Christina Hazboun in conversation with singer-songwriter Rasha Nahas
Palestinian musician Rasha Nahas has been developing a sound that spans continents and genres. With rock and roll at the root of her music, Nahas’s fearless approach to experimenting with her voice through composition is what places her on another level of artistry. Having released her long-awaited debut album, Desert, this Berlin-based singer draws her listeners in through intimate storytelling and unintimidated melodic movement. Displaying poetic vocalisation, delicate passages of acoustic guitar, and bursts of wailing violins, this album swims effortlessly through musical overtones of her native Arabic upbringing.
It’s our privilege to share a special interview between Rasha Nahas and the wonderful Christina Hazboun, created for DanDana Podcast on SOAS Radio. As a sonic agent and cultural operator of music from the Arabic-speaking world, Hazboun’s own upbringing in Palestine reflects her understanding of the influences shaping Nahas’s work. Listen to the full interview and read as we step in and out of their conversation, exploring Rasha’s musical evolution and the motivations behind ‘Desert’.
Christina Hazboun: Going back to your roots, in Haifa, I’m curious to know how you got into music?
Rasha Nahas: Music has always been there since I’ve known myself, listening to music with my parents, my siblings, and by myself. My relationship started with the keyboard, and then I went on to study classical guitar for 8 years. I was a very shy little girl and my first performance was when I was 14 or 15 at an open mic night. It was very last minute, my friend (and fellow musician) Moody Kablawi had suggested I played so I performed a song with my guitar that I wrote for my dad. By 2014, I’d graduated from high school, was writing my own songs, and playing with people such as Maysa Daw & Raymond Haddad.
CH: You were surrounded by musicians in Haifa where there seems to be this nurturing climate of people working together. For me, being from Bethlehem, it’s different because the music community isn’t as big there. The opportunities of creating and playing music in Haifa seem greater. Can you tell us about that experience?
RN: There is a very unique scene of music in Haifa. Even before there was an official stage, we’d play in cafes and bars and it was really special. At that time, it gave me a lot of space to experiment and play and meet people.
'Desert' is the baggage, the illusion of hope... it's walking and walking, enjoying what's around you and wondering when you’re going to arrive
CH: You’ve described writing this album during a period of transition, describing it as an intricate collage that documents a journey from Palestine to Germany, from the personal to the political – and back. I want to hear about that journey.
RN: I started this album three years ago, when I was moving to Berlin. I wrote all the songs during my last few weeks in Haifa and then when I arrived in Germany. Apart from the last track, Hey, which I wrote in Turkey while sitting under a tree by a river. It’s the last song on the album and the only acoustic track. We had an arrangement with the band but when I was in the studio it felt like it had to stay how it was written, under that tree. I recorded it in one take; it was a moment.
CH: I was thinking about the amount of memories you've preserved in your words and compositions. Which song holds the strongest moment for you on the album?
RN: There are a few. Desert takes me to my old apartment in Haifa, describing the light in that room, the sound of the cars on the street, to the coffee downstairs at the cafe. “Myself, I’m a little beast hiding up the street, in a little room, on a little bed. On the dusty floor lays human flesh”. Describing a specific period in my life before a big transition. The second song which is a very precious moment for me is Tea Song. I wrote it after taking my sister to the airport when she’d visited me [in Germany]. It was six in the morning, there was a full moon and I started playing the guitar. The song came out in 30 minutes and it was a moment of arrival and departure, of beauty.
CH: You released Desert with a beautiful video clip. Why choose it as the title for the album?
RN: Desert is the baggage, it’s the thirst, the mirage, the illusion of hope and the heat. Walking and walking and walking, enjoying what's around you and wondering when you’re going to arrive. I feel that it wraps this whole collage up in a solid but fluid way.
CH: If we were to play one song from the album to introduce listeners to, which would it be?
RN: It would be Ashes. It’s a love song about getting close to fire, burning, and what remains after that. This metaphor can go to other things too, like being on stage, losing your balance, and burning. Looking at what's left of you after these moments. Losing your balance in a beautiful way tho, of falling into the song and surrendering. It's one of my favourite songs on the album and it’s very close to my heart.
Starting my own label has allowed me to print and release my music independently. It's also an opportunity for me to explore more what I can do with it
CH: You set up your own record label, Rmad Records, to release this album. How does it feel seeing the birth of your first Vinyl?
RN: I’m so happy! Starting the label is about the paperwork mostly, so I can print and release my music independently. But I also think it’s an opportunity for me to explore more about what I can do with it. I’m working with the most amazing team on earth; my manager Lara Khoury is on fire, and my band is amazing. The graphic design is also the brilliant work of Haitham Haddad (Studio MNJNK). I worked with him on my first EP, he’s one of my favourite artists and always nails it.
CH: What are your plans now?
RN: That's a very big question! I recorded this album two years ago and since then I’ve done many projects. I’ve worked on theatre pieces and been part of collaborations including Kallemi. I also had an injury in my hand which meant I stopped playing guitar and started producing electronic music. I came back to the guitar and I have written so much material that I’m thinking of recording an Arabic EP in Palestine. I think it is the right time to do it, I want to go there in the Spring.
CH: Absolutely. You’re making me miss home so much! Do you have a song that represents Palestine?
RN: That’s a very tough question but I’d say Rah Nibni Madeeneh (We Shall Build A City) by Al Shatea’ فرقة الشاطيء الفلسطينية. They were one of the first rock bands in Palestine during the 80s and 90s and they have this beautiful album.
Interview by Christina Hazboun
Photographs by Stephie Ronget Devred