I SEE U, Episode 79: XENA, Palestinian Warrior Princess [Encore]

Classically trained flute player and renowned soloist, Nai Barghouti takes her distinct, Arabic jazz fusion into the world of electronic music, offering up rousing vocals to a high-energy track produced by multiple Grammy winner, Skrillex. This episode is an encore of the March 25, 2023 original broadcast.

Palestinian Artist Nai Barghouti


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Six-time Grammy winner and electronic DJ, Sonny Moore, aka Skrillex, recently released a trove of new music after a nearly decade-long hiatus of full-length solo material. Through a mutual friend, the visionary producer was introduced to a Palestinian vocalist by the name of Nai Barghouti – an acclaimed composer and flute player who’s notably famous for creating her own signature fusion of jazz and Middle Eastern soundscapes. But what happens when you blend her angelic, and often times, enchanting voice with a pulsating techno beat and rhythmic, percussive claps? Stay tuned as I SEE U host Eddie Robinson chats candidly with renowned singer-songwriter, Nai Barghouti. We explore the meaning behind their collaborative track called, “XENA,” including a deep dive into Palestinian folklore and the song’s cultural message of empowerment. The instrumentalist also describes her unique vocal style and how she’s used one of the most traumatic experiences of her childhood, while living in Jerusalem under military occupation, as inspiration for her remarkable musical career.


Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Eddie Robinson: Superstar DJ, known as Skrillex, has been heating up the electronic music industry as it late recently, the multiple Grammy award winner was introduced to a Palestinian vocalist by the name of Nai Barghouti, an acclaimed composer and flute player who’s notably famous for creating her own unique fusion of jazz and Middle Eastern soundscapes.

[00:00:24] Nai Barghouti: It was like, I have another track called XENA. It’s been, you know, stuck. And I really wanna do something with this song, but I’m not sure what.

[00:00:32] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson. Stay tuned as we chat unguarded with singer songwriter Nai Barghouti. We learn more about her signature vocal technique, plus we’ll get to listen to her sing acapella.

[00:00:44] Eddie Robinson: A popular hit song about a warrior princess. That’s hyped up millions of electronic digital music fans across the globe. Oh yeah. I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U.

[00:01:07] Eddie Robinson: You are listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson with us in this episode. We’re so fortunate to have a special guest, Nai Barghouti.

[00:01:29] Eddie Robinson: Nai thanks enormously for taking time out of your busy schedule and setting aside a few minutes to connect with I.

[00:01:37] Nai Barghouti: Thank you very much for having me . Very happy to be here.

[00:01:40] Eddie Robinson: Yeah. You know, I wanted you to be a part of this show because it’s, it’s time to broaden the horizons of public media. Let’s expose audiences to new ideas, new cultures, new innovative sounds, artistic expressions.

[00:01:54] Eddie Robinson: Interestingly enough, Nai, your world embraces a plethora of classical and orchestral music and instrumentations. That our public media audiences have loved for decades. And you, your background, you know, you’ve been performing in front of packed crowds, you know, as early as 14 years old, and Ramallah and Cairo, and I mean, then on to global stages all over the world and New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Casablanca, your vocals are absolutely amazing,

[00:02:28] Eddie Robinson: but we hardly get to explore the electronic music on public media stations and the, the, the electronic genre and this latest project that has a multiple Grammy award winner, music producer, you know, I’m a huge fan of his work. And his music. You’re a featured vocalist…

[00:02:52] Nai Barghouti: mm-hmm.

[00:02:52] Eddie Robinson: on a very powerful and creative track called XENA.

[00:02:55] Eddie Robinson: Yes. My one-year-old toddler son, and I listen to the song every morning now as we head to daycare .

[00:03:03] Nai Barghouti: Aw, that’s funny.

[00:03:03] Eddie Robinson: At the end of, at the end of the. At the end of the track, there’s, you know, this really, you know, nice fast beat comes in and he does the, you know, baby shark thing and everything. It’s so cute.

[00:03:12] Eddie Robinson: Yeah. Later in the show we’ll play the song, you know, that you’re featured on Great work. Awesome track. We’ll play it. But…

[00:03:19] Nai Barghouti: Thank you.

[00:03:19] Eddie Robinson: Before we get into the Skrillex chatting, how y’all met? Who is Nai Barghouti? Briefly share with us, you know, where you’re from and the kind of musicianship that you bring to the cultural table.

[00:03:33] Eddie Robinson: How would you describe Nai Barghouti’s music to someone?

[00:03:39] Nai Barghouti: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here. So I’m from Palestine. I’m a Palestinian singer, composer, and flute player. I was born in Jerusalem, but I grew up in Ramallah, uh, a city in the West Bank of Palestine. I grew up basically with a lot of Arabic music and Arabic music is extremely diverse. You have so many different styles that it almost sounds like, you know, very different, you know, genres of music. I was also really blessed to grow up with a family that really appreciates art and music. So we were exposed to all kinds of stuff, you know, from Whitney Houston , to Indian music, to flamingo, all kinds of stuff.

[00:04:25] Nai Barghouti: So that, for me, that had a huge role in, in developing my musicality and, and also teaching me a lot about music, even though I was not really learning it, but just basically growing with it and. For it to be coming into my ears. Then I basically decided that I do wanna study music, and I started at the age of seven, I, I started learning the flute, like the, the classical flute.

[00:04:48] Nai Barghouti: And I was really into, uh, western classical music. And then my relationship with singing became, uh, stronger than ever. And I had a feeling that that’s what I’m gonna do. I wanna be a singer. So I, I basically learned my first, my first song from my mother who is a singer who used to sing in a choir and now she still does it as a hobby.

[00:05:10] Nai Barghouti: Sometimes in the kitchen I hear her or when she’s working or you know. So I learned basically singing from her. And my older sister Jenna plays at the Dallas Symphony. Uh, so I also was really inspired by her playing. She’s an amazing violinist. Um, and my dad used to be a choreographer and also his taste in music was amazing and still is.

