Meet the Syrian artist using Bitwig Studio to make Arabic music — not Arabic-influenced music
The first thing Hany Manja remembers doing after the massive 2020 explosion at the Port of Beirut destroyed his home is clean his instruments. He wanted to rescue them from the wreckage, a reconstructive impulse that motivated him to co-found the Beirut Synth Center with three friends later that year. Inspired (on Hany's part) by the Synth Library in Prague, the Beirut Synth Center provides local artists access to the knowledge and equipment required to get into synthesis and electronic music production — a goal Hany also realizes through his work as a Bitwig Certified Trainer.
In fact, Hany relied on Prague's Synth Library in order to learn about synthesizers and producing electronic music himself. Music developed from a passion to a practice only after he left his native country of Syria at age 17 for Europe, where he discovered electronic music and began to make his own. In this interview, Hany explains how he uses Bitwig's microtuning capabilities to write melodies in Arabic scales for his duo with Petra Hawi, Rust, and shares some presets he made for the Micropitch device that you can download below. For Hany, his project with Petra is not electronic music inspired by Arabic music; it is Arabic music.
Do you have any key idea or aesthetics that you strive to communicate through your sound?
My approach to music is evolving and changing all the time. Something I wanted to express through music was my duality; I lived in Prague for 15 years, and I left my hometown [Damascus] Syria when I was 17, in 2005. So I kind of had to create my own identity, coming from a very different culture and then living in Europe for so long. It was a struggle to find myself on a personal level. I ended up being somewhere in between with my own unique identity — I took from each culture what was best for me and created my own world. So my music should mirror this in some way.
When I came to Beirut three years ago, I kind of felt this gap where I felt like I needed more depth and education in Arabic music. After being in Prague for so long, I was a little bit disconnected from the cultural scene in the Arabic region — I wasn’t listening to a lot of Arabic music. But after coming here, I felt like I needed to have a better education and knowledge of traditional Arabic music in order to make the musical mixture of the two sides of me. I started learning the oud, one of the most fundamental instruments in Arabic music, and did a lot of research. For about six months, I didn’t listen to any Western music. I only listened to very old traditional Arabic music, to get it in my blood and my brain — just to have a good database of the melodies and the rhythms.
Then the duo project with Petra began. This was always my dream project: to make electronic music with an Arabic vocalist, especially a female one. She was looking for something similar — she was also studying Arabic music, and she’d been singing with different bands for years. So without knowing each other, we were looking for each other. From the moment we met, we said, “Yeah, let’s do this.“
What motivated you to move to Prague in the first place? Was it related to your interest in music?
Actually, it was not related to music. I just wanted to leave and have my own life experience in a different country. Living in such a society under a dictatorship… I felt that [Syria] was not a place where I wanted to live for the rest of my life since I was around 13, even though I didn’t understand the politics behind it. So I went to the Czech Republic [now Czechia], and it was easier for me to go to Prague in particular because my brother had been living there before me.
I didn’t have enough support from my family in music— [they felt] you needed to be a doctor or an engineer. So after I finished my studies in Economic Systems Engineering, I discovered that my passion was in music, so I got into sound engineering. I had my small studio, and five or six years ago, I said, “Enough is enough. My only passion is music, and I need to focus on that.“ So I started studying privately, not academically — a lot of playing with the piano and learning Western music theory. Through sound engineering, I got into a lot of electronic production with different DAWs. And then once I moved to Beirut, which was three years ago now, I got to a place where I can make a living out of music.
How did you get into electronic music? Was there a scene in Prague that you sort of stumbled onto? Or did you like electronic music before you moved there?
No, before coming to Prague, I didn’t know that much about electronic music. But in the early years, like everyone who comes to Europe, I got into the party scene, and that's where I got into it. And when I started doing sound engineering, I began working a lot with improvisational artists and composers who work with MIDI instruments, so it was natural for me to get into experimenting with sound, electronic music and noise.
I was also lucky, because they opened the Synth Library in Prague after I started focusing on music. That's where I had my first encounter with the instrument, which was one of the inspirations for the Beirut Synthesizer Center. The first time I saw the modular synthesizer I was very intimidated. But I kept going there, attending tons of workshops, reading manuals, watching tutorials, and then at some point I started leading small workshops and organizing events. Learning the hardware helps you a lot with the software, and vice versa. And it’s a never ending process. I'm still learning every day.
“‘Electronic music with Arabic influences’ is exactly what I don't want to do. What I’m trying to do is Arabic electronic music, and this is different — it cannot be done without the proper, deep knowledge of Arabic culture.”
How about software? How did you start using DAWs?
