The harsh, repetitive electronic sounds of 1980s acid house and the expansive drama of traditional Middle Eastern music are not the most obvious of bedfellows. So when the Parisian DJs Guido Minisky and Hervé Carvalho found themselves in a Cairo club under the moniker Acid Arab, playing new tracks that melded together those sounds – blasting out gurgling synths and house beats under vocals from the Syrian star Omar Souleyman – they were nervous to say the least.
“The people in this club knew nothing about us,” recalls Minisky. “We were playing them music that maybe they had never heard before and there were a fair amount of strange looks to start with. But within five minutes, they loved it. They understood what we were trying to do. It was such a good feeling.”
Their journey to that point in a Cairo club – and their forthcoming compilation album Acid Arab Collections – is fascinating. Growing up, Minisky would listen to Radio Nova, a groundbreaking and diverse French station that would often feature Arab music in its programming. Intrigued, in 2012 he joined Carvalho and the French DJ and label owner Gilb’R on a trip to a festival in Djerba, Tunisia.
“It was there where we really fell in love with the music and culture from North Africa and the Middle East,” Minisky says. “It was like a crush. So we quickly had this idea of trying to both create and curate music that would sound like it could come from those places, but would be different from the music that perhaps they – and we as westerners – are used to.”
So Acid Arab was born, Minisky and Carvalho starting a night in Paris to play tracks that fitted with their new obsession. They began making tunes with Arab inflections, and when the Parisian producer Crackboy gave them a stunning remix of Souleyman’s Shift Al Mani at the same time as DJ Gilb’R offered them a track called Cosmique Arabe, they knew they were on to something. A four-track EP was released last May, and with interest snowballing, the 13-track Acid Arab Collections – out on February 17 – ended up featuring 11 different artists.
And despite the name, the record isn’t just 13 banging acid house tracks. Professor Genius slows the tempo down with atmospheric electronica, while the Strasbourg duo Dimmit are what Kraftwerk might have sounded like had they come from Dubai rather than Düsseldorf. Such a broad range of styles came as a shock to Minisky, too, particularly as he gave potential contributors a set of rules.
“They didn’t stick to them of course,” he says, laughing. “And that’s for the best. But the one thing we were clear about is that they couldn’t just put vaguely Arab sounds or samples over the top of western beats.
“It had to be more organic than that, a meeting point of different musical styles and cultures rather than a clash of them. We wanted it to sound real, which is why you find people like the Jordanian Shadi Khries on the record, too.”
So what is it about Arab music that has captured the imagination of so many people in the Parisian music scene? Minisky says that he’s always been fascinated by its complex rhythmic structures and notes that some forms drive dancers into a trance in the same way acid house does. But most of all it’s the evocative sound of Berber rhythms, of the oud and darbouka, which transfixed him.
“I listen to a lot of music from the North Africa and Middle East now and it’s so much richer and deeper when you investigate it properly. Our next idea is to make a compilation of traditional songs, re-edited.”
How would that go down in the Arab world? Probably quite well, if the experience of the Cairo club scene is anything to go by. Minisky would love to play in a more stable Syria too, where the underground dance scene hit the headlines last year despite the country’s problems. For now, he’s excited by the potential of Acid Arab to be a success outside Paris.
“When people in the Arab world hear us, they understand that we’re not using ‘their’ music to be quirky, but because we’ve got a real love for it. Actually, we want to be a part of their music scene. And so, absolutely, we dream about taking this music around the Middle East so people can enjoy it.”
• Acid Arab Collections (Versatile) is out now. Listen to an album teaser at www.versatilerecords.com