[00:05:31] Nai Barghouti: So we, we really had this like very musical family in a way. And so that’s, that’s basically my journey with music.

[00:05:40] Nai Barghouti: I’ve read somewhere there’s this connection between Arabic and jazz. And I’m curious, you know, in your opinion, you know, how are they related as it relates to your music and what you bring to the table?

[00:05:54] Nai Barghouti: So, um, ever since I was a kid, and, and again, I was really just into Arabic music a lot, I, I also love jazz and as a child, I didn’t know why, why I found this kind of connection that really reminded me of my connection with Arabic music. And so I was already curious from a very young age of why there’s a connection between jazz and Arabic music and what is this connect.

[00:06:14] Nai Barghouti: So then I went to a music school and I started learning jazz, and I realized if I would just summarize that, it’s basically the spontaneity and the very strong expression of jazz music. That comes from, from black culture, and that’s basically that the strength that you hear and see and and even feel in the music.

[00:06:34] Nai Barghouti: It’s very, very close to Arabic music, in my opinion. Interesting. And then musically speaking, there are of course a lot of scales and modes that kind of overlap between both worlds, and that comes from a. From historical events, the, the call to prayer, for example, and the in Islamic culture was really, uh, uh, affected by jazz and vice versa.

[00:06:53] Nai Barghouti: So you really hear a lot of connection between the two genres, surprisingly.

[00:06:58] Eddie Robinson: And it sounds like your voice, you know, your vocal style, they’re all layered. You know, it can be angelic, inspiring.

[00:07:08] Nai Barghouti: Mm-hmm.

[00:07:09] Eddie Robinson: You know, velvety with the depth to it, a rich texture and, and its foundation. And it’s also powerful, you know, there’s a projection to your voice with a range, and that range has control, has agility.

[00:07:23] Eddie Robinson: Uh, I think I read somewhere where a renowned Egyptian maestro wrote that there is light in her voice. And that’s exactly how I feel when I hear your voice and your music. There is. It, there’s a boldness, but at the same time, there is so like this gentleness, a sense of nobility, a sense of tranquility.

[00:07:47] Nai Barghouti: Wow. Thank you. Mm-hmm. . ‘

[00:07:48] Eddie Robinson: And you can hear it all in your voice and perhaps even in the life that you’ve lived, it all kind of is brought into your vocal. Uh, and I just love that about your.

[00:08:02] Nai Barghouti: Thank you. Well, I mean, because also my relationship with music kind of grew out of that, those feelings and, and some of them were of course, happy and beautiful feelings, but some of them were also very difficult feelings.

[00:08:14] Nai Barghouti: After all. I, I grew up under occupation and having lived through these experiences, having lived through racism and, you know, discrimination all my life, being really forced into staying away from music as much as possible because occupation is scared of art. And so when you’re an artist and you want to get closer to music, the first thing that’s gonna happen is that your occupier will feel threatened because they don’t want you to be educated or they don’t want you to be musical.

[00:08:40] Nai Barghouti: They don’t want you to have a voice. And so my voice started out of that because I did not want to shut up. I did not want to stop singing, stop talking. I really wanted to go out there and explode with my musical expression and, and, and my character. So my relationship with music started out of that. I was seeing a lot of horrible things and I wanted a tool to express my feelings and my thoughts, and there was music.

[00:09:08] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson and we’re chatting with Palestinian composer, singer songwriter, Nai Barghouti. I think of Beyoncé and the Renaissance album. And there’s this fir, the first track that you hear on her album is called, uh, I’m That Girl and she uses a sample of a nineties track from, this is rapper, Tommy Wright iii, and it’s Still Pimping.

[00:09:33] Eddie Robinson: Song keeps resonating with the sample. You know, stop holding us back. You won’t stop me. You won’t stop me.

[00:09:40] Nai Barghouti: Mm-hmm.

[00:09:41] Eddie Robinson: And I just love that energy. And you feel that energy in the music that you deliver. And you know, speaking of Houston, artists who are shaping the pop culture as we know it, you’ve got Lizzo.

[00:09:53] Eddie Robinson: She’s a flute player out of the University of Houston. And you’re also a renowned flute player as well. What is it about this instrument that connects, you know, with who you are and your artistry? What is it about the flute that captivates you as an instrumentalist as well?

[00:10:08] Nai Barghouti: Well, actually, my name NAI comes from an Arabic flute, so it’s made of a type of wood, basically, and people play the flute in a different way.

[00:10:17] Nai Barghouti: They hold it to the front versus the. Holding of the Western flute. And so everyone used to joke like, your name is Nai, which is a very uncommon name. Like no one I knew was named Nai. So if you, if you’re named Nai, then you must play the Nay, right? Because that’s like, that’s how it is. So I said, well, close enough.

[00:10:34] Nai Barghouti: I play the flute and it has this kind of purity of the sound that I love. But it can also be used in Arabic music in a way that, that hasn’t been used because flute is not really an Arabic instrument. So it’s, it’s difficult for the flute to create a certain intonation that is used in Arabic music, quarter tones, uh, that are used in macans, which means scales in, in Arabic music.

[00:10:54] Nai Barghouti: So there’s something about, about the flute being so western that I kind of makes me like, you know, let’s, let’s see where I can go. And I love that ability of the food to do that. But I must say my connection with the voice, I think is. I would say a stronger connection than the suit.

[00:11:11] Eddie Robinson: Got it. Got it. Yeah.

[00:11:12] Nai Barghouti: And I believe you spent two years at Indiana University’s Jacob’s School of Music. Yes. And, and then you moved to Amsterdam. You, you were awarded both your bachelor’s and master’s degrees with honors. From the Conservatory of Amsterdam. Um, what was that experience like with those two, you know, educational worlds, if you will, of studying classical music and jazz vocal technique at Indiana University and then coming to Amsterdam?

