its respective nations or their diasporas becoming increasingly popular abroad — as well as those without connected heritage utilising the regional sounds in their output. Toumba, real name Yazan Zyadat, is a DJ and producer born and raised in Jordan, and the club music he makes reflects the musical influences he grew up around. He is intent on representing and developing the local scene on its own terms.
He's been in London for six weeks as a base for his European shows when we meet at Premises Café on a cold corner of Hackney Road in December, the day before he returns to Amman. It's been an eventful period with the release of his 'Rosefinch' EP on Hypnic Jerks and the title-track from his most recent 'Petals' EP with Hessle Audio.
With diaspora crews such as the Daytimers and Middle of Nowhere rocking the Anglophone dance music world with a string of sold-out shows and multiple clips doing serious rounds on social media, 2022 also proved to be a high-water mark for the popular reception of dance music DJs and producers interested in experimenting with music from the Global South.
In our conversation, Toumba charts out the novelties and risks associated with some of these transformations in the culture, as he makes the case for distinguishing between diaspora scenes in Europe and the grassroots scene in his native Jordan.
We go deep into the relationships between music making and identity; Yazan has a developed formulation of where the lines between process and authenticity intersect with those of performance and innovation. The result is a considered mapping of the different styles and approaches to dance music production and mixing between South West Asia and North Africa diaspora communities and those based in the region. Check it out alongside his Impact mix below.
You’ve just come up from Brussels, why are you in London?
I came to London on the 25th of October and then I've just been going all around every weekend playing in other places, but I've been based here.
I come out to London to tour. I only do one-offs for big gigs, like I'm doing CTM in February, that's going to be a one-off, not part of a tour. I do the whole tour thing not for me, but for the promoters — the thing is with flights from Jordan, I can go to Budapest for like €50, London for like €90, because Wizz Air and Ryanair have started operating there. It used to be like €600-700, so it's game-changing really. Instead of say booking me from London, if they want me in Brussels, it's cheaper to go from Jordan, but promoters don't know that so when I want to tour, I come to London because they feel more comfortable booking me in for their event.
That's an interesting problem to be running into, where it’s the perceptions of promoters rather than the material barriers that hold you back.
It's going to take time for people to understand this, but it's actually cheaper and better for you in Europe to book me out of Jordan than it is to do a tour and stay in London. It's a hassle, as every gig I go to I have to line up the bookings one by one. During this last run, I've had to be based in London for a month and a half and it's super expensive. I could have done this whilst in Amman and spent a quarter of the money and gone back to my house where dinner costs me £3 or £4. We have a sick scene out there.
This is what I'm hearing, but it’s quite different from neighbouring Beirut right? My friends and family there give accounts of a nightlife fuelled by escapism, is what you have in Amman today different?
In Jordan – like many places – there is of course a bit of escapism, but maybe not in the same way. Like the way that garage and stuff started here, people are finding the spaces to build these experiences for that kind of music. Now we've got this venue called MNFA, and the boys that opened there are like brothers you know. I help them with curation – everyone's involved. It is proper, it's two floors underground, there's no phone signal, no 4G, you stand on the street and you don't know anything. We've booked TSVI, we've booked Swan Meat, FUMU from Youth played. Parrish Smith, we've been able to book a lot of people.
But the problem for us is not flights now, it is the fees. Booking someone for £700, that’s a whole month's salary for someone in Jordan, but a lot of artists are willing to cut their fee by like a quarter just to come out there and play and the crowds out there are so far the best I've experienced. The average age of the demographic is 25 and I think because of the lack of a huge drug culture here. people are going for the music.
They're really getting into it, everyone's dancing, the club doesn't feel empty at close, it's always full from start to finish. People can play whatever; if it's good music they'll love it. People don't come with expectations about what's going to be played.
There are loads of different genres, people come knowing it's going to be good music. It's a totally safe space, great soundsystem, and great people. The owner does the door, the bar, and some of the sound. It’s pretty much in the middle of a residential area in Amman, it used to be the car park of a hotel. My mate found it and was like "I'll clean it for you, I'll pay you monthly if you let me use it as a club", and they were like "Fuck it, sure".
