Toumba is making music for himself
Toumba’s lightbulb moment happened at an afters.
It was December 2019, and the Jordanian producer was a third-year engineering student at Loughborough University. A few hours earlier, Sherelle, IDA and Anna Wall had played at DBE, the Leicestershire town’s long-running electronic club night, and the DJs ended up back at Toumba’s student house, spinning tunes into the small hours. “Sherelle played a TSVI track called Hossam,” explains Toumba, born Yazan Zyadat. “As soon as I heard that, I thought, ‘I want to make stuff like that.’”
Hossam appeared on TSVI’s 2018 album, Inner Worlds, which was inspired by the Middle Eastern music that the Italian producer’s partner had introduced him to. Zyadat, who was born and raised in Jordan’s capital, Amman, instantly recognised the rhythms lifted from the traditional music he’d grown up with. He also recognised that, as someone who had been immersed in this style of music his entire life, he could push the sound further. “When I heard [Hossam], I thought, ‘This is great, but it’s just scratching the surface,’” Zyadat admits. “It was the beginning of a string that I grabbed and pulled.”
Zyadat is speaking from his home in Amman, where he’s been living since graduating university in 2020 – a fact that sometimes confounds promoters who have been hesitant to book him for gigs under the assumption that flying him in from Jordan would be prohibitively expensive. “Flights to Europe are really cheap,” he clarifies. “I’m coming to London in a couple of weeks. My flight cost me £27, and it’s direct. Here, rent is £250 a month, which is the price of utilities in [the UK] at the moment. If I was in Berlin and got booked for a show in London, it would cost more. The tricky thing is making promoters aware of this.”
Zyadat only started producing in earnest in 2020, but he’s already created a distinctive style of club music that incorporates the rhythms, microtonal scales and timbres found in music across the Middle East. Western ears might recognise sounds from UK dance music (rattling breakbeats, wobbling dubstep basslines) but what seems familiar gets twisted by the complex rhythms and melodies that Toumba brings from his own heritage – sounds that, Zyadat says, will be innately familiar to anyone who grew up in the region, even if they don’t immediately recognise them in a club context. Over the past three years, Zyadat has released two EPs for London imprints All Centre and Hypnic Jerks, put out a smattering of self-released tracks and edits, and performed DJ sets across Europe. Now, the 24-year-old is gearing up for his most high profile project to date: Petals, a four-track EP for influential underground label (and recent Crack Magazine cover stars) Hessle Audio.
Zyadat first connected with Hessle when label affiliate Joe heard an unreleased Toumba track on ZULI’s NTS show and instantly hit him up for the track. Zyadat ended up sending more music over, and when Hessle co-founder Ben UFO played his first set in Jordan in November 2021, just five minutes from Zyadat’s home, the producer went down to introduce himself. “Ben said they’d been listening to loads of my tracks and there was one they really liked,” Zyadat beams. “I was like, ‘Oh shit! This might actually happen!’” The track in question was Istibtan, the EP’s winding, low-slung opener that pulses with rhythmic tension. Zyadat ended up building the rest of Petals around it, inspired by the melodic flourishes that thrive around the 100 bpm mark. “It was the first time that I was finishing music for the purpose of an EP,” he says. “It was great getting feedback [from Hessle] as I was making it – it taught me a lot.”
Prior to living in the UK, Zyadat’s experience with western pop culture was restricted to the chart hits that made it to Jordan. He knew about classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin from the guitar lessons he took from the age of eight as a way to focus his not-yet-diagnosed ADHD, and as a teenager was exposed to electronic music through the rise of Skrillex and YouTube channels like UKF. But he was much more familiar with styles played closer to home like tarab (a classical form of Arabic music), shelat (a folk music tradition), and what’s often referred to in the west as “wedding music”. Living with disco and house crate-diggers at university, however, sparked an interest in DJing that was further fuelled by the wide universe of underground dance music that club night DBE was introducing him to. The club devoted a smaller room to dubstep, and the night Loughborough’s Juan Forte collective held a takeover of the space left a lasting impression on Zyadat. “It was my first encounter with proper heads,” Zyadat recalls, grinning. “I went in there and was blown away by this Funktion-One sound system. I stayed there all night – eight hours.”
But it was during lockdown, with hours and days to burn, that he was able to devote time to learning the intricacies of music production. “No one was getting jobs, so I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to do music to avoid sitting on my arse and letting all the pressures of Covid in.’ Then it was actually working. I thought, ‘I should do this instead of the engineering degree.’ That obviously didn’t sit well with my family!” he laughs. It was because of his engineering background, he thinks, that production felt like a natural fit. “It’s basically all physics. My learning curve was not as steep as other people’s. I got good quick, and I just kept going.”
