BELGRADE: “I like the idea of not having too many chances.” Thorben Beeken, the German half of electronic music duo Shkoon, relishes the visceral and spontaneous nature of live performance.
His bandmate Ameen Khayer, who met Beeken in Hamburg in 2015 after seeking asylum as a refugee from the civil war in his native Syria, echoes the sentiment. “We’re not afraid of making mistakes on stage… it’s more important to be authentic — that’s what keeps things interesting, and our audiences respond to that.”
Indeed, this organic, collaborative formula serves as the foundation for the pair’s new live album, ‘FIRAQ’ (Arabic for ‘division’ or ‘split’), released May 20 via WTR/MDLBEAST Records.
Influenced by electronic downbeat, deep house, dub and hip-hop, Shkoon established themselves as one of the most thrilling breakthrough acts of the Arab electronica scene with their 2019 debut. “Rima” was a riveting experiment in the fusion of Arabic music-styled instrumentation and Western electro, featuring an ‘Oriental Slow-House’ medley of compelling vocals, keys, strings, synth and percussion.
On the heels of tours ignited by the international acclaim and excitement around their first LP, Shkoon are following “Rima” up with a 15-track showcase that includes live renditions of popular, previously released singles such as “Ala Moj Al-Bahr” and “Letters.”
The new record, “FIRAQ,” also lifts the veil on eight brand new tracks. Driven by meandering, melancholic piano, hypnotic synths and Khayer’s emotive vocals, lead single “Mulajia” is a reinterpretation of “Fog Al-Nakhal,” the classic by Iraqi legend Nazem Al-Ghazali. There’s also “A03,” Shkoon’s unique take on Arabic folklore song “Digi Digi Ya Rababa,” as well as “QQQ,” a reimagining of “El Helwa Di” by the visionary Egyptian singer and composer Sayed Darwish.
The journey to the realization of their sophomore release came together as a consequence of both personal tragedy and Shkoon’s collective willingness to follow artistic impulse.
“Only a couple of days before we were due to record the performance, I lost a close family member,” says Khayer. “I was in a completely different world, but I insisted we go ahead.
“We weren’t doing shows at the time because of the COVID lockdowns, so it was a way to stay connected to playing live, and also express everything I was feeling in a raw and emotional way,” he explains. “It meant a lot to me.”
The album artwork is also a tribute to Khayer’s late relative, whose drawings were adapted by artist and designer Hadeer Omar.
“To be honest, when we first recorded it, we didn’t know we would release it as an album,” Beeken admits. “We thought of the performance as a story we were telling in a live environment, which is where Shkoon really shines.”
It is also where the two musicians flesh out their ideas. “A lot of the writing happens when we are jamming, even while playing live. We like to take sketches and then build on them; there’s no set formula for how we write, really.” Beeken adds.
“Sometimes, I hear some beats, or elements of a melody that remind me of an old song I grew up listening to and it sparks an idea,” says Khayer. “I bring it to Thorben, we start grooving on it together until it becomes something more — it’s very organic.”
That’s not to say Shkoon always stay within their comfort zone. “We got contacted by the management of (Lebanese pop superstar) Ragheb Alama,” Khayer recalls. “They asked us to do a remix of anything from his catalog.”
Settling on Alama’s “Ya Rayt” was only the beginning of a not-so-straightforward process.
“We really had no idea about how to approach the remix at first. All we had was the master recording from the 1980s — nothing that would help us isolate individual tracks, so we had to get creative,” Beeken says. “It was more like a bootleg style of remixing, and I have to admit, I was feeling a little insecure about how it would come out because it’s not the sound that people expect from us.”
“In the end, though, the response was really positive,” Khayer says. “Everyone was surprised by the result, including us. It took us almost a year to finish it, but it paid off.”
The next step for Shkoon is focusing on where they feel at home most. While Khayer awaits the conclusion of the long bureaucratic process regarding his immigration status in Germany, they’ll be taking “FIRAQ” on the road over a summer packed with live commitments.
“We do shows together as much as possible, but if there’s somewhere I can’t go because of my papers, Thorben plays alone,” Khayer explains.
Shkoon remain optimistic about the future, but in the meantime, he stresses, “we have to be flexible.”