EBB Music

Zenobia ‘Warriors’ on Their Fearless Palestinian Electronic Music

Palestinian duo Zenobia on their love of Arabic and Western music scales and the freedom electronic music gives them to fearlessly explore women’s folk music.

Warriors Never Die
5 May 2023

The Haifa-based Palestinian electronic duo Zenobia released their first EP, Halak Halak, in 2020. The pioneering producer Nasser Halahlih and keyboardist Isam Elias recently returned in May with a new EP, Warriors Never Die. On four tracks inspired by Palestinian folk songs, the pair lean into what they call a globalized “mish-mash” of European techno, classical Arabic musical scales, and women’s folk.

Producer Nasser Halahlih engages with PopMatters over email about the inspiration behind the EP, the Palestinian electronic music scene, and the duo’s roots in Haifa. While the smoke-filled labyrinths of Berlin never drift far away, Zenobia’s north star is their homeland. At turns evoking both their roots and a broader, global horizon, Zenobia swaps out the oud and tabla for synths and drum pads. They cite dabke – a Levantine folk dance commonly performed at weddings – as a major rhythmic influence.

Bouncy beat drops on tracks like “Ya Yuma- Joy and Love” almost seem to mimic the emblematic foot stamps and thrusting lunges performed by dabke line dancers. “Tarweeda” is inspired by the plight of political prisoners during the British Mandate of Palestine. Tarweeda, they say, “was used by women ever since the days of the British Mandate in the 1930s as a way of transmitting encrypted messages between political prisoners and their villages. The encryption involved permutations of letters in the lyrics.” 

Zenobia emerges on the tide of a burgeoning Palestinian electronic scene, which has gained renown in recent years thanks to stars like DJ Sama’ Abdulhadi (dubbed Palestine’s “techno queen”) and the Palestinian-Jordanian group 47Soul. Nowadays, they say, “there are more acts and DJs than before, but we still have a lot of work to do.” 

They owe their namesake to Septimia Zenobia, the 3rd-century Syrian queen who brought Rome under her sway. For Halahlih and Elias, it’s a celebration of their cultural heritage and a recognition of the role of the divine feminine in that history. “Sometimes,” Halahlih says, “we feel like her soldiers spreading her [Queen Zenobia’s] music and vibe in the world.” They say their music channels the warrior dimension, a world “ruled by pure love and justice.” Like a medium summoning the spirits of the dead, Zenobia resurrects the historic queen like a holographic spirit – once buried in the past, a victim to fallen empires and failed invasions, who may now return and light the way to the future. 

One can’t overlook the political sensibilities here. This utopian realm of warriors – a free, joyous place where love and justice rule – lies incredibly out of reach for everyday Palestinians living as second-class citizens in Israel’s 1948 borders or as subjects of a brutal military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. In the context of nation-making and the ongoing resistance to apartheid, Palestinian art asks what a liberated cultural production looks like. How might art demarcate the lines of a future, freer Palestinian homeland? What role does music play in constructing a vision of freedom? What about nightclubs, raves, and recording studios? Maybe Queen Zenobia’s warrior dimension isn’t elusive after all. In the battle over the future, envisioning a new dimension isn’t a bad place to start. 

All four tracks on your new EP, Warriors Never Die, are based on emblematic Palestinian folk songs. What role have those folk tunes played in your life, and why did you choose to transpose them for this project? 

These folk tunes are part of our childhood, we used to hear this kind of song at weddings and different such occasions, so they became part of our identity, like the soundtrack for aspects of our memories. We used to see our grandmothers and our mothers singing these songs; it connected us to beautiful human moments.

During the Covid pandemic, our touring stopped and we had time to think deeper about our project, music, and story. At some point, we discovered that we are always dealing with the past. We’re transferring it to the future, music-wise. The band name we chose,  Zenobia, also comes from the past. It’s a woman’s name and we believe that our music very much relates to feminine aspects. At that point, we decided to dive into these Palestinian women’s folk songs we knew before, and we picked these specific songs for this project.