Through this meticulous process, Zyadat noticed the elements of Jordanian music that could sit within an electronic framework. “It was in the back of my mind: this song could be playing with a loop on it. I could easily see it in a more traditional context, even though it’s not – it’s UK club music,” he says. But he didn’t want to make a superficial Jordanian folk meets UK rave hybrid. “If I showed my recent stuff to someone in London, they wouldn’t recognise it as folkloric – they’d just recognise some swung drums that sound a bit left field,” he asserts. “But someone from Jordan would be like, ‘Ah, I know this.’ That’s what I want to make.”
“If I showed my music to someone in London, they wouldn’t recognise it as folkloric. But someone from Jordan would be like, ‘Ah, I know this’”
Zyadat drills down into the specifics. “The most common thing would be a rhythm called wahda ou nos, which is what most people think of when they think of Arabic music,” he explains. Then there’s the track Tidallal, which appeared on last year’s Rosefinch EP (named after Jordan’s striking national bird), and samples a performance of a traditional bedouin song, Tidallal ya ra’i al kharboush (تدلل يا راعي الخربو). Zyadat also utilises microtonality – intervals smaller than one semitone, or the notes hidden between two piano keys – to tune his instruments to a non-western scale. Microtonality can be found in music across the Levant, and it’s one of the qualities that gives Toumba’s music an Arabic ‘sound’ or ‘feel’ – but most software for western music-makers is not designed to accommodate global tuning systems by default.
As a way to platform the rich tapestry of Middle Eastern music, Zyadat decided to imbue Petals with regional Jordanian music – particularly from the south of the country, where percussion holds more sway and weight (as heard on the EP’s title track). Hazzeh is a ravey, bass-heavy interpretation of dabkeh music, while Identity Crisis was made using a sequencer that generates melodies within the Maqam Rast scale. With Zyadat releasing on only UK labels so far, he’s well aware that many listeners won’t recognise the cultural specificity he brings to his tracks. “[The nuance] is lost on maybe 80 percent of my audience,” he admits, “but really, the music I make is for me.” He adds that it goes both ways, too. “If I hear a tune that someone made that incorporates part of their culture, I’d love to understand it, but I know it’s not made for me to understand instantly.”
Zyadat’s ambition to elevate Jordanian music goes beyond his own creative endeavours, too. He is a key member of Amman’s club and arts space MNFA (pronounced man-fah), located within a subterranean hotel car park that was previously being used as a construction site dumping ground. For a long time, Jordan’s local experimental artists were “like nomads”, booking unsuitable club venues, like restaurants, for shows. When Zyadat’s friends found the space, they offered to clean it up and pay a monthly fee to use it. “It’s huge,” Zyadat says, gesturing its magnitude with his arms. “A big concrete car park, two floors underground, no phone signal – just a sound system, minimal decor and really good music.” Online, Zyadat is described as one of MNFA’s curators, but he clarifies that “it’s quite different to saying I’m a curator at Fabric, because I’m sometimes helping at the door, behind the bar – it’s very communal. If I’m a curator, then there’s 20 different curators.”
Zyadat has seen the impact that a space like MNFA can have within an artistic community, attracting a small but dedicated number of regulars that’s tripled in size since opening. “The amount of people who want to listen to this music is growing rapidly, but people are still cautious about getting into it professionally because of the [lack of career] opportunities. There’s no safety net, no funds and no incentives to work in art.”
“The nuance is lost on maybe 80 percent of my audience, but really, the music I make is for me”
Building out the creative scene in Amman has always been Zyadat’s biggest ambition. He hopes to one day set up an FM radio station, start a label, and open a centre for people to learn audio production in an inclusive, community-based setting. “The music coming out of here is on par with the best,” he smiles, proudly. “We’ve got a label called Drowned by Locals releasing some of the best music I’ve heard in my life.”
For now, though, Zyadat is gearing up to DJ across the summer, debut a live show and release more yet-to-be-announced music that builds on the ideas established with the Petals EP. Ideas that are propelling “a new identity of music”, and showcasing his exhilarating, dancefloor-focused contributions to Jordanian music while remaining true to his lineage. “People should start looking at music more internationally,” he concludes, his eyes wide and hopeful. “Right now, the music that’s most exciting is not coming out of London or Europe. Really, the music that’s going to shape the next five to ten years is not going to be from there.”
Petals is out now via Hessle Audio