[00:11:39] Nai Barghouti: You know, were there nuances from the culture in Amsterdam that you incorporated into your own sound, your own voice? .

[00:11:46] Nai Barghouti: So my experience living in the us I, I was very young when I moved here. I was not even 17.

[00:11:51] Eddie Robinson: So you moved here.

[00:11:52] Nai Barghouti: So I moved to the US to Indiana, basically to start my bachelor’s degree. So it was, it was very difficult for me to be so, you know, far away from my family.

[00:12:01] Eddie Robinson: Gotcha.

[00:12:01] Nai Barghouti: And so two years through the program, I still felt like there was something missing for me, and that was basically my relationship to Arabic music because in Indiana University, There were a lot of expectations, an amazing school. And so, you know, you had to study really hard to finish everything that was expected of you to, to, to finish as a student.

[00:12:19] Nai Barghouti: And that was amazing because it taught me a lot, but I also felt like I’m getting really away from my culture and from my music, which I really wanted to include, but the program and the curriculum didn’t really allow for that. And so that’s when I found out about the Amsterdam Conservatory of Music and, and how diverse the program was.

[00:12:38] Nai Barghouti: So they, for them it’s, it’s crucial that you have an identity as a musician or else you’re actually, you wouldn’t, you will not finish your course. You’ll not pass the course unless you have a very personal and very unique character to your musicality, cuz that’s what they would like you to achieve. So that allowed me basically to be a little bit more free, uh, in my music and to keep my relationship with.

[00:13:01] Nai Barghouti: Uh, Arabic music and jazz and everything I was studying while also being in a place like Amsterdam, which is extremely diverse and you can just meet all kinds of people and, you know, be subjected to a lot of concerts and music events.

[00:13:56] Eddie Robinson: Coming up. Palestinian singer, composer, Nai Barghouti will get insight into her collaboration with Skrill’s. How did they meet? Plus, we’ll dive into the lyrics of the song they made together called XENA. Then later, be sure you stay tuned as we get to hear exclusive acapella vocals from the renowned composer herself.

[00:14:20] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson. I SEE U. We’ll return in just a moment.

[00:14:29] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

[00:15:08] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re so grateful to have with us as a special guest singer, composer, Nai Barghouti. She’s a renowned vocalist who recently teamed up with producer Sonny Moore, better known as Skrillex for a track called. XENA, the highly energetic track features captivating vocals sung by Nai, along with some wild percussion and hyped up rhythms and loops.

[00:15:35] Eddie Robinson: It’s the perfect blend with bass techno and Middle Eastern Club, but the mixing of Arabic rhythms and sounds is actually something mega hit producer and multiple Grammy winner Timbaland has been doing for quite some time. He’s been known to fuse a bit of Arabic flair into creative beats and rhythmic melodies for several chart topping r and b and hip hop tracks from back in the day.

[00:16:04] Eddie Robinson: Take for instance, Aaliyah’s 2001 track called More Than a Woman. The song effectively blends an Arabic sample from Mayada EL Hennawy ,

[00:16:17] Eddie Robinson: another Timbaland produced track, Jay-Z and U G K’s, infamous Big Pimping from 1999. It samples a very popular belly dancing from Abdel Halim Hafez,

[00:16:34] Eddie Robinson: and we can’t forget the 2007 Def Jam Track from Fabulous Neo called Make Me Better, which injects an Arabian blues track called Sharine by Al Sa’ben Aleh

[00:16:47] Eddie Robinson: But what makes this collaboration with Sonny and Singer Nai Barghouti so fascinating is that she actually uses her voice as an. Which allows for a unique sound dynamic, especially when she’s paired with six time Grammy winner. Skrillex, we continue our chat. Well, Skrillex. Hello . You know, I mean Nai, how did it all begin?

[00:17:17] Eddie Robinson: Did Skrillex hear about your music somehow? You know, had you heard of him before you worked with him? I mean, what went down with that connection? Go.

[00:17:26] Nai Barghouti: So actually we met, we met a couple of years ago through, uh, a mutual friend Thijs de Vlieger, and he’s a, he’s from the Netherlands. He’s known for his work with, uh, Noisia, which is a very well known, uh, Dutch electronic music trio.

[00:17:45] Nai Barghouti: So Thys and Sonny were Skrillex known as Skrillex. Were really close friends, and Sonny was visiting the Netherlands and you know, hanging out with, with Thys. So Thys invited me to go to Groningen, which is a city in the Netherlands where Thys is from. And I met, uh, Sonny there, sunny? Mm-hmm. and yeah, and we basically just, I remember we just shook hands.

[00:18:08] Nai Barghouti: We just kind of felt that, you know, something might come out of this, but we didn’t really talk about it, or we didn’t really get the chance to make a lot of music together. He was very busy and we didn’t have a lot of time. And then another time, the same thing happened again. This time we, I was able to sing a little bit with Thys.

[00:18:23] Nai Barghouti: We were jamming also with our friend, uh, who’s also a Palestinian musician living in, in Holland. His name is Khalil Khoury. He’s a Qanun player. And so he was also there in phoning and we were just, you know, jamming and I, and I would see Sonny sometimes passing the room and like listening and like, okay. Yeah. And I remember being really scared, like, wow, I, I really like, you know, this is my chance.

[00:18:43] Eddie Robinson: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

[00:18:45] Nai Barghouti: And then again, nothing, nothing really came out of that. But then later on we kind of connected again and I, and I realized that he was working on some new. And he wanted me to, to sing some, you know, some vocal background stuff on one of his tracks. So that XENA was not even in, in discussion at that point.

[00:19:04] Nai Barghouti: So I recorded something, which is also now on, on his album, and, uh, Don’t Leave Me Like This. So that, that beginning vocal line, I’m basically recording that.

[00:19:14] Eddie Robinson: That’s you? Interesting..

