The Spirit Of Place: An Interview With El Mahdy Jr

The haunting collages of Turkey resident El Mahdy Jr draw traditional and pop music forms into music that pulses with atmosphere.

City squares are often breeding grounds for political uprising: Tiananmen, Red, Tahrir, Maidan Nezalezhnosti. In Istanbul, Taksim Square has seen its fair share of civil unrest, from 1969’s ‘Bloody Sunday’, to the brutal Labour Day massacre of 1977. Last summer, it was the setting for a wave of demonstrations triggered by the violent removal of sit-in protestors from Gezi Park, there to rally against a new urban development plan. El-Mahdi Rezoug was living in Istanbul at the time, and inadvertently found himself caught up amongst the masses that engulfed the surrounding area on the very first day of the protests. "I was going to work on the subway," he says, when I speak to him on a warm June afternoon over a Skype connection that clips and stutters, forcing us to type out fragments of our conversation. "When we went outside there was smoke everywhere and I found myself waiting for the [tear] gas to clear in a store with thirty [other] people. I couldn’t turn back to my house, and stayed for two days around Taksim."

Rezoug is no stranger to living alongside the frays of political turbulence. He grew up in the Algerian province of Sidi Bel Abbès in the late 90s, while the country was in the midst of a civil war. "For a child it’s not really serious," Rezoug says of that time. "I remember of course, but it was not a dramatic thing for us, at least as a child. It was just something that we lived with somehow." When he was ten years old he and his family fled to Konya, a city in the Central Anatolia region of Turkey, where Rezoug now lives while he’s not in either Istanbul or Zagreb in Croatia, working as a translator of French and Arabic.

As El Mahdy Jr. he makes music that spans both geographical and temporal ground. On new EP Gasba Grime, released last month on Danse Noire, he takes the traditional North African musical form of gasba, and lays it over a grid of subtle inferences to London’s E3 postcode; squelching bass, stumbling snares and splayed strings. He is not, he insists, a musician, and prefers instead to describe himself as "a guy who points things out". A musician, he adds somewhat modestly, "is something higher for me". His work relies heavily on sampling, stitching together a continuum of influences; tracing a lineage back through his own personal history and that of the places that inspire him. While many Western artists often seek to fetishise these distant influences, often without awareness of their cultural standing or relevance, Rezoug fully understands the traditions that underlie the musics he samples. Most of his musical influence, as he says, comes "from the environment[s] that I was living in. I discovered the classics through my father’s record collection."

As he grew older, he started to discover different genres from further afield, including dub, rap, grime and jungle – any kind of electronic music he could get his hands on. His 2013 debut album, The Spirit Of Fucked Up Places, was written predominantly while bedridden in Burkina Faso with malaria. It drew from the sounds of Arabesk, a form of Turkish pop music rooted in working class culture. It’s usually led by vocals, and tends to centre itself around highly embellished themes of love and yearning. It’s also hugely popular, and Rezoug describes the sound as something that perforates all aspects of Turkish life. "You sit somewhere to have tea, or you enter a shop that plays some Arabesk, it’s everywhere." There is however, some snobbery surrounding the music’s cultural value. "It’s about the [conflict between] high culture, the classical Turkish music and the sub culture," Rezoug says. "There is always a kind of hypocrisy between them, the high culture is considered good, and sub culture is considered bad but it is everywhere. Ignoring that is the hypocrisy of society."

There’s also tension surrounding another traditional musical influence of Rezoug’s, raï, a form of Algerian folk music that dates back to the 1930s. Its lyrics often concern political and social issues and its cultural history is controversial; it was a driving force behind anti-government protests in the mid 1980s, and there was a consequent attempt to eradicate it entirely, including a ban on the importing of blank cassettes and confiscation of the passports of raï musicians. In January of this year, Rezoug released a 10" titled Raï Dubs on Boomarm Nation. Its tracks sample old raï songs ripped from YouTube and tapes found left in a rental car, their wailing vocals buried underneath inflamed reverb and slinking traditional grooves.

