Moving Still’s giddy takes on old gems from the SWANA (South West Asian and North African) region have turned heads over the past couple of years. His edits have charged the sets of high-profile DJs, topped the Rush Hour sales charts, and made his own Dublin Digital Radio and NTS shows a portal to untold musical riches. In conversation, Moving Still refers straight away to ferrying cassettes back and forth from “home” — which begs the immediate question: where is home?
“It’s equally shared between Saudi and Ireland,” the artist born Jamal Sul tells DJ Mag. “I love Dublin, my life is here, and the scene is so close that it’s impossible not to run into people all the time. But Jeddah is nostalgic to me; before the pandemic, I would travel two or three times a year to see family and go on cassette digs. The way society has progressed since I left age 14 is incredible. In the last five years alone there’s been an unrecognisable change in how people embrace creative arts. The movement is buzzing, everyone is connected and welcoming on WhatsApp, and it’s going to be brilliant to link up with them again in person one day.”
While shuttling back and forth across continents regularly in teenage years, he would sneak metal albums over the border for his friends. “Due to the conservatism in Saudi Arabia then , you couldn’t come across anything like Korn’s 'Follow The Leader’ or Slipknot’s 'Iowa'',” Moving Still grins while reflecting on this Satanic subversion. “My father’s side of the family was strictly religious, so I couldn’t be seen involving myself in music at all really. But skateboarding and rollerblading got big locally, imports of guitars crept up, and now it’s a different story.”
Moving Still is propelled forward today by the support of two tight-knit communities: one tangible, a node of promoters, DJs, record stores, labels and aficionados connected to the mother-brain of Dublin Digital Radio; and one distant for now, in Saudi — though that contingent keep his phone humming with notifications day and night anyway, so he never feels too detached. Yet for Moving Still, music-making was a private pursuit at first.
“It was just about trying to destress while finishing my PhD,” says the present-day immunologist, whose work on COVID testing absorbs most of the day. Speaking over Zoom with a modest collection of Roland, Korg and Yamaha synths encroaching into the screen’s perimeter, Moving Still admits his process is bent entirely around the whim of work. “I would sit at my computer with three hour gaps between lab experiments, making slow soundtrack-y type stuff to offset the mental toll of my studies. Melding it with Arabic signatures didn’t cross my mind at all. I never thought anyone would care about that Lebanese dabke on in the background.”
After gaining confidence exploring the fertile middle ground afforded by his dual nationality, the first tell that a hybridised production style might pop came at a gig in 2018. “I was supporting [reissue specialists] Habibi Funk and dropped the original of Sarya Sawa’s “Bas Asma3 Mini.” The place went mental. The only thing that appeared missing to me was modern quality – it was an absolute nightmare to mix with, so later that week I decided to put drums and a bassline on it.” That edit then found its way into the right hands in time for 2019’s festival season, receiving prominent peak time co-signs. Suddenly, the pallet of plastic-wrapped market finds stacked at home glowed with considerable potential.
These tapes are the integral DNA of Moving Still’s output. The process of listening demands patience, but if something unique catches his ear, “I know instantly that loop will be worth building a tune around, or there’s even a full song worth editing. The habit of working quickly to capture excitement stuck. I guess that’s why it all comes out sounding hi-NRG,” he laughs.
Moving Still’s Fresh Kicks mix is, by his estimation, the most flamboyantly hi-NRG mix he’s laid down to date. It’s also pointedly global in nature. The recording encompasses music from Syria, Tunisia, Switzerland, Russia, Algeria, Sweden, Morocco and one super deep cut that can only be optimistically ID’d with “North Africa?” Bookmarked by well-loved hits by The Egyptian Lover and Esa, and laced with contributions by other retro-aesthetes like Tjade, Minos and Cheb Runner, it’s the type of set that could, and perhaps soon will, light up any festival stage. In short: Pumpers O’Clock.
