In an airstrip on the outskirts of Rennes, the capital of Brittany, and in a vast converted hanger, Germany’s coolest new band are making a sizeable crowd misplace their Gallic cool. This fraction of France is compelled to dance.
“Berlin’s answer to Franz Ferdinand?” suggests one watching music writer, which is an understandable comparison. But while there are similarities to that famous Scottish indie-rock outfit, something fundamentally different underpins this band’s music.
As the enigmatic name might suggest, Oum Shatt take inspiration from artists who would probably mean little to most in the audience they are performing for. Their riffs owe as much to the Egyptian guitar legend Omar Khorshid as any western axe hero, while the vocal harmonies are more reminiscent of the legendary Arab singer Umm Kulthum than the Beach Boys or The Beatles.
“I was always looking for new harmonies, new things; sometimes you get bored with the same old pop song,” explains the Oum Shatt singer Jonas Poppe, as his band break for a chat ahead of the show in Rennes.
The Arab influence is anything but a passing phase, though. Poppe is clearly passionate about bringing these sounds to western audiences and that includes Berlin’s celebrated club scene. Years before the band began, he was playing exotic old vinyl to unsuspecting dancers.
The interest in Middle Eastern rhythms began when “I started to listen to Greek rembetika – Greek blues from the 20s and 30s – and found that this music touches me,” says Poppe. As that vinyl collection became more varied, so did the DJing opportunities, and “now there are evenings or nights where I just play Turkish or Arabic rock ‘n’ roll. Sometimes I mix it. People don’t really care. They are getting more and more open.”
Poppe previously fronted the experimental Berlin rock band Kissogram, and eventually decided to marry his twin musical passions, having met two like-minded talents. Oum Shatt’s guitarist Hannes Lehmann is also a DJ who spins Arab music, while the veteran drummer Chris Imler discovered eastern sounds after visiting Bangladesh, Iraq and Egypt and acquiring “bags of old cassettes”.
The new project began only a year ago and, while ostensibly a traditional indie-rock act, their Arab influences add an extra dimension.
“The thing is, we aren’t Turkish people,” says Poppe, “so we need to find a way in between. We won’t pretend that we’re an Arabic band, we just try to take some things that we like and extend our European harmonies a bit, extend it to different horizons.”
The result is subtly effective and very accessible. Their most popular song, Power to the Women of the Morning Shift (the first few bars of which elicit huge cheers from that French audience), features a core melody that could soundtrack a raqs sharqi belly-dancing demonstration. The guitar solos veer from surf rock to more oud-like sounds, while the harmonies occasionally resemble a mournful spiritual. That tone complements Poppe’s regular singing voice, which is often compared to that of Joy Division’s singer, Ian Curtis.
“It’s all about the combinations,” insists the well-travelled Imler. “The surf guitar sound, they also use it in the Arab world. And the melancholic touch, it makes so much sense.”
Vocals aside, Oum Shatt’s material is generally funky and upbeat, which might help counteract any oddly negative western stereotypes; in modern Hollywood movies Arab music is up there with the Jaws theme for suggesting imminent peril, after all.
Poppe suggests that “the harmonic difference and, maybe, the cultural and political differences” create that tension, but his band are open to working with traditional Arab artists and, perhaps, even touring the Middle East.
“I would like to show people what kind of music is out there,” says Poppe. “And learn more about it myself.”
Show for schoolchildren
Oum Shatt’s novel brand of indie/Arabic rock became genuinely educational before their France concert. As part of Rennes’ annual Transmusicales festival, the band arranged to play a show for an audience of local schoolchildren, which proved to be memorable for all concerned.
“We didn’t know how they were going to react to this kind of music, we were much more nervous than usual,” admits Jonas Poppe, an hour later. “But they went completely crazy. They were freaking out.”
Well prepared for their first rock concert, the 8- to 10-year-olds gave the Berlin outfit a hint of Beatlemania, chanting the band’s name, with several girls doing “heart” hand gestures (as popularised by Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale), while others took a studious approach.
“The kids in front, when I used pedals for the guitars, they were totally amazed, interested in what I did there,” says Hannes Lehmann. “What surprised me,” says Poppe, “we invited them to sing a verse from a song, Hot Hot Cold Cold, but they decided to make this [Arab-style] ‘aahaah’ chant, from the beginning.”
“It was such a cool sound!” says Lehmann.
“We should have recorded it,” says Poppe.
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