TootArd (Arabic for Strawberries) is a “quarter-tone pop” band from the majestic mountainside village of Majdal Shams in the Occupied Syrian Golan Heights. This inventive duo of brothers – Hasan and Rami Nakhleh – return with an infectious re-imagining of their sound. Jammed full of pop hooks and quarter-tone melodic lines, “Migrant Birds” unleashes a disco whirlwind that pays homage to the Middle Eastern dancefloor scenes of the 80’s. Retro funky meets hi-sheen contemporary.
It’s 1980. You’re in a disco, maybe in Beirut or Cairo, almost anywhere in the Middle East, lost in the colours and the lights, overwhelmed by the sound of drum machines and keyboards. It’s heady, it’s beautiful…but those days are long gone; maybe they were only ever just a fantasy. Real or not, they provide the inspiration for Migrant Birds, the new synth-powered album from TootArd that takes them to the dancefloor, about as far from the spare, guitar-driven desert blues of their highly touted Glitterbeat debut Laissez Passer, as it’s possible to go.

“After that record, Rami and I started listening to different things, dance music and old disco,” explains keyboard player and guitarist Hasan Nakhleh. “When we were little, we had compilations of 80s hits that we played over and over. We didn’t know the artists, but we knew all the melodies and harmonies. A lot of that was dance music. Back then, our family had an Arabic synthesizer with the quarter-tones, called a PSR-62, Oriental Model that I loved to play as a kid. My family still has a similar one. I bought an Oriental and began messing around. That was how Migrant Birds was born.”

The 80s may be the catalyst, with the glittering, hedonistic party vibe. But the real roots of the music here run deeper, to musicians like keyboardist Magdi al-Husseini and Ihsan Al-Munzer, who were the first to introduce synthesizers to the Arabic classical style, or Omar Khorshid, who pioneered the addition of electric guitar and worked with the legendary Umm Kulthum. They brought Arabic music firmly into the modern age.
“They were definitely big influences on me,” Nakhleh says, “I write to carry on and do more with the sounds they brought.” Migrant Birds winds all those strands from the past together into a very intricately-crafted whole with a full sound. While Nakhleh plays synthesizer on every track, he doesn’t completely ignore the guitar that was his trademark for so long. It’s there, but this time buried below the surface to bolster the rhythm, while the drums, played again by Nakhleh’s brother and co-conspirator Rami, are a carefully layered mix of machine and kit.

And under the beats and the joy, there’s a dark contrast, a sorrow that casts its shadow all across the lyrics.