[00:19:16] Nai Barghouti: Yeah. The one in the background. Yes.

[00:19:18] Eddie Robinson: Interesting nugget. Got it.

[00:19:20] Nai Barghouti: Yeah. Okay. So back in September we went to London to basically rec record that and you know, the backing vocals to make that stronger and to really like develop the idea.

[00:19:29] Nai Barghouti: So we were in London and we were working on that song on the first day, and then the second day he was like, oh, actually I have another track called XENA and it’s been, you know, stuck with me for, for five years and I really wanna do something with the song, but I’m not sure what, so I said, okay, well let’s, let’s try.

[00:19:46] Nai Barghouti: And we just went to the studio and started listening to music and we both felt like something rhythmic would be ideal for the song. So, I proposed some Palestinian folk music and he listened to that and he loved it.

[00:20:05] Nai Barghouti: So we just thought, let’s do it. And we basically recorded the whole thing in a few hours on that day. And there was XENA .

[00:20:14] Eddie Robinson: So what’s the title? I mean, I’m thinking what Xena Warrior Princes. I mean, in the hit there was this hit nineties TV series.

[00:20:21] Eddie Robinson: That depicts Zena on this quest to redeem herself from her dark past.

[00:20:27] Nai Barghouti: Mm-hmm.

[00:20:27] Eddie Robinson: You know, by using her fighting skills to help people. , but, but I thought I read somewhere where this song is traditionally sung at weddings.

[00:20:35] Nai Barghouti: Yeah. Like, the concept of XENA for, for Skrillex would be exactly what you said. It’s inspired by that, by that character, and it’s inspired by women’s, women’s strength, women’s power and, and you know, just being so free in, in your expression as a woman.

[00:20:49] Nai Barghouti: And so that’s where the idea came along. But the funny thing, I mean, this is a traditional palest. Folk song that is basically, uh, originally sung to the groom in weddings and it, it’s basically calling on his cousins to put him on a horse and shoot rifles in the air as a celebration for his wedding. And, and it’s, it’s that kind of, um, of scene.

[00:21:09] Nai Barghouti: The reason why we use this, I use the song in XENA, even though it’s actually usually for, for Groom, is that as Palestinian women we’re also trying to use the song as cultural subversion to say that we’re also worth. Tradition is important, but evolving it to modernity and exclusivity, inclusivity, sorry, is crucial for us.

[00:21:29] Nai Barghouti: So that’s why as women, it feels kind of extra important to sing a lot of Palestinian folk songs that maybe historically we’re targeted to men. Uh, but now it’s about us also as women, so we wanna be included as well. You have to always work extra hard to be proven that you’re just as good or even better.

[00:21:50] Nai Barghouti: And that’s basically the problem, that you have to always work hard to just say, I’m here. This is, this is who I am. Hear me out. This is my voice. You know, I’m not just a singer. Even though that would also be enough. But I’m just, I’m not just that, I’m also a musician. I’m an instrumentalist. I have this passion towards music.

[00:22:08] Nai Barghouti: I have knowledge about music that I wanna. I’m not just following a certain path that someone else dictates for me, and you always have to work extra hard to prove that all the time, and it’s tiring. But we don’t get tired easily. . And then as the Palestinian Society basically evolved, people also started using the song for Palestinian martyrs.

[00:22:30] Nai Barghouti: So being both women and men. And the zaghareet, which is the loud lip, uh, trilling used in the beginning of the song and, and throughout is also, um, a thin line between celebration and grief. So women use it in, in both weddings and in funerals. So it’s such a powerful feminine tool of expression, and it’s used only by women, and it has this kind of, you’re always on the edge between, am I grieving or am I celebrating?

[00:22:56] Nai Barghouti: And the, and the line between those is so thin.

[00:22:59] Eddie Robinson: So, uh, when you’re speaking of like the, there’s the screen right? Yes. Uh, uh uh, is that what you’re talking about with the screaming? No.

[00:23:07] Nai Barghouti: Oh, okay. Actually, that, that wasn’t, that wasn’t me. That was a friend, a friend of of Skrillex who, who made these screams a while ago, and he basically used them.

[00:23:14] Nai Barghouti: But I mean, the, the, the thrilling of the tongue that you hear and throughout the song, there’s like this,

[00:23:19] Eddie Robinson: Yes.

[00:23:19] Nai Barghouti: It’s a, it’s a thrilling sound that the is produced by the roll of the tongue.

[00:23:24] Eddie Robinson: Can you do it?

[00:23:27] Nai Barghouti: It’s more like, like that kind of thing.

[00:23:30] Eddie Robinson: Yes.

[00:23:30] Nai Barghouti: But much, much higher. If I do it now, the, the computer will explode. So I don’t wanna do that.

[00:23:41] Eddie Robinson: So, and I’m also listening because it sounds like there’s someone else that with a lower voice and that’s still you.

[00:23:51] Nai Barghouti: That is still me as well. Yeah. ,

[00:23:55] Eddie Robinson: How do you get that velvet sort of sound?

[00:23:58] Nai Barghouti: It’s years of, of, of, you know, of practicing and, and basically the using that my connection with, with Western music and, and Arabic music in a way that’s basically it, because I was also looking for that sound for years and, and I always felt like when I’m singing in, in Arabic music, I’m using.

[00:24:16] Nai Barghouti: A certain voice, and then when I go to a more Western style, then my voice kind of switches over, but I’m missing the, the connection. I’m missing the where does it overlap and how can I connect both without it seeming like, okay, here stops, here comes this part here, ends this part. Now we’re starting another part.

[00:24:32] Nai Barghouti: I don’t want it to be sa. , you know, to be heard as chunks. I wanted to be all connected in my voice. Yes. So that was of course years of basically studying because a lot of the vocal technique.

[00:24:42] Eddie Robinson: Mm-hmm.