How does the club relate to the scene in Amman, can you go play there if you're a new DJ? What are the networks like, who is DJing in Amman these days?
Yeah, if you're a DJ and you want to play there, they hit us up, everyone's welcome to play. A lot of people are getting into DJing in Amman right now, there's a bit of a joke that everyone's a DJ. It's a good thing though, let everyone become a DJ! They're gonna start digging for stuff and know what good music sounds like. At MNFA, we'll always bring people on if they're fitting the sound, we're not going to reject anyone because they're new, we just don't want more commercial sounds and tech-house really. It's just because people who come don't expect a certain type of music, but they want that underground philosophy – we're not looking for the Beatport Top 100.
2022 has been a mad year for you, you've dropped two EPs, 'Rosefinch' with Hypnic Jerks and '115' with All Centre, as well as a single from your forthcoming EP with Hessle Audio – but this is the first music you've put out since you debuted with the self-released double single 'Sabah Fakhri/Tidallal'. Can you talk me through the process that you developed over those years?
Basically, that was the first tune that I ever made. The thing that got me into production was hearing SHERELLE play TSVI's track 'Hossam' at an afters at my house that I used to stay in – there was a party and she came back to play after, she dropped that track and I was like I've never heard acid samples and this sort of music so I literally jumped behind the decks and was like what is this?
She gave me the ID – I listened to it and I was like yeah, I've done music since I was a kid, I've played guitar - classically trained - and I was playing rock and metal all of that stuff. I studied it and from my engineering background it was easy for me to understand the technicalities of music production, so when I heard that track, I was like I can do this, it’s familiar to me.
I like what TSVI and DJ Plead have done, but for me as someone who has lived there my whole life, I just listened and thought there's something that's missing – you know what I mean?
Like the authenticity of the track?
Not even authenticity, it is just about when you lived with that music all your life, all you’re thinking is how to take it to the next level, and when you haven't lived it, you wouldn't have such a great grasp on it, to change it completely whilst maintaining the essence.
I think DJ Plead's recent stuff has been doing this very well, he's Lebanese, and he's getting into it more and really pushing it beyond the samples.
When you say classically trained guitar, do you mean Arabic style or Western?
No, I mean Western, the standard scale but all of it translates you know. When I heard that tune, I was like, I can make that stuff, and I bought Ableton. At first, I was like I'm not gonna go straight into deconstructing, I was just gonna play around with something and see how I feel. So, I made the 'Sabah Fakhri' track and it was alright, you know?
What's the sample?
It is from 'Foug Elna Khel' by Sabah Fakhri, the late tenor whom the song is named after. I took inspiration from other tracks, mostly the TSVI stuff. So I made this track and I sent it to him a couple of weeks later and he played it in his Bleep Mix, this was an early version of the track, and when he did, I was like “right I can do this, but I can do more,” so, I finished that and put it out as my first single.
I didn't even care what people thought, I just put it out. Now looking back, it's really important, if it's something that you like, to not wait for some big label to along, it makes you do more. Even if only five people have heard it, five more people know it exists.
So, you see this experience as really formative? First discovering artists like DJ Plead and TSVI, you saw a way that you could add to what they were doing? And secondly, there's the issue with how people listen to and relate to "oriental" music or the way that in the West, music from SWANA is played in quite a generic manner – little attention seems to be played to the musical differences between track as long as there's an oud and a tablah.
Exactly – it's more about the feel in the track that's tough to replicate when you've recently discovered this kind of music. I don't want to say there are rules but there are components to the timbres, the swing, the tonality. It’s not in your face, but it's there, and if you haven't been living with that music you might not pick up on it.
A track might accidentally have something that's in the Arabic music that you wouldn't pick up on, and it goes far beyond the types of percussion or instruments and that's the feeling that's slightly missing in the stuff that the diaspora, or people that studied the music, might miss out on.
The stuff I'm making now, if you hear it, it has no resemblance to Arabic music. It's much more subtle. If the people from the region listen to it, they think "this is cool, this is familiar," but I avoid the typical instrumentation. I didn't want to parcel it up like “this is Levantine music”– so if you know, you know.
Is this what we can expect to hear in the Hessle Audio EP?