I started with sound engineering software, actually. At some point, I wanted a more live-friendly software, and then a friend of mine suggested I try Bitwig. I fell in love with Bitwig because it was what I was looking for. I knew that this program was the future, and that it had so much potential. I like the portability of it, I like how easy it is to modulate stuff, I like the layout. It has the best balance between the complexity and the intuitiveness of the interface, and that's really genius. The amount of possibilities with the built-in modulators and synthesizers is just mind-blowing for me. So yeah, I’m a very loyal Bitwig user.
Can you tell us about your musical workflow? Do you start with hardware and then move to a DAW? Or do you conceptualize with DAW and then create the sounds with your synths?
It’s very different every time. If I’m looking for inspiration, and if I don’t know exactly what I want to do, I start playing around with the hardware, looking for some kind of sound, texture or melody. When I know what I’m doing and I’m looking for something in particular, then I grab my DAW.
Now I’m in a phase where I am focusing a lot more on Bitwig than hardware, because every time a different mindset and different tools bring you new ideas. Lately I’ve been playing a lot of live sets with Petra, and they were all computer-less, using drum machines and synthesizers. I felt like I was kind of stuck in a pattern, so now I’ve stopped working with machines and I'm only using Bitwig.
Speaking of your project with Petra, Rust — I was curious about how your creative workflow is different when you work with a partner as opposed to on your own, especially when your partner is also a vocalist.
Working with vocals makes it easier to make a sound from scratch, at least for me. When we make our original songs, we compose melodies over very old Arabic poems, and we also do covers of very old, classical Arabic songs. In either case, we start purely acoustically, without any synths — just me playing the oud and Petra singing. And when we’re satisfied with that, we start including the rhythm part, the beat, textures, bassline — whatever environment we want Petra to be singing in.
I love this journey, but sometimes it’s frustrating. It requires doing a lot of research about traditional Arabic music that follows Maqam, which is the Arabic scale, because you need to be careful with the harmonies; otherwise it can easily sound very weird. Sometimes we have to make tricks and twists so that we don’t end up clashing, but I think that’s also what makes our work original in a way. It’s just an ongoing process of discovering and experimenting, and sometimes it’s extremely frustrating, but when it works, it’s the best feeling ever.
What do you mean by clashing? What clashes?
I can play microtones on the oud — I would say quartertones [the notes between semitones in a Western chromatic scale]. What is very specific about Arabic scales are the intervals between notes (they are called quarter notes or three-quarter notes) - for example in C major scale the E note would be diminished approximately, but not exactly, 50 cent not a whole semi note. There are some possibilities, especially using Bitwig, to play those notes, but it's different when your ears are used to the real, natural intervals of an acoustic instrument. When you transform [those microtonal melodies] into an electronic part, it can sound weird sometimes — to my ears, at least. Maybe to someone who’s used to the Western scales, it might sound exotic, but it wouldn’t be authentic for me. I use the Micropitch device and I love it. It's accurate and very easy to use and with some modulations on some notes it gives the instrument a natural feel, which is very fundamental for playing Arabic scales that are usually performed on acoustic instruments.
Also, harmonies aren't a part of Arabic traditional music, but when you use some different effects and textures, it can create harmonies, and sometimes those clash with the singing, because most of these effects are made for Western scales — which I’m not criticizing, because that’s where the developers culturally come from. [Transcribing Arabic melodies to Western electronic instruments and software] is doable, but it takes a lot of practice and experimenting.
You have an EP that came out in December. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
The EP Echoes was released digitally on December 15, 2022, and it’s available on all streaming platforms. The EP was produced during our residency in Bern-Switzerland in August. It is a rework of traditional Arabic songs by iconic artists, such as Om Kulthoum and Asmahan into different electronic genres. And we are currently working on our original album.
That sounds like great fun. I have some DJ friends who play a lot of club music with Arabic influences, so I’ll forward the release to them.
Of course. I’m glad you said that though, because “electronic music with Arabic influences“ is exactly what I don't want to do. That's what I was doing when I was in Prague: electronic music with a hint of — the word I really hate — with a hint of “Orient.“ It’s like…putting some cumin on a burger. What I’m trying to do is Arabic electronic music, and this is different — it cannot be done without the proper, deep knowledge of Arabic culture. This is the beauty of electronic music: it’s not a genre, it’s a texture; it’s the imagination, and you can take whatever you want. You can create any type of music, let it be classical, jazz, or rock, using electronic sounds, so why not Arabic music too? This is the vision of my music.
What's the main difference between electronic music with Arabic influence and Arabic electronic music?