[00:24:43] Nai Barghouti: Things that are written about it in universities and and schools. It’s very western and that’s nice. But as an Arab, that doesn’t necessarily apply to me in my singing.

[00:24:52] Nai Barghouti: And I also wanna develop technique in Arabic singing without having to. For example, opera to be able to learn about my voice. It’s a very different technique in opera than we use in, in Arabic music. So how can I find my own technique that I can develop, even though it doesn’t exist in books yet? And so that was my mission in my, especially my master’s, uh, degree, to basically look for a vocal technique that can help me go through different styles of music seamlessly.

[00:25:18] Nai Barghouti: And that was a, a vocal technique I called Naistrumentation. My master thesis was about that .

[00:25:25] Eddie Robinson: Naistrumentation.

[00:25:35] Eddie Robinson: You are listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson, and we’re here with Palestinian singer songwriter Nai Barghouti. She’s the featured vocalist on a high energy dance track released by six time Grammy Award winner Skrillex. The song XENA is a track on Skrillex’s latest album entitled Quest for Fire.

[00:25:55] Eddie Robinson: What’s it like infusing your culture? into an American DJ song, you know, when you first heard the mix, you know, how did you react?

[00:26:04] Nai Barghouti: Mm-hmm.

[00:26:04] Eddie Robinson: You know, I noticed both you and Skrillex jamming in a session on Instagram.

[00:26:09] Nai Barghouti: Um, yeah.

[00:26:09] Eddie Robinson: But you know, what, what was that experience for you like and how did you feel as you were kinda listening and thinking to yourself, this is interesting, or, you know, this, this is, I don’t know if this is gonna fly, but it’s sounding good to me, you know?

[00:26:25] Nai Barghouti: Yeah.

[00:26:25] Eddie Robinson: What was that like for you?

[00:26:27] Nai Barghouti: I mean, I remember when the song was finally released and everyone was listening to it, and I also listened, and this time I was listening as someone outside of this song and not as an artist who sang the song. So for the first time, it’s actually just listening to it as if it’s for the first time.

[00:26:41] Nai Barghouti: And that was actually very emotional for me. Like I remember almost, you know, tearing up a little bit because I was very proud, of course, of this result. And also just the fact that you hear Palestinian music in such a, such an amazing track with such an incredible artist. Even though from the very beginning it wasn’t a really a political thing.

[00:26:59] Nai Barghouti: We, we didn’t decide to do this as a political statement. And, and I respected that and I, and I basically did it from a musical artistic perspective. But you cannot separate the identity of music from, its, from its meaning. You can never succeed at doing that. Even if you try to ignore it. It’s not possible.

[00:27:15] Nai Barghouti: It is a Palestinian folk song and just that holds a lot of political meaning and that we cannot run away from that basically.

[00:27:24] Eddie Robinson: And do you feel like there is a sect, there is a group of individuals who feel like, you know what, this is disrespectful or, you know, this is something that you know, you know, that could potentially receive backlash because people like tradition.

[00:27:43] Nai Barghouti: Right.

[00:27:44] Eddie Robinson: Do you find that kind of backlash, you know, with this particular track or with anything you know, that relates to preserving the Palestinian culture?

[00:27:55] Nai Barghouti: So that, that, that thought definitely comes to mind because I always wanna be respectful of, of music from, from any, any music I do, I need to be respectful of that.

[00:28:03] Eddie Robinson: That’s right.

[00:28:03] Nai Barghouti: Um, but Palestinian Folks music somehow has, has been very, um, modern in the sense that people really love seeing it, um, alive. Even if that means, you know, connecting it to other genres. People. But the main, the main thing that people are worried about is actually preserving that, that that songs, no matter how, no matter which style you present it at, as long as it’s respectful to the style, of course, you’re not like, completely destroying it.

[00:28:29] Nai Barghouti: And you’re, you’re being, you know, very respectful of saying that this is Palestinian folk music, this is what it is, and you’re actually introducing it to the world. You’re making it more accessible to the Western ear, for example. And Sure. So that’s something that actually makes us proud. Not, not, um, yeah, we’re not sad about that at all.

[00:28:45] Nai Barghouti: Really annoyed by that. Um, I did see some backlash from the other side. For example, a lot of, um, people who do not, you know, who support Israel and who are is Israelis, probably most of them were Israelis who were anti-anything Palestinian especially again, when it’s art, when it’s Palestinian art, that kind of scares them.

[00:29:05] Nai Barghouti: So you see a lot of, you know, backlash as well for people who are saying, We don’t wanna listen to this music. We, we don’t wanna be part of that. Skrillex should not do a collaboration with a Palestinian artist. This is not acceptable, et cetera. And to me, that just proves that the song is very strong. And, you know, these, these comments and these, you know, people, they’re, they’re not many.

[00:29:26] Nai Barghouti: They’re very few of them, but in a way that actually empowers me. So, yeah.

[00:29:34] Eddie Robinson: And you’ve, you’ve done these big massive shows with orchestral instrumentation behind you. You know, did you ever imagine your voice, your sound pumped up in music festivals and massive venues were hundreds of thousands of electronic music lovers are jumping up and down and throwing their hands in the air.

[00:29:53] Eddie Robinson: Um, you know, did you ever imagine your voice to make such a dramatic transition like that?

[00:30:00] Nai Barghouti: I did not. No, because also personally, and I, and I also shared this with Skrillex like a few times, I’m not really, I, I was never really into EDM I, I knew nothing about EDM. Like I, we, we didn’t grow up with a lot of access to that kind of music.

[00:30:15] Nai Barghouti: And, and I didn’t, I never really listened to it. I didn’t really know much about it until I. You know, came to Amsterdam and I started meeting people who were really into that and they would sometimes play things for me, but I, I never really got into it a lot. It wasn’t really my thing. So then from that to like collaborating with probably the, you know, one of the biggest names in the EDM world, that was a huge jump and I never saw it coming, but I’m so happy it, it did, because it gave me so much.