Though Moving Still sprinkles fragments of heritage through everything, this instinctive process manifests in different forms. His solo tunes are spacious and refined light-steppers that have a clear analogue in the percussive, melody-rich club music of Ahadadream and DJ Plead. “Ah Plead man,” Moving Still sighs with an exaggerated recline in his chair. “He makes music in such a specific way that I don’t think anyone can copy that sound. It’s brilliant, and it expands the notion of what ‘Arab’ music can be.”
This is where things have the potential to get sticky. Part of the reason SWANA is preferable terminology is that it reorients the geographical axis; a neutral descriptor that unloads the heavy history of what it means to be ‘East’ (East of where? The answer is implied.) When it comes to the reception of European audiences, there’s an evident risk of blithe exoticisation. However, artists making region-specific music should obviously be free to lean into their background without caveats or concessions, able to leverage that individuality and stake out a corner of the scene for themselves.
“The more I’ve come into this community, the more I’ve come to understand this,” Moving Still explains “Everyone doing Arabic stuff is proud to do so, but we come up with a range of different flavours. It’s just like house music, where you find a genre within a genre within a genre. Take Ko Shin Moon: you have these lads adapting their sound to capture a Turkish psychedelic mood. Habibi Funk, they’re going in hard on the reissue game. Acid Arab were really the first to capture that retro-energy and convert it into heavy 303 bangers. There is no one ‘Arab’ genre, but the bonds between musicians in the Arabic electronic realm are tight, so we’re inspired by one another to accept and build on our cultural identity this way. It’s very cool to see.”
As his catalogue of solo music grows, it is Moving Still’s edits that have drawn special attention so far, enlivening 2020’s Beirut fundraiser comp Grief Into Rage one month and sparking sold-out 12”s on Dar Disku the next. There’s a reason why these charismatic re-versions fizz with expression and urgency. Moving Still feels he “owes respect to the artist’s original intent. If you’re looking at an ‘80s Egyptian track, it’s about imagining how that fervour would be translated on a modern dancefloor.”
Releases on upstart labels like Nail Shop, Orange Tree and Jive Hive have arrived at a fair clip over the past 18 months, with more records to come in 2021. Taken with a non-stop radio schedule, you might assume Moving Still is sitting on inexhaustible resources. While it’s true that he converts and creates a ton of music, only a sliver finds its way out. Differing approaches across locales means Moving Still is judicious about saying yes to everything — mindful both of himself, and those whose art he effectively acts as a custodian for.
“There’s a few things at play here,” he explains. “Words can still be detrimental to the lives of musicians across the SWANA area — you can get in a lot of trouble for mentioning sex or being subversive. As much as I try to narrate on radio for Western listeners, you can’t capture every story or implication. Also, some nations have monopoly label structures, and they don’t understand the value of remixes.” A desire to do everything above board implicitly binds him to a stricter set of rules, and that “can be frustrating. I might put loads of effort into an edit, but this monopoly who bought out the rights are only interested in how it could play in album format. It’s a kick in the ass to be told no by people who have zero investment in independent creators.
"Some of these tracks have been sitting unmarked on my hard drive since I was 14,” he continues. “I want people to hear them! But if I can’t license it, what are my options? I’m not going to sign it as a white label just because I’m in love with it. Besides, everyone is so connected it would come back to bite me real quick in my WhatsApp group. And fundamentally, reaching out to the original artist for their consent is the right thing to do. Whatever signature I put on it, at the end of the day it’s their song.”
For Moving Still, a bundle of excitable energy and moral acuity with a sky-high ceiling for what he can achieve, there’s a personal incentive to ensure these careful efforts are met by a proportional end result. Whether chiselling fragments of melodies out of worn cassettes or breathing new life into pop anthems that never were, he wants a growing international audience to hear the absolute best version of what’s swum around his head for as long as he can remember –– so that it feels like the first time, every time. “Imagine never having your career blow up, then 35 years later you find out people halfway across the world are dancing to your music again? That’s quite magical.”
Check out Moving Still's Fresh Kicks mix below.