Basically, the release I had on Hypnic Jerks I finished in 2020, so it was a bit more in your face, but I was still learning production. In the Hessle EP, there's stuff that from a while ago and stuff that's very recent, and the more recent work is much less in your face. You'll be able to tell. Then my stuff that's coming after that is going to be completely different from these two – it's an evolution.
On 'Istibtan', what I thought worked well about that was you have these clean synths rolling in building a disharmony that resolves with the introduction of the traditional instrumentation, that’s pinned down by the coarse bass for a really unique production.
Like you said when you recognised the traditional instrumentation and stuff, none of these are samples, it's not using 'oriental' keyboards or plug-ins. I use Massive X for everything. But because of the way it's played and the notes I've selected, it resembles more traditional stuff.
Though this is quite old, I made 'Istibtan' around the same time that I made the 'Rosefinch' stuff. The other tracks on the EP are much more experimental and it's gonna be apparent when you hear the other two that this doesn't sound as Middle Eastern or Levantine as other stuff, it's just normal breakbeats - or that's the reception I'd expect from a listener who hasn't grown up with this music.
But for people from Jordan who know this type of music, they'll be like 'oh shit I'm actually familiar with this and it sounds like that' which is cool. Because when you just use samples, it’s just not as interesting when you’ve grown up with the music. For some producers in the diaspora, they're re-engaging with this whole new culture which is great, but to us it is familiar. You just put a breakbeat or kick drum on what we listen to every day and call it a day.
I think someone from the UK would make much more 'typically Middle Eastern' stuff than someone from Jordan, but someone from Jordan would have the essence of Middle Eastern music in the track. Because they understand the music so well, they can take it to the next level while keeping the essence of it.
In my opinion, this can be a feature of diaspora experiences more broadly, if you want to explore your relationship with a ‘homeland’, I think that these experiences can either be coded through a Western lens or transformed by that sense of longing.
There are levels of people in the diaspora: there are people who've spent their childhood there, then moved on the one hand, then there are people that have never been.
It's quite differentiated, it's a scale. I feel like the two scenes are both different even though they seem to be bunched into one. The diaspora scene and the people from the region play two different roles. They both have their place and you can really take away from the experience of the diaspora, but the stuff that would come out is very different.
The diaspora are shedding light on our kind of music, motivating people to get a foot in the door and explore this kind of stuff. But when you really want to explore the region’s music, then you’ll need to see what people from the region are making. From my perspective the diaspora is not where you're going to find a full, innovative expression of the music from the region.
You seem to have a real appetite to push the sound to new levels and take the lessons from those earlier experimentations with the sound and depart from it? You don't want to rely on the same instrumentation anymore, it's more like you’re saying that no one you know plays these instruments and they're not a good representation of what contemporary music making practices from the region might look like.
I'm interested then in 'Istibtan', why do you choose the Levantine Wedding song, even if you've shifted away from the formal instrumentation in your rendition?.
The wedding song has been in every article that I've read, but it's not necessarily a wedding song - typically you go to festivities and weddings and stuff and there’s a keyboard player. It's a very integral part of that music, the person with keyboard and they're usually crazy – very, very good.
I try to mimic their playing style in 'Istibtan', I also try to mimic some of the motifs and rhythms without overstating it. It's not sampling that kind of music, just the way it's played and structured is reminiscent of that kind of music you typically hear at a wedding.
Where does the rhythm of that song come from?
I think it's close to dancehall, especially with the placement of the snares and some of the percussion. But it's done in a slightly different way and the instrumentation is very different. It's close though, and a lot of music is related to each other, not because of stuff that's happening now but because people used to move and travel and trade a lot, and music would bleed into each other between Africa and the Middle East. Because the Levant is in the middle of it all you get a blending of some of these influences.
I'm just talking out of my ass, but I think that's sort of what happened. Looking at rhythms from the Middle East, looking at dancehall, looking at kuduro, there’s a lot of cross over. The hard part is – because it's so reliant on these exchanges and influences – knowing what sets Levantine music apart other than the instruments used. Because if people back then had different instruments, what would it sound like, that's what you want to know. You don't want to rely too much on the tools.
Do you think of your project as a contemporary Levantine music project?