The production on this EP is so clean that you can hear all these sensitive dynamics and really crisp bass lines. It’s a spacious sound, which is a bit of a sonic shift from your last album, Halak Halak. That album zeroed in on tight, punchy dabke rhythms. How did your approach to production change between these two releases? Have you been experimenting with a lot of different sounds? 

We experiment all the time; it’s part of Zenobia’s DNA. In the studio, we were guided by two ideas that led us to make the EP different from the first album. One is that we were dealing with folk songs people know and love, which can be risky. The other is that we tried rearranging these songs as if they had been written nowadays. We strived as much as we could to give every song a unique personality, which took a lot of experimenting in the studio with different equipment and sounds. We can tell you that each song on the EP is the result of at least three previous versions.

This is also your first time using guest vocals on your tracks. How did that change the dynamics in the recording studio? 

Actually, it adds another dimension to our work. It was a great experience to work more with vocals and try to bring the vibe we wanted in the tracks.

What role do spontaneity and improvisation play in your music? What adjustments do you make when you play live? 

All our projects started from improvising live on stage in front of an audience. There is something unique that happens when we improvise. We feel it brings more truth and spontaneity. Nowadays, in our shows, we always keep the option to improvise on the already-produced tracks; that is why we have all the elements separated in the show so we can fly with the moments and the energy of the audience, wherever it takes us.

You’re from Haifa, a city that has become a nucleus for Arab music. How is the electronic music/dance music scene there? Do you feel at home in that community?

Haifa is our home. Our base is here. We could move to many places, like France or Germany or any other country, but we choose to stay here and to prove to our community that we can stay home and go worldwide with our art. We are very happy that this works and is helping many acts and singers do their thing.

Nasser Studio became a home for many artists, some of whom performed on our EP. We are working hard to develop the dance music scene here and we can say that things have started to move. Nowadays, there are more acts and DJs than before, but we still have a lot of work to do. 

You’ve said that this EP carries with it a message of hope and freedom. What does freedom mean to you today as a Palestinian artist? 

We think there is no difference between us as artists and us as humans. Freedom, for me, means to dream with no fears.

Are you connected to the wider Palestinian music scenes in places like Ramallah or elsewhere in the Arab world?

We have a very good connection; we take part in collaborative projects and perform everywhere. We feel that we are sharing the same area, culture, and language. We are working on more collaborations with other artists from this area. 

Critics outside the Middle East often use blanket terms when talking about artists from the Middle East, such as the “East meets West” trope or framing the art as some cultural bridge between a so-called “modernity” and “tradition.” This often feels dismissive and reductive of the rich musical heritage that the artist is operating within. The subtext is that Arab, Asian, or African music is not compelling unless it draws from Western elements and must be an active merging toward Western music (assumed to be superior) to stay relevant.

Those of us outside of these countries hear a lot of adapted “cross-over” music. I’m skeptical about critics who claim that a certain artist must be intentionally attempting to *merge* different cultural elements. Do you think that the rest of the world will adopt music that is specifically “Palestinian”, “Syrian”, or “Nigerian”?

We are very lucky that we don’t have to do what critics say or what the market or whoever says. We do what we love to do in our own way. We love electronic music and the options it brings. We love quarter tones and we love Western music scales as much as we love Arabic music scales. We think the whole world is becoming one big mish-mash, and we, as artists, are part of this globalization. 

Your name pays homage to Septima Zenobia, an ancient queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria. You’ve mentioned the spirit of the queen coming back from another dimension. What does that dimension look like to you, and how does your music engage with her legacy? 

The dimension that Zenobia is in is a dimension for warriors. We can imagine how it looks; for us, it looks like a place with very clean souls, ruled by pure love and justice. We are living in the area that was ruled by Queen Zenobia; we are playing tunes that developed from that time until now, and we are breathing the air of her era. Sometimes we feel like her soldiers spreading her music and vibe in the world.