[00:30:41] Nai Barghouti: And I also was able to also give back also a. I love, love to that music and a lot of passion, um, in those vocals.

[00:30:49] Nai Barghouti: I believe that more and more artists and electronic artists will start to infuse or integrate and mix genres, soundscapes cultures, the way Skrillex and others have done. You know, what do you think this says about the creativity of electronic artists and musicians and producers who sometimes get a bad rap, you know, because they’re not playing an instrument or they don’t have the skillsets of knowing how to read music, et cetera.

[00:31:14] Nai Barghouti: Definitely, I mean, first of all, the, the part about, you know, needing to learn music or needing to, you know, read music in order to be considered a musician, I’m so against that because I think being a musician is something that is inside. It’s not something that you can just. Learn how to do. A lot of people learn how to read music and they learn a lot about music theory, but they’re not musicians.

[00:31:36] Nai Barghouti: So for me it’s something that really comes from the inside. Something you’re born with, even it’s, it’s this talent that not a lot of people have, and it’s an amazing thing to have. So whether your instrument is your computer or your voice or an actual musical instrument, that it doesn’t matter you, you feel it on the inside.

[00:31:52] Nai Barghouti: Working with someone like Sonny, for example, he’s one of the most musical people I’ve ever worked with. He can imagine. The music in his brain and he can, he can really know what he’s looking for and then try to really find that sound and then make it even better. And so there’s such a musical experience of working.

[00:32:11] Nai Barghouti: In an EDM project, which, which I never personally, yes, I, I would admit that I never thought it would be that, that way, but it really was. Um, and about mixing genres together, I’m, that’s, that’s what I’m all about. I think this is what, how the world can, the world is so big, yet it’s also so small, you know, being in, growing up in Ramallah, now I’m in Dallas and, you know, it’s, it’s, its a small world somehow.

[00:32:31] Nai Barghouti: And, and, you know, music is, is, is fascinating and, and a very strong. For us to use to connect different cultures together and to bring, you know, different music dramas together. I think it’s, it’s much more connected than most people think.

[00:32:51] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we’ll wrap up our chat with Palestinian singer songwriter Nai Barghouti. She shares more about her upbringing in Jerusalem and the most traumatic incident she’s ever experienced as a child in the Middle East. We’ll also learn more about a recent news event involving the Music Star. Why was she held by authorities at an airport in.

[00:33:15] Eddie Robinson: For more than eight hours and denied entry into Egypt. I’m Eddie Robinson. Our final segment of I SEE U happens in just a moment. We’ll be right back.

[00:33:34] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

[00:34:24] Eddie Robinson: You are listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. We’re here with Nai Barghouti. She’s a Palestinian singer, songwriter, and classically trained flute player who’s featured in a very popular track, played in electronic music festivals around the world. Six time Grammy winners, Skrillex, whose real name is Sonny Moore, teamed up with Nai on the song called XENA, where she offers up her enchanting Middle Eastern vocals and versatile melodies to the.

[00:34:53] Eddie Robinson: We’ll hear more from the track later in the episode, as well as hear Nai provide us with an acapella version of the song. The renowned soloist has been touring the globe and we’re fortunate to catch up with her as she tours parts of the United States. She’s currently chatting with us virtually from Dallas, Texas.

[00:35:11] Eddie Robinson: You were in the news recently about being detained at an airport in Egypt. You were held at Cairo Airport for eight hours without justification before being barred from entering the country. As a result of this, you know, two major concerts were canceled. The Opera House, which would’ve been your debut there, and a show at the Roman Amphitheater in Alexandria.

[00:35:33] Eddie Robinson: You know, you waited eight hours. You remained steadfast, you know, you weren’t giving up right during this ordeal? No. From what I read in these news articles, you know, did they ever give you a reason as to why you were detained, why you were barred from entering the country?

[00:35:51] Nai Barghouti: Unfortunately, I was never given a reason.

[00:35:53] Nai Barghouti: No one knew anything. Even though we had a lot of connections in Egypt and we were trying to really understand what was going on, uh, no one could really find like the answer of why I was. Not, you know, allowed to enter Egypt, but to me it was a very, very, actually, very heartbreaking because Egypt, you know, Egyptian music, that, that was my childhood.

[00:36:15] Nai Barghouti: Like, that was everything. I listened to. The genre that we call tarab and tarab can, is, is a genre of music, but the, the, the definition of tarab, like the actual translation is, is a state of ecstasy that you get while listening to music. And so that basically started in Egypt. For me, that was all of my, you know, childhood, teenage years.

[00:36:34] Nai Barghouti: Everything was just all about that. Um, I even remember like my parents, you know, making fun of me because I was, you know, you would see other teenagers listening to a lot of western pop music and things that I were, were really in at that time. In, in, in Palestine elsewhere. Also Arabic pop music. And then you see me listening to songs from 1920s and, you know, just.

[00:36:55] Nai Barghouti: Taking extremely long showers because I need the song to finish before I finish and the, and the shower and the song is like an hour long , so there goes the water, you know?

[00:37:04] Eddie Robinson: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:37:04] Nai Barghouti: That was really, yeah. And there isn’t a lot of water in Palestine, so that I have to learn to be respectful of that and not do that anymore.

[00:37:11] Nai Barghouti: That was for me, that was my, my childhood. So going to Egypt and experiencing that, you know, that feeling there and. Being in that, in that, in that country, being in, in Cairo, in that city, that’s, I really wanted to, to experience that and unfortunately that didn’t, didn’t happen.

[00:37:30] Eddie Robinson: How did the spirit of resistance come about?

[00:37:34] Nai Barghouti: Well, I mean, unfortunately I kind of grew up with that. You know, I, this brings me back, I mean, when I was sitting there waiting for someone to let me in to something that I shouldn’t be denied, that really took me back to my childhood. I remember I had the music class in, in Jerusalem every Friday, and again, Jerusalem is the city of my birth, and I was, I, I was living in Ramallah, which is only a 20 minute drive supposedly to Jerusalem, but with all.