When I was making it, not really, I just wanted to make what I like. I was so interested in the concept of taking Levantine music to the next level using modern sound design practices, rhythms, and club music, but the project wasn't centred around the contemporary Levantine composition. But in a way a by-product of it was a movement of people seeing where they can take this music and shedding light on what people are doing. The project was never explicitly concerned with a new expression of Levantine music per se, I didn't even send Hessle Audio an EP, I just showed them I was making and asked “what do you think of it?”. None of my EPs were done as EPs.
So, is there a narrative component to your compositions?
There is a narrative, but it's just the fact that I think there’s so much to be said, and there’s a lot of talented people to say these things, but a lot of people don't pursue it because they can't see a future. I didn't want to sell out or make in-your-face music to get somewhere. I wanted to stay true to the music. To prove to myself and to other people that you can do this from Jordan, you don't have to leave. In the age of the internet and connectedness, anyone can do it if you make something you believe in, you can do it if you build something and prepare for luck to strike.
Where do you attribute that luck? Is it when you played that gig with Middle of Nowhere and Daytimers?
That definitely wasn't luck, I didn't get my visa in time so I didn't play that gig, so I sent my friend from Jordan instead, Big Murk. To me he’s one of the forerunners of the Levant, of the Middle East. He’s putting his own spin on grime and classic hip hop sounds, it's so unique to him and people who've worked with him know that.
Where does the distinction lie in the approach between the collectives such as Middle of Nowhere and the way they approach that interface between UK dance music and SWANA music?
I think the best way to know the answer to that question is to go to the event and see Big Murk play and see whoever else play, and you'll see how Big Murk's music doesn't sound Middle Eastern at all, even though he’s from there. Most people from the region don't care about pushing that sound, the percussion, the instrumentation. It’ll naturally bleed into his productions. He also raps in Arabic, so it eventually presents itself.
Is there a lot of pressure or temptations to pivot towards that style of production due to its popularity at the moment?
There’s a way to navigate it, take Moving Still for example. He’s a great producer and he does a good job of staying true to the music, but he makes really good music regardless of where he’s from. He's on Palms Trax's label and for a good reason.
I think it's really important to respect the craft – to respect the art – it's not all about getting somewhere and using it as branding, because if you don't respect what you’re doing, other people are going to find it hard to respect as well. They might enjoy it, but it’s going to come and go really quick if we don't put a lot of thought into it and be serious about it. I've done the edits and stuff, it's good to have fun with your music, but I wanted to ensure that if you took the lyrics or songs out it's still a great tune.
Where are you drawing from when you produce?
I'm very influenced by the UK scene as that's where I was introduced to electronic music, but you can tell this isn't just UK bass music. I didn't just want to do garage and stuff, because I felt that was gimmicky for me. Garage producers have grown up with this shit, they've known this for their whole life, they're doing it really well already. But for me to do it, when I've only lived in the UK for three years of my life, I’d be trying to get into the UK scene by doing something that I'm not.
I don't want to say you're born somewhere and you're stuck with that and can't bring in other stuff, but you don't want to fake your identity at the same time. Now that edits culture is huge, if I made really good UK bass music, it's as gimmicky as if I just did a quick edits tune. People might not agree with that, but to me, they're both trying to fast-track popularity.
It's about creating a body of music that I can look back at and say – this is me. I want to try and represent myself through music, it just happens that where I'm from and the place I found my music in are very different and the marriage of these creates something new.
Talk to me about you Radio Flouka mixes and what Radio Flouka means to you
Radio Flouka is a radio station in Paris run by a guy called Haroun, he's Tunisian. I think he's one of the most important people in getting Middle Eastern DJs on board, I don't know anyone supporting grassroots DJs more than him. If you're a DJ starting out and you have a good ethos, you will play on Radio Flouka and you will get support from him.
He was the first person to give me a platform and that was a few months after I started DJing. Just the fact that I had a platform and someone wanted me to play this music on the radio was instrumental in me going forward with this. I think these institutions and especially Radio Flouka are doing a huge thing for the community, much more than these huge platforms. If I got a guest mix on NTS or Rinse, it would be cool. But if I didn't get that Radio Flouka residency there’s no way I would have gone forward with this. I don't think Haroun get the credit he deserves. He's helped so many of the people get the confidence, if you look around the scene for the past two years, a lot of people who've made it have some connection to him.