The difference is that in electronic music with Arabic influence, you can hear the elements of the Arabic music, but it’s on the top of something completely different — some kind of a fusion. It sounds different because usually we don’t mix these elements together. And that’s fine. And sometimes it’s very cool and done very well. I’m not saying it’s bad. But what I’m trying to do, especially with the project with Petra, is not about mixing elements for the sake of making it exotic. It’s not like there is a beat going on, and we sing Arabic on top of it. That’s why when we work, we make song structures before doing the beat and the sound instruments, so that we are creating a song using electronic music. I’m not making a techno beat and adding singing on top of it. The foundation it starts from is completely different. If you listen to electronic music with Arabic influence and then listen to our music, you will hear the difference, especially in the structure.
We're changing and adapting all the time, and that’s important too. It’s not like we're rigidly working in this fixed way. As I mentioned earlier, we do a lot of live performances where we test our new materials, which works better for us than the other way around. And now we just decided that we want to have fun. So we’re making a couple of tracks with a four-on-the-floor beat and a techno direction, and there’s nothing bad about that either.
Now that you mentioned collaborating with other people, I’m wondering if you have a scene of people in Beirut that are in the intersection of electronic music and Arabic music that you can bounce off your ideas with.
Unfortunately, in Beirut, there aren't a lot of people who work in this intersection. There are certainly encounters and collaborations between people who do purely electronic music and people who do traditional ones, but not many who do this as one entity like we do. As a music scene, Beirut is very rich and diverse; there are great bands and artists doing everything, from hip-hop, Western and Arabic classical music, jazz, a lot of electronic musicians, producers, and there are a lot of people doing experimental music, especially around Beirut Synthesizer Center. So yes, it’s really rich and there’s music everywhere. It’s changing a little bit because of the huge crisis happening in the country, and unfortunately a lot of the artists are leaving the country. But still, there are a lot of live gigs, festivals, different collaborations… There's a lot happening here.
““We want to challenge this idea that you have to buy a lot of instruments in order to make electronic music, because when you just start out, that can be pretty intimidating. You come to the Beirut Synth Center, you play with an instrument, and then you leave. Some people will take it further and maybe use it to change their lives, and some people will just think of it as a nice experience.””
What was the motivation behind founding Beirut Synthesizer Center?
The explosion that happened in Beirut a few years ago. I lived very close to the explosion area, and my flat was destroyed. I remember one of the first things I did was clean my instruments and try to save them. I knew this very nice musician and sound engineer here who has a very good studio, and he made a fund to support artists who lost their instruments in the blast. The explosion affected one of the coolest areas in Beirut, with a lot of clubs, galleries, cafes and so on. A lot of artists lived there and lost their instruments, and the country was already suffering from the economic crisis. A lot of people couldn't afford to buy instruments, or they wanted to start making music but didn't have any money. So we wanted to build a small community just to exchange knowledge and to share the equipment and the resources we have without having to buy anything.
I was also inspired by the Synth Library in Prague, but I had no idea how to do it in Beirut. I didn’t know a lot of people here because it’d been only six months since I moved to Beirut, and I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to meet new people due to the pandemic. Through some people and friends, I got to meet two of my co-founders of the Beirut Synthesizer Center, Elyse Tabet and Ziad Moukarzel. They do a lot of interesting things, like experimental music using modular synthesizers, and they had already been doing synth meet-ups in the past. So we met and developed the ideas together, and then we met Bana Haffar, who was in the US. We talked to her about the idea, and she was crazy enough to come to Beirut just to help us kick off the project. She’d also been doing something similar in Asheville [Oregon], where she had a room in her house with modular synthesizers that she made accessible to the community. So it was a pretty magical moment where these four people met in Beirut, and we had the same passion of doing this here.
We created the space by collecting donations from different sources like dublab and some funds here in Beirut. It was initially going to be a short-term project, but we got a lot of support from the community here, as people loved the idea. Then we got another grant, and then another, and we kept on going. Everything we do, we do for free, and this is the core of our function. We want to be inclusive for everybody. We want to support the community, so it’s like an NGO kind of a model. When we started, we had a collection of our own personal synthesizers, and then as time passed, we had some donations from the manufacturers and from other people who had some extra to share.
We want to keep it low-key so that everybody still feels safe and welcome and it still feels like a community space. We want to challenge this idea that you have to buy a lot of instruments in order to make electronic music, because when you just start out, that can be pretty intimidating. That’s why I like the idea of even the name of the Synth Library in Prague; it’s like going to a library and reading a book. Maybe you don’t finish it or even understand it, but you enjoy being in the library and reading a book. For me, this is a very similar experience. You come to the center, you play with an instrument, and then you leave. Some people will take it further and maybe use it to change their lives, and some people will just think of it as a nice experience, and that’s it. I love that; it’s beautiful to see different people from different backgrounds coming, and you never know what happens after they leave.
Download Hany's presets for Bitwig's Micropitch device here.
Interview conducted by Agathe Blume
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