[00:38:00] Nai Barghouti: Checkpoints that are on the way. It takes sometimes an hour or two to get there. So I remember I used to go all the time since I was maybe 10 to that checkpoint alone because I had to go to my music lesson then. And one time the soldier did not seem to want me to go in and she saw my flute and she said, what is this?

[00:38:20] Nai Barghouti: And I said, it’s a flute. And she said, so you’re a musician. And she really was angry to see that I was a musician and she didn’t let me pass. She, she basically started saying, you don’t have the right papers. Like, I can’t remember what what it was, but she basically denied me from going to my music lesson.

[00:38:36] Nai Barghouti: And she asked me to go back. And at that point I was really young, but I had this kind of energy to me that I, I was like, I’m not going, I’m just gonna sit here. And it was extremely scary. She, she had a, you know, a weapon that was bigger than me at that point. And I was, I was very scared because they can be really brutal, but I just decided, To stay there.

[00:38:56] Nai Barghouti: And I said, I’m not, I’m not going back. And I remember all these buses filled with Palestinians were also trying to cross. They all came down from the bus and were basically protecting me as their child. And so there was this kind of collective feeling of we’re all together in this. And I’m not com going back, I’m gonna pass.

[00:39:13] Nai Barghouti: At the end, my dad came to pick me up and I didn’t pass. But it for me that it, it makes you grow somehow. It makes you feel like you’re not, you’re not gonna take no for an answer when this is your right. You, you’re not supposed to ask for something that is actually yours already.

[00:39:30] Eddie Robinson: Someone once said, to be critical of Israel is known as commercial suicide in the art world.

[00:39:37] Nai Barghouti: Mm-hmm.

[00:39:38] Eddie Robinson: Do you think that’s true?

[00:39:40] Nai Barghouti: I think it used to be true. I think the world is, is changing and the truth always kind of comes to life no matter how much you try to bury it aside. In a way, social media helped that, even though I have a lot of things against social media, but one of the things that I like about it is that it helped.

[00:39:57] Nai Barghouti: A lot of truth to the world because now we can actually document things and we don’t just rely on, on fake news to, to tell us who we are and to, to speak for us. We can actually show ourselves. And that’s something that’s changing a lot of movements around the world that are calling for the boycott of Israel, for example.

[00:40:13] Nai Barghouti: And, uh, there’s a lot of, in general, people are becoming more and more educated about everything that’s going on there, and people are no longer so scared of speaking.

[00:40:24] Eddie Robinson: In May of 2022, Al Jazeera , Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was, was killed by Israeli forces during a raid in the occupied West Bank, you wrote the song, which was an anthem of the land, which that was what it was interpreted as.

[00:40:40] Eddie Robinson: Nasheed El-Ard in her memory, the song’s lyrics, sound sounded like a protest, you know? Have you used your songs in protest prior to this? What was it about this incident that prompted you to write a song of this nature?

[00:40:58] Nai Barghouti: Well, Shireen Abu Akleh was actually a friend of mine, um, and a friend of my family, uh, for years.

[00:41:05] Nai Barghouti: She was a beautiful soul, a very strong person, and, and we always remember her just laughing all the time. She’s always laughing. She saw so much tragedy in her life on a daily basis, but she always just came towards the end of the day and she would smile and move on and continue the next day to make a change, and she really believed in that.

[00:41:24] Nai Barghouti: She was. An amazing person. So to see that news all of a sudden to just wake up and, and see that has been murdered in cold blood. That was, for me, that was really a huge shock.

[00:41:54] Nai Barghouti: For those who knew her and those who did not know her, there was a, a collective, uh, grieving period for everyone because she was just, she was an idol. You know, many women wanted to, many little girls actually want to study journalism to be heard. She, she inspired so many people around the world and especially in Palestine.

[00:42:12] Nai Barghouti: So it was really a collective feeling of betrayal. So I was already, actually, I had already composed that song to be released in my. And it, the song was already about Palestine and about rising up about you. It says, you know, you should all rise up. We should all march together towards freedom and justice and equality.

[00:42:33] Nai Barghouti: So that’s the, basically what the song is about. It’s about my land, it’s about the freedom, uh, of my land. And so when this happened, I felt a, a strong connection to, to shelene and to want to basically dedicate something to her, to her soul, and to her, uh, strength and resilience, and to somehow make that version of her live forever.

[00:42:54] Eddie Robinson: You spoke about your checkpoint incident, and I’m curious, as you live your life, there’s still an incident that’s embedded in your mind that triggers this sense of almost trauma, if you will, as relates to discrimination as it relates to racism. Can you share that moment with us?

[00:43:18] Nai Barghouti: Well, I have many of those , I remember when I was four years old, the second infa happened in Palestine.

[00:43:25] Nai Barghouti: So the Israeli military occupied the West Bank and some, for some reason, they chose our building to land in so that the apartment right above our apartment was, our neighbors were gone, uh, somewhere. I can’t remember where it was. I was a child, but, so they basically stole their apartment and laid all their military stuff there.

[00:43:45] Nai Barghouti: Hmm. And I remember. Our entire building was, was basically occupied for, I can’t remember how long it was, but it was a few weeks and it made me feel extremely scared all the time because whenever we go to the staircase, there’s a soldier there and we get really like very scared and we would hide at home and we were really just feeling really, really shocked all the time.

[00:44:05] Nai Barghouti: I remember there was a soldier who would always go to the staircase, which had a lot of echo, and he would scream so loud that all the kids in the building. So scared and they would be afraid of going out. So one day my parents said, well, if you’re so scared and if you’re, if you’re really bothered by his screaming, why not scream back?