What’s the ecosystem like in Amman? Are there record labels that will sign that music operating out there?
There's one record label at the moment, its run by a guy called Laith. It's called Drowned By Locals and for me, as a record label, it's better than most that I know. It's very out-there in the way that they work with outcasts. Like they'll record an hour of crazy samples and release it as a four-hour recording, they've signed a crazy band called Al-Mutreb Abul-Loul, who do very raw recordings…. Robin Stewart from Giant Swan has put out a release there. It's completely stripped back and different stuff. They have a huge range of stuff, as long as it's good and it's true, he'll release it. They even released an album by Costes. But in terms of electronic stuff, we still don't have anything.
For people playing from the Middle East, have you found crowds to have a more receptive ear to the music in Europe at the moment?
It's a different conversation when you’re talking about platforms to when you’re talking about crowds in clubs. Crowds in Jordan have been much more receptive to anything you throw at them, because they don't have the upbringing with labels like techno, garage et cetera – we're having our very own equivalent to the early-2000s UK scene in Jordan right now. Something new is happening and you can't go wrong with anything you play. In a few years it'll be bit more solid, but now it's just like anything goes.
When it comes to platforms, because there's such a scarcity of resources, a lot of platforms are trying to stick to stuff that will sell. Platforms in the Middle East are much more inclined to do that than platforms in London because the mainstream is a lot more leftfield in London than Jordan, so you can get funding even if you’re doing something grassroots or if you’re doing something very unique. In Jordan people are scared to give you money unless you’re doing something marketable, because they're not going to get a return and there’s not many resources to go around.
This is why you have to branch out of Jordan at a certain stage to build it seriously?
People from the region are very adamant about not wanting to sell out, or not wanting to rely on people from Europe to make them, we want to create our own spaces. But at the moment we might have to branch out in order to pull that back into the region. It's very important to not be like “I just want to go be a big DJ in Berlin and forget about it”. I think you can utilize the tools that are out there, but at the same time, it's important to have a scene in Jordan.
That's something you're personally committed to?
Yeah, that's the biggest thing for me. In all of my interviews and mixes and stuff, I'm always pushing everyone's work, the talent is as good as anywhere else I’ve seen. People deserve it, but they don't have the resources and they are scared to put it out there. Getting eyes on you and then you taking those eyes back home is the best thing you can do for the region – other than obviously making good stuff.
You almost seem to have a developmental approach to building the scene out there, can you convey how that scarcity and distance affects artists?
Parallels between Jordan and Europe can be found, for example between Bolton and London; Bolton is where donk originated and that's where they did something that was just for them. They didn't give a fuck about what London would think. They just did something that was true to them, eventually eyes got onto it; now donk is everywhere, but really it started in a small town where people didn't have resources.
I bet all the people who started donk are not doing music anymore. I think in some circumstances like that, where the originators didn't make it but donk did, it's very similar to what’s happening in Jordan. Doing shit that is true to you, it doesn't matter if it's like anything else, stick with it and believe in it, be somewhat strategic — in the donk situation you didn't have to be as strategic as you’re already in the UK, it's easier to get eyes on what you’re doing. In Jordan, you have to think where to get big, how to build up a community, it not as simple.
It seems like there’s something political about that to me? Do you think so?
Definitely. There’s a lot of pushback recently about that whole culture, about it being sort of anti-global or anti-institutional. The desire to create an alternative community is stronger there, although it is harder to do there, and I think that's where the political part comes into it. In the bigger picture, you want to make your own stuff due to the history of colonialism and the history of being at the mercy of 'the white man', and you want to do something that's completely independent. I don't want to have to be at the mercy of Europe to be successful.
But there is a fine line where you have to rub shoulders in order to make it happen. But you have to be very particular on who you work with. People like Hessle Audio, Hypnic Jerks are amazing people and I wouldn't want to work with anyone else, but they're not from Jordan. The reason you have to be so careful is that they have to understand where I'm from, what the music that I'm making is, and that’s what sets these partners apart.
