Rasha Nahas' Desert pays homage to her cultural background

From Palestine to Germany: Rasha Nahas pays homage to her cultural background with new album
6 min read
19 February, 2021
The New Arab Meets: Palestinian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rasha Nahas, to talk more about the release of her highly anticipated debut album Desert.
Palestinian singer-songwriter Rasha Nahas released her debut album Desert in January [Dee McCourt (Borkowski Arts)]

Rasha Nahas is not here to meet your expectations of how a woman should be expected to behave or express themselves. Especially in the context of her Palestinian culture.

"As a woman, most of the time in our societies, we are expected to behave in a certain way, to fit a specific aesthetic, or body language or genre. I have no energy for this," she laughs.

"I just don't. I prefer to ignore these standards really, and to be myself without thinking about how I am perceived."

This attitude has certainly benefited Rasha. Just last month, the singer/songwriter released her debut album Desert. She had a fantastic year leading up to the release, securing physical distribution across stores in Germany via Cargo Records, was featured in top global Spotify playlists, and was selected to take part in Sawtik, a Spotify Arabia campaign that highlights emerging Arab female talent and includes billboard placements in key cities like Jeddah, Riyadh, Casablanca, Rabat and Cairo.

Born and raised in Haifa and currently living and working in Berlin, Rasha has long been crafting a sound that moves seamlessly between the resonances of early rock 'n' roll and the reckless echoes of free jazz. 

She first burst into the music scene in 2016 with her EP Am I, which was followed by a tour that included a live performance at Glastonbury – arguably the biggest music festival in the world – in 2017. Rasha was just 21 at the time. Since then, her fanbase has gone beyond Palestine to one that is global.

As a woman, most of the time in our societies, we are expected to behave in a certain way, to fit a specific aesthetic, or body language or genre. I have no energy for this

Desert was written and recorded between 2017-2018, in the months during and after her move from Haifa to Berlin. While recording, Rasha also wanted to capture the atmosphere and intensity from performing live on stage, so she and her band recorded together in the same room, with some songs captured in just one take.

There were some delays afterwards – namely a repetitive strain injury in her wrists along with the Covid-19 pandemic – but the album's title track eventually premiered in late November.

It soon garnered attention with a music video shot in Haifa, filled with metaphors representing Rasha and her Palestinian identity: the olive trees representing centuries of tradition and culture, the normalised violence that comes with occupation and oppression, and the old half-ruined buildings of Haifa overlooking the sea surrounded by brand new, gleaming glass buildings of modern colonialism.

"For me, being Palestinian is not about the flag, it's not about the nationality," Rasha says.

"It's about what it stands for, about what values you're speaking for. Raising the Palestinian flag means that I stand for justice and equality, that I am anti-discrimination, racism, violence, and militarisation.

"Being a Palestinian artist, I have another layer that I'm carrying of course, but I don't think there's a right or wrong way to express yourself as a Palestinian or to live with that label. There isn't a clear path that everybody takes. In the end, we're all individuals and we have our own journeys."

Raising the Palestinian flag means that I stand for justice and equality, that I am anti-discrimination, racism, violence, and militarisation

Speaking of Desert as a whole, Rasha describes the album as a "collage of different parts" of her move to Germany. The nine new tracks are punctuated by delicate, evocative passages of guitar and violins, features orchestral interludes and musical overtones that pay homage to her cultural background, and is complimented by her distinctive approach to song writing and performance.

"It represents a very important period in my life. It chronicles my journey from Palestine to Germany, from the personal to the political, and back," Rasha explains.

"There are many sides to this. One is leaving the place where you're so familiar with – it's like a tree in the forest that it used to the weather, used to the soil, is used to everything that's surrounding it and then it is suddenly uprooted," she adds.

"So, there's that feeling of being suddenly taken out of context, but there's also the choice of that. There's also the arrival and then there's the integration – when you're trying to find your space and deal with whatever is coming up to the surface.

"I think Desert is about that. It speaks a lot about the transition. It speaks about growing and identity, the personal and the political, the distortion and clarity, and there's a lot of Berlin in it, sound-wise."

Punctuated by delicate, evocative passages of guitar and violins, and featuring orchestral interludes and musical overtones that pay homage to her cultural background, Rasha describes Desert as a "collage of different parts of the journey" from Palestine to Germany

Growing up listening to David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, and most of all John Lennon, their respective influences can be heard throughout the album. 

In fact, Rasha's love of music started when, at 10 years of age, she one day picked up her sister's abandoned guitar. She has been a classic guitarist since.

[Dee McCourt (Borkowski Arts)]

"Before that, I played a bit of keyboard, I was rapping, singing – so I've always been musical, but I remember the classic guitar just made sense to me," she recalls.

"I grew up listening to a lot of music. From my mum's side, her uncles were all oud players. I don't play the oud unfortunately, not yet, but music is definitely in the family.

"I grew up listening to Fairuz, Kadim el Saher, and Asmahan – so Arabic music is definitely a part of me. Definitely, it's part of my music – but I feel rock 'n' roll is what really shaped me."

Is this perhaps the reason behind her choice to sing mostly in English?

"That's a very important question, and it's something I deal with constantly," Rasha responds.

"First of all, I'm working on Arabic materials all the time – I think my next release is going to be in Arabic. It's my mother tongue, and I have a very specific relationship with the language.

"But I feel in English, I would say it was easier to deal with. As a language, it's easier to talk about things that are more taboo in my songs."

Indeed, one ongoing theme in Rasha's music is the celebration of women and challenging of the patriarchy – something which she does on a regular basis through her very existence, particularly as a Palestinian woman with agency.

For this reason, it's arguable that Rasha is part of a growing list of independent music acts from the Arab world and diaspora known for going against grain of mainstream Arabic pop music with politically charged or socially conscious lyrics, or for simply modernising traditional sounds. This wave includes the likes of Adonis, DJ Sama' Lowkey, 47Soul, Cairokee, Bashar Murad, Mona Haydar and of course, Mashrou' Leila.

While Rasha was flattered to be considered part of that wave, she was quick to highlight that Arabic pop music was still great because of its accessibility and cultural impact, but she also recognised the industry had its faults.

"I think it's important that the music is accessible for me at this stage in my life," she reflects.

"But I think also that it's very important for me to have meaning. I want to make music that has meaning and substance, and for people to connect to and challenge previous understandings or definitions."

Listen to 
Desert on Spotify, Apple Music and other major streaming platforms. It is also available on Bandcamp, and on CD and vinyl via Cargo Records.

Elias Jahshan is a Palestinian/Lebanese-Australian journalist and freelance writer based in London.