[00:44:24] Nai Barghouti: You know, just scream back. So I remember we, my sister and I, we like, kind of led this thing where we went to the neighbors and we collected all the kids in the building. And we said, we, you know, decided that on a specific day, at a certain hour when we know the soldiers are napping upstairs, taking a rest, we’re gonna go to the staircase and we’re gonna shout so loud,

[00:44:44] Nai Barghouti: And that’s what we did. We went to the staircase. We were shouting so loud that these soldiers were like, what is going on? You know? And that specific soldier, he came down to my parents and he was begging them. He was like, I’ll do anything. Just make them shut up. They’re just so loud and we kept on going and going and going, and I remember that moment.

[00:45:03] Nai Barghouti: I felt the kind of like we won that. That kind of feeling like, you know, he never screamed again. That was the last time he screamed. And so that was a moment that I, you know, I always just take with me wherever that use your voice. Never stop using your voice that’s basically it.

[00:45:23] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson.

[00:45:25] Eddie Robinson: Chatting with acclaimed vocalist. Nai Barghouti, the classically trained Palestinian soloist is here to talk about her collaboration with Grammy winner Skrillex. Together they’ve released this massive Middle Eastern techno track that music critics and fans alike have all praised for its unique sound and energy.

[00:45:45] Eddie Robinson: The song is called XENA and hopefully get Nai to sing a few bars of the song a capella.

[00:45:54] Eddie Robinson: It seems like there’s a clarion sound that comes from your. That it resonates and you can feel it in the power of your vocals. That carries with this, you know, a, a sense of dignity, a sense of humility, a sense of respect.

[00:46:16] Eddie Robinson: Is this the Palestinian culture that we’re hearing in your voice?

[00:46:21] Nai Barghouti: Definitely, definitely. I mean, this, this is what I was raised with. This is what I grew up learning. It’s also what I learned from my parents, and it’s just something that continues to grow. You know, it’s something that you always just spend every day learning new things about the world and about yourself.

[00:46:38] Nai Barghouti: Also, your identity, what it means to be a musician for you, and how you can take that to really express yourself and to really. Do whatever it is that you’re feeling through your music. I think that’s the most honest way, uh, for do of doing music, in my opinion.

[00:46:53] Nai Barghouti: Of all that you’ve accomplished, you know, of all that you’ve had to endure in your life, and then to have so many music fans begin to discover you and your music through the help of Sonny, through the help of scrims and all that you’ve witnessed as a musician, an acclaimed Palestinian singer, songwriter, musician instrument.

[00:47:14] Eddie Robinson: Nai, what lessons have you learned about yourself thus far?

[00:47:21] Nai Barghouti: Hmm, very nice question. Well, um, I think mostly I learned that there’s somehow this voice on the, on the very, like really, really back and somewhere in your head there’s a voice. You somehow learn to, to ignore that voice by a lot of things, including occupation, including just being a woman in the music industry or you know, being surrounded by a lot of people.

[00:47:48] Nai Barghouti: Some of them are amazing, some of them are not so much, and you know, you start really somehow ignoring that, that voice because you think that, oh, how would I know better? You know, I’m sure this person knows better. I’m sure this person can, can tell me what to do. And, and I think I’m discovering more and more that that voice actually has been, Has been honest all this, all this time.

[00:48:09] Nai Barghouti: It’s the one constant thing. It’s the one strong thing that doesn’t ever disappear. Even though I try to ignore it many times, it, it comes back to me and it says, no, I’m here. Listen to me, because I know better and I think I’m learning more and more to trust that voice. Yes. Seeking help, seeking advice from people.

[00:48:26] Nai Barghouti: Definitely because they’re. You know, you don’t know about a lot of things and that’s just the way life works. But there is that feeling on the inside, that voice that will al also guide you through a lot of things and learning how to listen to that and to include that in your life. I think that’s basically what I’m learning to do more and more every day.

[00:48:47] Eddie Robinson: This was phenomenal. Thank you so much, Nai.

[00:48:49] Nai Barghouti: Thank you very much. It was, it was beautiful to talk to you.

[00:48:53] Eddie Robinson: As an I SEE U exclusive perhaps, we would love for you to sing a portion of XENA…

[00:49:00] Nai Barghouti: Mm-hmm.

[00:49:01] Eddie Robinson: …for our audience. Only if you’re open to it. , you know, we’ve had previous guests on our show do Acapellas and that kind of thing, but we’d love to hear you provide us with some sort of exclusive I SEE U rendition.

[00:49:14] Eddie Robinson: Let’s say, would you be open to that?

[00:49:16] Nai Barghouti: Yeah, let’s do it. . Okay. So I’ll do basically the, the original folk song that developed into XENA.

[00:49:44] Eddie Robinson: Beautiful.

[00:49:46] Nai Barghouti: Ok.

[00:50:14] Nai Barghouti: So it, it basically says like a specific translation. A literal translation would be call on his cousins to bring him. So by him it’s the groom, bring the groom to the wedding on the backs of decorated horses to fe him prepare his mare and his rifle so we can have his wedding. At Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, which is Bab al-Amud.

[00:50:36] Nai Barghouti: So that’s basically the, the, the, the main lyrics of the song.

[00:51:09] Eddie Robinson: A song released by Skrillex’s, featuring vocals by our guest, Nai Barghouti. The track can be found on the Skrillex album entitled Quest for Fire. Palestinian singer, songwriter, renowned flute player. Nai Barghouti, thank you so much for being a guest on I SEE U.

[00:51:29] Nai Barghouti: Thank you. Thank you very much.

[00:51:34] Eddie Robinson: Our team includes technical director Todd Hulslander. Producer Laura Walker, editors Mark De Claudio, and Jonmitchell Goode. I SEE U is a production of Houston Public Media. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter and subscribe to our podcast wherever you listen and download your favorite shows. I’m your host and executive producer Eddie Robinson and I feel you, we hear you. I SEE U. Thanks so much for. Until next time.


This article is part of the podcast I SEE U with Eddie Robinson

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