Achille Mbembe wrote about how post-colonial spaces can present an “entanglement of temporalities of distinct interlocking presents, different pasts and varying futures”. Do you think this seems like a useful way of thinking about two different pasts between producers from the region and the diaspora when considering the multiple histories and experiences of Levantine music?
That's completely true, its happened, there’s a different layer there for people that's always been there and have experienced day-to-day life in the region. When you're abroad you can understand, you can study politics and read about post-colonialism all day, but you can't fully experience the effects of it unless you live there. In a way that translates into the way you work, the way you present your art and what it sounds like. You know, the diaspora was created by colonialism, it's a by-product of it, but it’s two different things.
I was watching a talk the other day by Slavoj Žižek that resonated with me on this point, he was talking about the relationship between African American people in America and their heritage in Africa. They created their own African American culture outside of Africa, they obviously know that it was a result of slavery and colonialism, but through these experiences and processes they've created their own culture as African Americans and its very different to the cultures in Africa and that's okay. Both have their place and it's similar, to a much lesser extent, with diaspora people from the Levant.
You can see it in the music as well, like people from South Africa making amapiano; you can understand it abroad but you wouldn't have thought of it unless you were living there. After it's been created people can replicate it. To create it you have to be living there your whole life, I think that's the difference. If you're Middle Eastern but you've never lived there, it's good to know your heritage, it's also good to create your own scene as diaspora and not have it mistaken with what’s happening there. They both can work together, and it’s completely cool, but it's different.
Now there’s a big shift, because it's easier for the diaspora to get noticed as they live in a much more resourceful place and it’s easier for them to get into the limelight, which is great for them and I'm really pleased for them that it happening.
But it's not the same as putting the limelight on Middle Eastern producers, that's the distinction that needs to happen. If we don't make the distinction, people will think by supporting the diaspora they're supporting artists from the region but they're not. Diaspora parties like Middle of Nowhere are great but they book predominantly diaspora rather than people from the Middle East. If you merge the two, it's a problem for people from the Middle East.
Who are the artists informing your sound out there today?
Because I'm making something that really has no history, the influences obviously have history, but the thing that I'm making now is completely new so it's hard to say I'm looking up to this or that person.
I'd say I'm influenced by Levantine music, and more specifically Jordanian music, because if you go to the south of Jordan it becomes more similar to Saudi music, the north is more like Syrian and Turkish music, so it can be very different. I'm influenced by music scenes and styles of play rather than people. When it comes to electronic music, I do have more concrete influences. I’ve learned from people like TSVI, then a lot of early dubstep people like Mark Pritchard who’s one of my favourite producers.
More recently its DJ Lag and Nazar – they've created completely novel genres based on the music they're listening to. DJ Lag basically created gqom, there wasn't gqom like today before DJ Lag. Nazar created rough kuduro, which is a completely new type of music but he still respects where they're coming from. I look up to them in that sense — their methodology.
In terms of people form the region, there’s Nadah El Shazly. She's done a really good job of it, she doesn't make club-oriented music, but she adopts the same way of thinking and making music.
'Petals' by Toumba is out now via Hessle Audio, get it here
Seven Orbits - Ravevv101
Frog of Earth - OY SEH UM
Pitcheno Ft. Organ Tapes - K1.
Sage - Freq Shifter
Biome - Looped Insanity
Tooth Rust - Gyre
Munchi - Damu Mambo
Georg-i - Stasis
Folding City - What It Is
Capiuz - Jump On It
Josi Devil - The Devil’s Dance Face
Only Now x Dave Sharma - I Am Remembering
Lechuga Zafiro - Para Abajo
Toumba - Unreleased
Yajaira la Beyaca & Genosidra - Karteluas ft. Sassyggirl & DJ Sustanicw
TSVI - Unreleased
INVT - Set Trippin (INVT Dubbed Out Mix)
Beam - PDF
Toumba - Unreleased
Cadenza - Walk Out (Feat. Ms. Banks & Spice)
Keiska - Poison Break
Nicola Cruz - O Sea, Sí Te Quiero (feat. Isabella Lovestory)
TSVI - Labyrinth
Esa - Blast feat. Narch Beats, Pendo Zawose