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Rasha Nahas: The sounds of the Arab world meets Berlin’s U8

Palestine-born singer-songwriter Rasha Nahas has released a new album mixing street recordings from Haifa with those of her adopted city, Berlin.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Dealing with themes of alienation, disconnection and nostalgia, Amrat covers typical traits for almost anyone new to a city. But in this instance, the motifs are much deeper, which in turn make for a more epic and meaningful body of music.

Born to Palestinian parents in the city of Haifa, Israel, Rasha Nahas has been exploring her identity through music ever since she could pick up a guitar. In 2021, she released her debut LP Desert, a jaunty, rock-cabaret record that documented her experience moving to Berlin. In January, the artist followed it up with Amrat, a double-LP that saw her further connect to her Palestinian roots with a delicate, folk sound sung in her native language.

Berlin is a a special place where there’s a lot of dialogue, discourse, international culture and colour

Amrat, which translates to ‘sometimes’, began when Nahas sustained a hand injury that prevented her from playing the guitar. As a result, she began experimenting with electronic loops, singing over the and creating the first side of the new LP.

The second side documents her recovery as she eased into guitar playing again. You don’t have to read the lyrics’ translations online to understand that this is a very nostalgic and sentimental LP. From the opening track featuring the humdrum sounds of the U8, to the street recordings from Haifa and the melancholic Arabic sonatas, Amrat talks to two different communities, bridged by Nahas’ words and music.

We caught up with the singer to discuss the meaning behind Amrat and how she believes it can help connect the multiple sides of her musical community.

How did you end up in Berlin?

I moved to Berlin in 2017. It was not planned. I played a show in Ramallah, at the first showcase festival that brought together international and industry delegates to showcase Palestinian artists. After this event I was booked to play Glastonbury and started work with  management in the UK. I started receiving more gig opportunities from abroad and eventually flew to Berlin and settled here. I applied for an artist visa and got some job offers and shows, and it all just made sense.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Every station is so special. Moritzplatz, Kotti, Rosenthaler Platz with the saxophone player

How has living in Berlin affected your musical style?

There are many aspects to that. There’s being away from where I’m from, and then there’s being in Berlin. Being away gave me a lot of space to discover my identity away from the charged context in which it was shaped; as a woman, a Palestinian and an artist.

Berlin is a very specific and unique city, it’s a special place where there’s a lot of dialogue, discourse, international culture and colour. I also got into the history, the music that came from here, and that 30 years ago, there was a wall here, and it all met inside me somewhere. The cabaret, the music, the theatre; the Weimar era was very charged and had a dissonance that I felt connected to in a weird way. My band is also here, and there is a massive Arabic community as well.

Though I have an Israeli passport, I am disconnected from the rest of the Arabic world. For instance, Beirut is two hours away from Haifa by car, but I’ve never been there. But in Berlin, there are a lot of people from the Arab world who look like me, have the same interests as me and listen to the same music as me. I can have a show and they can be there, which should be normal, but is not where I’m from.

You said that being in Berlin helped you with your identity. What do you mean by that?

I played at the AL Berlin festival in October, and I can actually speak to the audience in Arabic

It’s very personal. Growing up as a queer Palestinian woman, no one is going to come and make it legit for you; to live and be your full self, unapologetically. When I moved to Berlin I was 21 with a guitar and a backpack. Coming here and playing, releasing my first album and doing everything independently, brought me a lot of values that became a base for me to learn, grow and build on.

My work is very community-oriented, focused on how to empower one another, understanding our identities and the spaces around us, and thinking how to make space on a collective, individual and artistic level; this is my compass that is guiding me.

What specific Arab music communities are you involved with in Berlin?

For example, there is AL Berlin. I can go there by myself and always meet someone I know. I played at the AL Berlin festival in October, and I can actually speak to the audience in Arabic. Very often in the Western world, people review my music and read the lyrics – or not read the lyrics – but people don’t often know the context from which the music is born.

For example, at my release concert, there were people who were from my community, with whom I share a context. We speak of pain, and we know what pain we speak of. When we speak of grief, or belonging, or exile, it’s a very specific feeling that we don’t need to explain. When we sing a love song, there is a shared relationship that is very precious to the diaspora.

With Amrat, there is a certain feeling to it, even though I don’t understand the lyrics. Do you worry about there being a language barrier with audiences?

It’s something I think about a lot. I’m not into mainstream culture, but ignoring it would be naive. If you look at the top artists of today, like Rosalía or Stromae [who sing in their native language], we see that we live in a world where these barriers can be broken, and we have mediums of connecting with our audiences. We live in an era where the artist-audience relationship is very special, and this is something that goes beyond language.

In Berlin, there are a lot of people from the Arab world who look like me, have the same interests as me and listen to the same music

All of my videos from Amrat have translations in English. At my concerts, I always ask who speaks English or Arabic, and I sometimes translate some of the songs. Arabic is a very specific language in the West. There’s a lot of ‘orientalisation’, othering or stereotypes of how an Arabic woman should be. I had a review from a very big English magazine that was really weird and said something like, ‘I don’t understand the lyrics, but I can tell there’s nothing Arabic about it.’ It’s this kind of stuff.

Could you tell me more about the album’s themes?

To complete the narrative, I used a lot of field recordings as interludes. For instance, on the tracks ‘Fi’ and ‘U8’. It didn’t complete the narrative by saying something more, but by adding an atmosphere. ‘Fi’ is just me playing the guitar with the sounds around me outside. So often, we get into recordings, and we try to find the perfect sound, but we very often miss the sound of a space, and the sound of real life. Nostalgia plays a very big part there, like the sound of the streets in Haifa, which for me brings me closer to the album in a subconscious way.

In terms of songs, the first chapter was written when I couldn’t move my hands. When I came back to the guitar, these were written during a very vulnerable time for me, and I hear a lot of strength in these songs. In the second chapter, my personal favourite is ‘Ya Binti’. It’s a song I wrote during the first week in my new apartment, while things were still in boxes. I was cleaning a bit, and then had this tear in my eye, and I just picked up the guitar, and recorded it there. There are these moments that are beyond explanation, and these are the special spots that I hold onto on this record.

What are your plans moving forward?

I’ve already started work on my new album, and I’m working more in English at the moment – it’s something that I really feel connected to a lot. So I’m asking myself how these languages can co-exist on the same record. I’m also experimenting with new producers, as I always self-produced to this point. I’m going on tour and am really hoping to reach new people and do my thing.

And finally, the new record starts off with a field recording of the U8. Do you love or hate the U8?

Those are definitely the two words I would use to describe it. Honestly, it’s very special. You ride north or south, and every station is so special. Moritzplatz, Kotti, Rosenthaler Platz with the saxophone player… It’s really a unique space and there’s nothing quite like it.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Rasha’s playlist

Derya Yıldırım- Nem Kaldi

I really love this song, it’s amazing to see how the band took a classic and made it their own.

Albertine Sarges – Oh My Love

I had a few days when I was really hooked on this song – I love the songwriting, arrangement and the way it portrays Berlin.

Enana – Mn Hon

I absolutely love Enana’s lyrics, energy and fierceness. I had the honour to listen to some unreleased material they’re working on, and I can’t wait to see them out in the world.

Dornika – All Eyes On The Revolution

Dornika was recently the opening act for my album release show at Kantine Am Berghain. I was completely blown away by the energy and quality of their performance.

Yelmur – The Price We Pay

Yelmur is the solo project of my bass player and collaborator Jelmer De Haan– I love this album [How We Hide, 2022], specifically this track, and the sonic world that he crafted so brilliantly.