Deena Abdelwahed is a Tunisian DJ and musician, born and raised in Qatar. From her current base in Toulouse, France, she makes experimental electronic music that merges dense, sludgy sounds with danceable rhythms from multiple genres. In 2017, she released a hypnotic EP entitled Klabb (“rabies” in Tunisian Arabic) and produced beats for the likes of Fever Ray.
Her Bidoun mix is an epic fifty-minute exploration of futuristic Arab club music — complex, creepy, and more than a little wiggly.
You were born and raised in Doha?
Yes, my parents were immigrants from Tunisia. They went there to work.
Was it really boring?
[Laughs] Yes, it was hard. I was kind of lonely, even though I had brothers and sisters — we are four — but my parents were a little conservative. So it was always house–school, house–school, house–school, with nothing in between. That’s how I spent my first eighteen years.
There was no alternative culture… so were you just home a lot, downloading tons of music?
Exactly. [Laughs] And video games!
What kind of video games?
Tomb Raider, Splinter Cell — kind of, single-person discovery games.
Because you can identify with that a little bit?
But then you moved to Tunis.
Yes, when I was eighteen.
On your own?
On my own! [Laughs] My parents weren’t happy. I mean, I spent my teenage crisis telling them that I wanted to move to Tunisia, but I was obligated to finish high school in Doha so that I could go for university in Tunis. Luckily my older sister was already living there — they let her go because she’s not rebellious. They let me go because I could be under her wing, let’s say. They thought: she’s with her older sister, her older sister can keep her in line. [Laughs]
It sounds like they were wrong.
Thankfully. The first three years my sister let me do whatever I wanted. We’d go out to clubs together but like, we did not talk about that to our parents. When they came to Tunisia in the summers we did not smoke, we did not go out, we didn’t… we would switch faces, like this [makes swooshing sound]. My sister would say “Hold your breath for a month and a half.”
She sounds like a nice sister.
She’s very nice! I was the one who couldn’t live in that hypocrisy. That’s what the music is all about, this kind of anger and agitation — trying to say fuck you to the whole idea of nationality, fuck you to the government. That’s the feeling in our community that I’m trying to get across.
How did you get into the Tunisian party scene?
I was studying interior architecture at the art school and the people I met there were special. They wanted to live; they knew what they wanted to do, besides studying. I had just come from Qatar so I wasn’t drinking or smoking, I didn’t know about any of that stuff. I fell in with fun people. I discovered apartment parties, gatherings in bars, and especially, rave parties. They were organized by friends — like, four hundred people on a big farm outside Tunis. We were partying to all kinds of music, but especially drum and bass and dub. The clubs in Tunisia are really for tourists, they’re in hotels; we don’t go to those places. We would talk to bar managers and organize parties in bars. We’d just push away the chairs and the tables and it would become a club for us. But they weren’t institutions, you know? We called them “éphémère” clubs.
When did you start making music?
I started making music properly in 2011. Like everyone in Tunisia I had cracked copies of music software: Reason, Ableton… Before that, I was more into jazz and soul. My first year in university I would sing jazz and blues covers in hotels and bars for money. Let’s say it was my student job. I did that for a year and a half, but in the meantime, I was downloading lots of music and all that. I met a guy on my way home from university one day — I was with my MP3s, one of those big USB sticks, listening to footwork and juke. The guy was part of a collective of dub music DJs called World Full of Bass and he was like “it’s really easy to DJ, just try and mix the stuff you’re listening to.” And I did. They called on me for the next éphémère club, I played, I was all sweaty — 160 bpm as a warmup. [Laughs] Lots of stuff happened in those three years.
When did you move to France?
Did that change things for your music?
A lot! I played live sets a lot my first year in France. That’s how I met my label InFIné — they contacted me because they liked one of my concerts. But the biggest difference is that you can actually buy stuff here. You can buy gear… try out gear… Meet people who have gear and studios, people who have the same vocation, the same love of making electronic music — even if you’re not in the same genre. My music was understood by people here. In Tunisia, it was really hard to impose myself on people when I was DJing.
What do you mean? Were people confused by your music?
Oof, a lot. People would say, “Deena, don’t go so fast — we can barely dance to this!” I was like, “Guys! Our traditional music is so fucking dense and fast!” They would say “Okay, but we have that already. We want something else.” But I love experimental club music. I love fast, dense, incomprehensible, nonconventional music — almost like free jazz. You know, we’re not that many people in Tunisia. There’s just more people in Europe. There will always be someone, some group, that will come out for you.
Why did you end up in Toulouse specifically?
For romantic reasons. I mean, that’s why I came to France at all. I will always go back to Tunis.
Is party culture still important for you, or is it more about making music right now?
Me? Party culture all night! I haven’t done a live set since last January. I only do DJ sets. I party hard, I play from 4AM to 6AM…
Do you have a party that you throw in Toulouse?
No, no. I’m not very present in Toulouse. Also, Toulouse — how can I say? — it’s a little city. There aren’t too many clubs. Toulouse is sleepy, tranquille, African. You don’t have to rush…
So… like Tunis?
Abdullah Miniawy — يا طلاب العالم الثالث To Students of the third world
Nadah El Shazly — Afqid Adh-Dhakira (I Lose Memory)
Saint Abdullah — Sounds from the Hosseinieh
Deena Abdelwahed — Klabb V2
El Mahdy Jr. — Bare Feet
Deena Abdelwahed — Ena Essbab
Deena Abdelwahed — Walk On, Nothing To See Here
Eomac — Entrance
Acid Arab — Stil (Deena Abdelwahed Remix)
Nkisi — Kill
MUTAMASSIK — Rhythms Rattle on Death Pawns
Maryam Saleh, Maurice Louca, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh — Teskar Tebki
Kamron Saniee — Pancha Tigris
Thoom — حركت السكوت (No Speech)