Shkoon: Trailblazing Syrian-German duo shatter traditional labels through music
An antique yellow taxi pulls up on a desolate road as Ameen Khayer and Thorben Beeken — the rhythmic duo who make up the band Shkoon — signal to stop.
The bright setting mimics a lost homeland as part of a nostalgic video clip. Sun beaming, Ameen leans towards the driver with intent. “Take me to Deir Ezzor,” he exclaims.
Roots is a song intended to teleport listeners to memory and thought through the realm of longing, and with their latest album Masrahiya (theatre) the group has transcended conventional limits between reality and fiction, in an enthralling display of creativity.
"The traditional folklore songs [in the album] are connected to politics. It then became a constellation for ‘Masrahiya’ and it had an impact and we can see what's happening in Gaza right now"
The unprecedented hit success of the group’s hybrid genre of Arabic melodies and Western electronica fused with hip-hop and traditional eastern Muwwal verses has catapulted the artists into fame through unique electro-Arab folk beats.
“There’s a concept in Masrahiya where you will stand and speak,” says lead vocalist Ameen Khayer, who spoke with The New Arab in an exclusive interview.
“When we talk about Shakespeare, the work is generally about one person speaking. Language is a powerful tool for us and the world is a stage. Everything is an act.”
Shkoon's album tour was inaugurated with a spectacular performance at the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, and central to the album — three chapters of tragedy, politics, and irony — is a relentless attempt to bridge cross-cultural limitations.
Ameen, who heralds from the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor on the Euphrates, observes: “You watch Spiderman, right? With great power comes great responsibility. In the music field, I'm still a student learning in a vast industry, who is trying to pass the knowledge of learning by translating my side of things as I see them.”
There is no shortage of inspiration for their musical lyrics, as Ameen adds, “Sometimes it's more important to listen to the silence than what you hear, my inspiration, it comes from the people, my surroundings, how we live, from what we face every day.
“The traditional folklore songs [in the album] are connected to politics. It then became a constellation for Masrahiya and it had an impact and we can see what's happening in Gaza right now.”
Ameen speaks passionately with verve. “Palestine is a big part of who we are. It’s the cause that we grew up with and that history is all connected.”
Shkoon has donated proceeds from their shows to Gaza and previously to Syrian earthquake victims.
Living in Germany, firstly Hamburg and then Berlin, Ameen has come across his troubles and experiences. “We’ll I'm trying so hard [to fight stereotypes] like you know the person who is coming from Deir Ezzor, and I’m a loud person if you are talking about a Syrian immigrant here. I’m always just classed as a drug dealer, in clubs or at parties, I get annoyed with the number of people who are asking me if I sell cocaine or not.”
The issues many migrants face in Europe are amplified through Shkoon’s rapidly expanding profile. “Nationality is not connected to who you are as a person. Being Syrian doesn’t make you a savage, just as being from another country doesn’t, too.”
Ameen ponders his earliest memories of Syria and affirms that his musical soul was not discovered there: “Musically I was not connected when I was in Syria, maybe If I was sitting as part of a group and we went to university we sang together, I was studying marine engineering," he explains.
“There are a lot of nice memories. Every person passes through phases in their life, whether it is adolescence or childhood, the university years. I lived that all in Syria and it's full of stupid, crazy memories. sometimes we didn’t even have money to eat. I used to go to Kassab because I was studying in Lattakia every weekend in the mountains.”
The harshest memories remain, however, as the singer recalls saying goodbye to his family for the last time: “The last memory I recall was full of tears, with my family saying goodbye, and I didn’t know if I was going to see them again or not, that’s was the most profound memory I can remember, I lost my friends in Syria.”
Despite the long distance and the tumult, Syria has a deep connection to Ameen’s heart, “It’s [Syria] the oldest place where there are human beings in the whole world, we speak the language of Jesus, but nobody is focusing on that, they are just focusing on there being a war and bombings."
The musical phenomenon that has taken the world by storm rarely happened but for a brilliant chance meeting on a random Saturday night in the Hanseatic city of Hamburg eight years ago.
“It was the mother of all coincidences. I was in Hamburg and I just arrived two weeks previously.”
Ameen was taken to a shared flat where around a dozen people lived. He was working at a camp collecting clothes for refugees, and here he met Thorben, the second part of Shkoon.
“After three days [of living in the flat] Thorben [a German national], came into the room, knocked and said, 'Hello, we are living here. Come and say hello.'
“So, we chilled on the enormous kitchen table, singing and having fun; they asked if I could sing, and I sang a Muwwal.”
Ameen pauses dramatically as he says there is a deep silence, “Thorben said you have a beautiful voice. He told me he did music, and the rest is history.”
Shkoon’s music is a constellation of the best from the East and the West, a gateway to a musical melting pot that has various differing influences and themes.
“I never studied music. Thorben studied the piano when he was younger. I listen to old Arab artists like Saad Al A’dhami but also 90s hip-hop like 2Pac.”
Danny Makki is an analyst covering the internal dynamics of the conflict in Syria, he specialises in Syria’s relations with Russia and Iran
Follow him on Twitter: @danny_makki