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Shkoon's album 'FIRAQ' gets to their roots, fusing Arabic folklore and German techno

THORBEN DIEKMANN: Shkoon is basically the first Arabic word that I learned from Ameen back in 2015, and it means what.

EMILY FENG, HOST:

What? Why what?

DIEKMANN: It's kind of like the first impression that we get when people hear our music and when they knew what we were doing.

FENG: That's German musician Thorben Diekmann talking about his friend Ameen Khayer from Syria. Together, they make up Shkoon, a two-man band that is taking everything we think we know about German music and Arabic music, combining the two and then flipping it on its head.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LALA")

SHKOON: (Singing in non-English language).

FENG: Shkoon's latest album, "FIRAQ," has this German techno vibe, which I love, but it also maintains a really strong Arabic folkloric color, whether it's the melodies or the lyrics. I asked Thorben and Ameen how they came up with this unique fusion.

AMEEN KHAYER: After hangover night we did it (laughter).

FENG: I want to hear the story. I want to hear the hangover story.

DIEKMANN: Yeah. I mean (laughter) - there was a few friends who did, like, a funding event for people who got, like, in trouble with law because of, like, helping refugees coming and stuff like this. So they asked me if I could imagine doing some music there. And the day before the event, I basically asked, I mean, like, you want to join? So we had, like, 24 hours before the party where we just, like, wrote our first songs and tried our first things. And we literally didn't really know what we were doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHKOON'S "LETTERS")

DIEKMANN: And I remember when we went to the venue, we literally didn't even know how to do a proper soundcheck.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHKOON'S "LETTERS")

DIEKMANN: And Ameen was hiding behind a palm tree inside the venue so nobody could see him.

KHAYER: I was afraid because the first place I did it, like, after singing in the bathroom, it was this place. And it was really nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTERS")

SHKOON: (Singing in non-English language).

FENG: How did you two first meet?

DIEKMANN: I was living back then in a shared flat with eight other people. It was the time when a lot of migrants came to Europe. So we were, like, all kind of volunteering in different organizations to try to help. And there was one of our flatmates who was helping in an institution that collected, like, everything that people could eat. And he was always leaving the house super early, came back super late. And at a certain point, I figured out he's bringing someone with him to sleep over. But we never saw that person, was a ghost. So one da - I don't remember - was it in the morning or in the evening?

KHAYER: In the evening.

DIEKMANN: In the evening - I stayed up, so I catch this person, and that was Ameen.

FENG: Ameen, so you had just gotten to Thorben's shared flat, but you had come from a long way off. You had started from Deir ez-Zor, your hometown in Syria, and then gotten all the way to Hamburg in Germany.

KHAYER: That's - there was some stops in-between. I was not living in the resort. I was studying in Latakia for a long time. I stayed there. And I had some issues with the government. And I was in jail because I was doing demonstrations with my friends.

FENG: Oh, wow.

KHAYER: And after that, I decided to go out and live and continue my studies in Turkey. And it didn't work out. And I stayed for a little bit in Turkey. And from Turkey, I decided to go to Europe.

FENG: Most of us have never gone through an experience like that. Do you mind sharing what that process, that journey was like?

KHAYER: We went from Turkey to Greece with a boat. So it was a rubber boat. We were about 40 people in the boat. And then from this island in Greece, we moved to Athens. And from Athens, we went with cars to the borders of Macedonia. And it's like some places we walked, some places we took cars. It's a hard experience, but if you are in a big group, you're going to go through it. We were in groups, and we were collecting each other as groups. You have to stay as a group.

FENG: And why Germany? How did you end up there?

KHAYER: I didn't want to stay in Germany, to be honest. I wanted to go to Sweden. But when I arrived in Hamburg, I saw the harbor. And I study marine engineering. I fell in love with the place. It was just nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHKOON'S "33.9 MILLION MILES")

FENG: I've noticed with "FIRAQ," your new album, you both are leaning more towards original songwriting rather than the first couple of albums where you were singing Arabic folk songs over beats. Why this transition?

KHAYER: We develop, you know. With time, we developed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "33.9 MILLON MILES")

SHKOON: (Singing in non-English language).

KHAYER: And we learned. And it's part of learning to develop and not stay just singing cover songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "33.9 MILLION MILES")

SHKOON: (Singing in non-English language).

KHAYER: So we don't labelize (ph) Shkoon as a cover song band.

FENG: You've called your new album "FIRAQ," which I've read somewhere means separation. How did that name come about? Was it related to this journey that you've just described?

KHAYER: Yeah, of course, it's part of it. And last year, I lost a close member of my family, and it was two days before recording the live set.

FENG: I'm sorry.

KHAYER: Thank you. Yeah. And that was also a big part of naming the track as "FIRAQ."

DIEKMANN: Back then, in the time when we recorded, it was just like - was such an intense time and so hard to see what was happening to Ameen. I mean, especially when you can't be close to somebody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHKOON'S "FIRAQ")

FENG: The title track, "FIRAQ," is beautiful. It's mostly instrumental. But then you hear women come in singing. Can you explain what some of those lyrics are that you're singing, Ameen, and what they mean to you?

KHAYER: Well, to be honest, the lyrics that I wanted to sing, I forgot them that day. And I started just improvise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRAQ")

SHKOON: (Singing in non-English language).

KHAYER: (Non-English language spoken) - it's a way of expression, a pain or something like this. And then I say, or my father, something like this. I don't say a lot of words inside it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRAQ")

SHKOON: (Singing in non-English language).

DIEKMANN: We planned the recording before the incident with Ameen's family member happened. And then, like, two days before, we - like, everything went out of what we could have imagined. So we're literally - we didn't know if we should do the recording, if we shouldn't. And Ameen said, no, I need it. I want to do this. So we were, like, just adapting to what was happening. And somehow, like, the song just, like, emerged on stage while we were playing there. And that's somehow the beauty of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: That's Thorben Diekmann and Ameen Khayer from the band Shkoon. Their latest album is called "FIRAQ." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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