Artist Feature: Shkoon
Since 2016, Syrian-German duo Shkoon have made a thrilling entrance into the electronic music scene from their base in Hamburg, Germany. Their ethereal sound, a combination of electronic downtempo and classical Arabic melodies, has developed quickly and their shows regularly sell out from Beirut to London.
Shkoon is as much about music as it is a celebration of cultural diversity, resilience and unity. The duo take a humanist approach and aim to make music without boundaries. The result is a raw, intimate and sincere sound: in their own words, “it can make you dream and it can make you weep”.
With Ameen Khayer on vocals and percussion and Thorben Beeken on synth and electronics, and an ever-expanding collection of cables, synthesisers, microphones, computers and enigmatic blinking buttons, Shkoon has drawn audiences with their growing repertoire and memorable performances. The duo keep evolving their sound and redefining the limits of live performance.
A: “We have a lot of synthesisers in the studio, it’s like a big toy store.”
T: “It’s us running around the studio clapping all day long and recording claps.”
A: “It’s the most important thing in our songs. The clapping. Sometimes we just set up the mics in the studio in a weird way. We have a really genius guy with us, Henning. He’s also our sound engineer and was touring with us. We always try weird stuff with mics, we have a lot of vintage mics that we don’t use often. We mostly record claps, percussion and always try to go weird with them.”
In this article, we speak with Ameen and Thorben about their musical and professional growth over five years of collaboration. In the process they recall the chances, journeys and lessons learned on the way and fill us in on their dreams of building a ‘Shkoon orchestra’.
The story of how Thorben and Ameen met has been well rehearsed (Arab News, Revolver and Vice). For those of you who haven’t heard it, Ameen, having recently arrived in Hamburg, moved into a house share with Thorben. During an evening jam session in their shared kitchen, Thorben, who had been studying and performing for much of his life, got Ameen to join in; it turned out that he could sing surprisingly well.
“In Rima we fell into our own trap. We’ve now got back to this point of making less plans.”
Bringing together Ameen’s musical narrative and Thorben’s well established love of house and electronica, the two found they were onto something unique. At first Thorben was hesitant. After many years of playing and touring with bands, he wanted to focus on his own music and production. “I was thinking I am not going to have a band again. But then, we got to work, and something happened.” Self-produced and self-mixed, their first EP Letters was completed a mere four months after first meeting. The duo were offered the opportunity to perform at Fusion Festival in Germany, an internationally renowned programme of creative arts and music, and the ideal place to showcase their new project.
Their personal story is a good one, but what they wanted to talk about was the music. The decisions, surprises and revisions of the creative process. How to avoid becoming beholden to something that worked well.
‘Shkoon’ was the first word that Ameen taught Thorben in Arabic. In Ameen’s local dialect, it means ‘What?’. With a healthy dose of language and cultural differences between them and a slightly elusive musical project on the horizon, there was plenty of ‘Shkoon?’ going on. The name stuck. And they never stopped asking. What next?
They were invited back to Fusion two years later. By this point, their nascent project and sound had developed significantly. You can follow the musical chronicle below with their live performance recordings:
Fusion Festival 2016
Fusion Festival 2018
Shkoon’s follow-up EP, Build Your Castles (2017,) and its title track, were named after a poem by the Egyptian folk poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, which foretells a victorious uprising by the working class. Negm was part of an iconic duo with singer, composer and oud player Sheikh Imam. Their combination of political popular folk and vernacular poetry became highly popular in the 60s and 70s and was often banned from Egyptian television and radio stations, but it was inspirational for Ameen and Thorben.
Build your castles on the farmland
by our hard work and with our hands
And the bars near the factories
and the prisons instead of the gardens
Workers and peasants and students
our time has come and we have started
Taking a road without going back
and we see the victory coming closer.
[Translation Christelle Madani]
As well as drawing from poetry, Shkoon’s songs use Ameen’s original lyrics and old folk tales and stories. ‘Rima’, the title track of their 2019 debut album also features Jordanian-Palestinian rapper El Far3i. The album marks a new departure for the group, who have expanded their trademark sound to incorporate influences from dub and hip-hop. The name ‘Rima’ recalls a bittersweet song from a children’s folktale, in which a mother sings to her daughter as the world around them falls apart.
Yet the announcement of their first full length album brought a significant increase in their global exposure and with it, new responsibilities and expectations. With touring dates accumulating, the album began to take over. So did media interviews, travelling, touring, merchandise design, social media and album promotion. T: “In Rima we fell into our own trap. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the album, but we got trapped there. We’ve now got back to this point of making less plans…The energy of playing together is super free. It’s a new vibe when we play together.”
A: “We think less about the outsiders. We think about how we want to perform the music together.”
Shkoon had started as a boundless opportunity. They didn’t want to get stuck in something that they created and had the power to shape and enjoy. Over time, the duo realised that they should work in various modes – small steamy basement shows and large festival stages – to enjoy full creative freedom at some times, and sync with audience expectations at others.