Through pulling and knotting together all these cultural threads, Rezoug’s resulting work is incredibly intricate; it feels almost impossible to peel apart the many layers of detail that line each track. Even without being able to understand the lyrics or snippets of political rhetoric, the sonic tension alone speaks a universal language, swelling up from moments of sinister minimalism into throaty throbs of bass that rouse those commanding vocals. Resistance is certainly a prevalent theme on ‘Anti Hero’, a track Rezoug made for a compilation put out by Diren Musik last year. The album was released in solidarity with those involved in the Gezi Park protests, and the track, Rezoug explains to me, samples a speech from the 70s by Ruhi Su, an Alawi Saz singer, about a politician who divides his nation. It creeps in over a loop of a misshapen police siren, interspersed with shouts of crowds as they splutter and cough through the engulfing tear gas – audio recorded by Rezoug directly from news coverage of the protests in Istanbul. A meticulous thought process underlies his each and every creative decision. "I pick references to tell something," he says. "[Sound] is like words. Pick the right words to say what you think."

These carefully thought out allusions permeate every aspect of Rezoug’s work, right down to potent track titles that feel like fragments of newspaper headlines: ‘From Hate To Smoke’, ‘Crack-Addicted Bellydancer’, ‘Permanent Defeat’. "Your products reflect your experiences," he explains simply, when I ask him if making politically influenced tracks is intentional. "I was living in this society for more than ten years, and those problems are kind of part of your life. I am sure what I do [musically], is somehow connected with that. The problems that caused those protests [are always there]. It is not something new, or special about Istanbul. It is nothing new for us; we [have] lived with that contrast for years. Those kinds of things are part of our lives, and we have to keep on living, so even though it affects you, after a while you just ignore it and keep on living. All political wars are made for some [supposed] benefits, and no one thinks about the masses. Today in Syria, Pakistan, Mali, Ukraine, the man with power is looking for his benefits and the masses are those who really suffer. We, the people, want just bread and freedom."

Wander along İstiklal Caddesi, a winding pedestrian street to the south of Taksim Square, and you’ll come to Pixie Underground, a small, one-roomed music venue buried in the heart of Istanbul. It’s a conduit for the Turkish electronic underground, and Rezoug was first invited to play there by Emir Ongun, aka Gantz, while he was living in Konya. Earlier this year they teamed up on ‘Rising’, one side of a 12" released on Mala’s DEEP MEDi label. A thunderous, ominous Middle Eastern take on dubstep, its strings and ticking percussion erupt menacingly into juddering wallops of bass."It’s open to new streams [of music]." Rezoug says of Pixie’s all embracing outlook. "I feel at home when I play there."

In April of this year, the club hosted a showcase from Bristol’s Young Echo crew as part of Club To Club festival, where Rezoug played alongside Jabu, Killing Sound and Vessel. "It was pretty fun," Rezoug says of the event. "We have a strong connection, we respect each other, let’s say." He discusses working with Jabu, the duo of Amos Childs and MC/vocalist Alex Rendell, and later I stumble across a collaboration titled ‘They Come For You’ in a recorded session by Gantz for Mixmag, a looping hypnotic hymn of a track that cloaks itself around Rendell’s voice before tearing itself apart in dramatic climax.

This allegiance with the Bristol collective makes sense, particularly when it comes to Killing Sound, who make an appearance on Gasba Grime with a remix of ‘Lost Bridge’, dropping the original into a deep darkened chasm where it fizzes like an Alka-Seltzer, impassioned vocals ringing out into the echoing void. Rezoug admits he can’t put his finger on exactly what it is that unites these two geographically distant but sonically very analogous outfits, but acknowledges "there is something that fits perfectly". He is yet to play over in the UK – for now his music travels the world only via the internet and international distribution of his vinyl records. "There are people who enjoy it," he says of Istanbul crowds, "but there are [always] some running out. It is not usual I guess, they don’t want to understand. Trying to understand something is a process, and when you have the choice of something easier, people want that way."

El Mahdy Jr’s Gasba Grime is out now via Danse Noire, and his Last Breath 7" is released this month through Zam Zam.

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