Egypt From Germany

Rami Abadir’s Ison

With his latest album, Ison, Egyptian expatriate Rami Abadir confirms that he is one of contemporary electronic music’s most intriguing talents.

Berlin at its best. Egyptian political prisoner protest, Hermannplatz.

After several releases that underscored his gift for turning abstract concepts into compelling avant-garde soundscapes, the Berlin-based Abadir surprised fans last year with Mutate, which adapted his collage techniques for the dance floor, fashioning a post-orientalist aesthetic that channelled his Near Eastern heritage without succumbing to exoticising clichés.

Now, Abadir is back with an album that achieves a similar result by going in the opposite direction.

Abadir pieced Ison together from field recordings of Christian church services, mostly of eastern sects. Yet the record is not conventionally religious.

Rather, he uses the beauty of his source material to conjure an aesthetic experience that resonates regardless of the listener’s background.

Even when we hear sounds in context, as we do on the album’s opening track, “Greeting, 6:40 pm”, Abadir adds layers of synth that distance us from the field recordings.

More commonly, as on the title track, he breaks the source material down until it functions like the tiles in a mosaic, contributing to a different mental picture than it would if it were left in larger units.

The opening bars of Ison’s penultimate track, “Holy Week”, almost sound like an abortive cover of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” before giving way to a lush soundscape worthy of Carl Craig’s less beat-driven music.

Interviewed via Zoom from his Berlin apartment, Abadir emphasises his interest in creating a sound that doesn’t fall into the most prevalent categories of electronic music.

“What is not club music is considered, without thinking, ambient,” he complains. With Ison, he aspired to create music that should be situated on a different conceptual axis, the kind he calls “cinematic” or “theatrical”.

Not in the sense of telling the story of a place as a conventional documentary might, but more like an experimental film, comprised of footage assembled according to a non-linear logic.

For Abadir, making cinematic music means “creating more space” and using “percussive elements” to create a feeling of progress, the sort that keeps “morphing and changing”, in contrast to ambient music that is more conceptually amorphous and doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

Some listeners might argue that Abadir wants us to perceive the inherent spirituality of all music, but this is not how he frames the project. His motivation was purely aesthetic.

“It has been years since I went to church. The last time I attended regularly was when I was 15 or 16. Now I’m 41. I only started to go back to enjoy the choir.”

These trips were not nostalgic for him.

“I found myself now and then opening my laptop and listening, especially to Greek Orthodox chants,” Abadir says. “I would think, ‘I like that’. It doesn’t have anything to do with practising the religion or being a believer. I appreciate them musically.”

Musicians who also write about music frequently insist on keeping those practices separate, as if they might contaminate each other. Refreshingly, this reflex is less common in the realm of experimental electronica. And Abadir is particularly open to the cross-pollination that can occur by avoiding it.

“The good thing that came from writing and also critical theory in general, reading a lot of non-fiction,” he explains, is that it developed his capacity for “self-critique”, to perceive “what could be better, what could be enhanced” and, more viscerally, “what would make me hate the stuff that I’m doing.”

It also prevented the sort of myopia that can plague artists who make music by themselves on a computer.

Writing about other people’s music widened his scope — “from pop music to adventurous experimental music to club music to ambient music” — and kept him “up to date”. From a business perspective, it also helped him maintain good relationships with labels and artists.

“I think this put me in the centre of what’s going on.”

Being a critic with such a wide range of influences also helped Abadir avoid the pitfalls that frustrate musicians who try to translate their cultural heritage for poorly informed Western audiences.

Even more than its club-friendly predecessor, Ison wages war on authenticity.

Although the first portion of the album – side A of the vinyl release – features field recordings that Abadir made while visiting his family in Egypt before the pandemic, the remainder derives from other locations around the Mediterranean.

This speaks to the complexity of what Abadir calls his “relationship with the so-called West”.

“I owe a lot to so many thinkers – writers, philosophers, theoreticians – from Europe, from the UK, from the States.” While acknowledging this debt, he is keen to avoid the perception that influence only proceeds in one direction.

Abadir also works hard to situate Western thinking, problematising its pretence to universality.

“Two things count for me,” he explains. The first is its spatial context, “where something is written, the audience to which it’s addressed.” And the second is its temporal context, “when it was written.”

Abadir cites the example of Mark Fisher’s 2014 book Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures.

Not only does this book reflect a worldview centred on Fisher’s home in England. It is also clearly the product of a pre-Brexit era that now feels very far away from our own. Yet Western critics continue to mobilise Fisher’s arguments as if they applied just as well today and to societies very different from his own.

“We cannot simply apply what he said back in the day to what’s happening now,” Abadir states. And even if we were to adjust for everything that has changed since Fisher wrote the book, there is still the problem of its geographic particularity.

“The world is not centred around Europe or the UK or the States,” Abadir continues. “There are so many interesting things happening everywhere, every day: in South America; East Africa; South Africa, the country; Egypt; the Arab regions; China.”

When Western writers fall back on Fisher’s concept of the “cancellation of the future”, they ignore the progress that has been happening elsewhere.

But they also make it harder to perceive how artists and thinkers from these less-discussed places have been developing a cosmopolitanism that turns the concept of “elsewhere” inside out.

Ison’s second track, “Kyrie”, is a particularly good example. We hear sounds coming from a variety of sources, some internally generated by a computer and some from the outside world. Yet they flow together so seamlessly that it becomes impossible to tell them apart.

Abadir’s Egypt is present but has been transformed into something so personal that it no longer approximates anyone else’s conception of the place. It is elsewhere because it is everywhere and nowhere at once.

The point, Abadir concludes, is “to confuse the listener somehow about the exotic thing”.

The special genius of both Ison and its predecessor, Mutate, is that these records repudiate the tacit universalism of electronic music in the West without offering a stable conception of the East as an alternative.

The influence of Abadir’s Egyptian heritage can be discerned throughout these albums. However, we perceive it through the ears of someone who decided to settle in Germany.

Rami Abadir moved to Europe to expand his horizons. But he also did it to expand ours, regardless of our background.

With Ison, he has provided us with a beautiful experience that helps to break down preconceived notions about both his homeland and ours.

Photograph courtesy of Hossam el-Hamalawy. Published under a Creative Commons license.