T: “There was a key moment when we played one of our first club gigs in Berlin, in Keller. People liked the music and the feedback was great, but we felt like we were losing some people. We love long breaks and taking rhythms out [during our live set]. People got lost. This was the first time I realised there was a certain functionality to how we play. Afterwards I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind. This was a key moment. For the first time, I made a musical decision based on how the audience reacts.”
A: “We were playing in clubs. We want this contact with the audience, how we communicate with them. It was different than in concerts.”
This was a significant turning point for Thorben and Ameen, who saw their growing adaptability and awareness as a key asset to their music development. New ideas didn’t need to be debuted in their usual shows. They could be experimented with in different formats, while still ensuring that their audiences’ expectations were catered to. While working on their most recent EP, 33.9 Million Miles, they hit a deadlock in the third and final song. They find themselves scrapping numerous song ideas and potential collaborators. No matter how hard they tried, it just didn’t sound right.
T: “We were working on a movie score this summer and doing a lot of music away from Shkoon. There were a few piano pieces that I wrote. A month later Ameen found a video of himself singing to one of them. I didn’t even know he had recorded something. I thought that’s it. That’s the missing piece of the puzzle!”
“Playing acoustically with only one instrument. It’s something beautiful.”
‘Invertigo’, the final piece, was unprecedented for both of them. The song is stripped and intimate with just piano and vocals.
A: “The song is a reminder to myself that we belong to the things we love. It doesn’t matter if it’s your girlfriend, boyfriend, mother, favourite dish. It’s about love itself, not like a romantic relationship. It’s hard to translate. The rhyme in Arabic is ‘I am from me and you are from you, I wish that we spend the rest of our lives together… With me, my experiences in life – I’m away from my beloved ones. I am away from my memories. The usual smells… I miss them and it’s always in my mind. I never wrote lyrics before and I was struggling with writing. The three songs are original. For me it’s a good feeling that I can express what I feel.”
“With the new set up, we’re building an orchestra that we’re capable of conducting in a different way each time.”
They were fascinated by the opportunity that an acoustic set-up gave them: it was a first for them both.
A: “I love it. You have a lot of space to improvise and are more free. You can go wild. It’s different when you play an electronic song full of sounds, waves and frequencies; you have a specific place [to sing]. But now, you can have a role in this ‘orchestra’. Playing acoustically with only one instrument. It’s something beautiful. And the piano is one of the most beautiful instruments.”
T: “There’s one thing we discovered recently with our live stream concert, the new EP and its acoustic parts – a new way of playing and performing live. I feel really inspired and am really looking forward to the moment when we’re playing shows again. We’ve developed a good and strong system and setup… It’s a new attempt of playing. The last tour, before Corona happened, we were playing and performing the album [Rima]. With the new set up, we’re building an orchestra that we’re capable of conducting in a different way each time.”
Shkoon’s originating story is inspiring and the instant popularity of Rima has been a heady adventure. But the duo are determined not to be beholden to their early success. With the release of their live concert stream and a newfound inclusion of acoustic instruments, what started with an accidental discovery has now fuelled a fully fledged dream. An orchestra format for Shkoon’s songs is their next big milestone. Remaining open to new challenges and never believing they had found the ‘right way’ to work remains the key to the duo’s creative ethic – and we look forward to seeing and hearing what comes next.
A warm thank you to all of those who submitted questions. To respect some privacy requests, we have kept names anonymous.
What’s the name of the last song you performed during your latest live stream? And when will you release it?
The song is called Forgotten Stories, which we composed for the documentary “The other Side of the River” by Antonia Kilian. It was the first time we composed music for a film together and we are super happy that it was for such an amazing project. The plan is to release the song together with the premiere of the documentary, but due to Corona the date is not set yet. But for sure, it’ll be worth to wait and watch the film.
How did the collaboration with El Far3i come about, and will you be collaborating with more artists in the future?
We met El Far3i several times while touring throughout the last years and we always had the idea to collaborate with each other one day. And as we were working on the Rima album, the title track of our last album, we were in need of a powerful, political voice for the middle part and of course Tareq was the first we thought of. Right now we are working on several collaborations with artists around the globe, but it might be a little early to talk about it yet.
Do you have a favourite memory from when you were touring?
Most concerts leave a few strong memories in our minds and it is hard to rank them. But the one that sticks the most is probably when Ameen was finally able to see his family in Beirut for a few days again in 2019.
If you were not a musician, what would you most like to be?
Still a human being with strong political options hopefully. We believe music and creativity is more passion than a job.
What’s the one festival you hope to be invited to after Covid?
There are of course a lot of festivals and places we miss nowadays. But in the end it’s gonna be the festival where we can see all our friends and beloved ones we haven’t seen since this all escalated.