‘Funk the Casbah’
French producer brings his ‘ethno-electronica’ to the U.S.
Seb el Zin doesn’t know who his audience in this country is yet. The French musician—currently based in Amsterdam—has been playing venues as varied as hole-in-the-wall cafes and cavernous warehouses on his current summer tour of the United States. People are still feeling him out. Everywhere he goes, they tell him they’ve never heard anything like his Middle Eastern-influenced electronic compositions.
Take “Funk the Casbah,” for example, an all-instrumental track off his debut album, Grand Bazar. It’s a scattershot yet super-slick production that would pair perfectly with a bank heist scene in a movie. It features modern synthesizers, big blasts of horns, hand-drumming, and a circular Middle-Eastern vibe. Like most of his compositions, it’s a totally bizarre mash-up of new and old, Eastern and Western, traditional and experimental.
During a recent phone interview, el Zin said he doesn’t have any particular creative process and that he’s willing to follow inspiration wherever it leads him. His only true guiding principle is “trying to give a futuristic, cyber touch to a Middle Eastern perspective,” he said. “Sometimes, I tell myself I’m trying to make Daft Punk, but like the Cairo version.”
This so-called “enthno-electronica” didn’t come out of nowhere, however. El Zin is also frontman and guitarist for “ethno-psych-punk” band Ithak, which mixes elements of traditional Turkish music and energetic punk rock, and has bases in Paris, Amsterdam and Istanbul.
“I really wanted to build a new repertoire of compositions because Turkish people have such an interesting and strong tradition of music, but nobody cares about new compositions,” he said of the inspiration behind Ithak. “They already know the old songs by heart and [they] just meet to play music together.”
El Zin started composing electronic music on his own about five years ago, but the unreleased tracks sat on his desktop until his friends convinced him it was “some really cool shit” that he should turn into a proper album—which became last year’s Grand Bazar.
“I decided if I was going to release [the music],” he said, “I might just have to tour it. And, obviously, it’s much more simple to tour when you’re one person instead of a whole band.”
This is el Zin’s first solo tour of the U.S., and it will include a stop at another hole-in-the-wall cafe, Chico’s Blackbird, on Wednesday (Aug. 7), where he’ll play along with the The Saragossa Manuscript, a 1965 film by Polish director Wojciech Has. For practical reasons, he’s traveling with very little musical equipment—only a synthesizer, a laptop and a few MIDI controllers. That might sound like DJ gear, but the producer makes a distinction between DJs and performing musicians such as himself.
“I guess I could just press play and pretend like I’m doing something, like most DJs, but I prefer taking risks,” he said. “I’m totally depending on my electronic devices, which might just break at any moment. Sometimes the MIDI connection doesn’t pass through my laptop to my synthesizer and there’s no sound. Stuff happens, but that’s what makes it challenging.”
Given that he loves to travel, play music and meet new people, el Zin already considers this tour a win. Before it’s over, though, he’d like to play at least one nightclub, just to see how people react.
“I haven’t played to audiences that are there to dance,” he said. “Either there haven’t been enough people, or they’re just too shy.”
Or maybe they’re still figuring what to make of his music?