In October influential Dutch DJ Antal selected a brand new track by Cheb Runner for his BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix. Cheb Runner is a Brussels based Moroccan music producer and DJ who goes by the name Reda Senhaji and has been on our radar for quite a while now. The artist formerly known by the name Gan Gah - an alter ego he abandoned after being too often portrayed in an eerie and tokenizing version of global music - presented the excellent Tagnawit EP on Rebel UP Records in 2020 and somewhere along the way started Mameen 3 as member of the duo Mameen3, offering downright danceable and orientally Rai lo-fi disco inspired music through labels such as Les Disques Bongo Joe, Planet Trip and Fauve Records. Nowadays he fully focuses on his Cheb Runner alter ego again, leading to the Raï Beat System EP on Crevette Records’ affiliated label Oddball Fantasies, the record Antal cherry picked from.
Cheb, the Arabic word for “young boy”, is traditionally used to describe a young generation of Raï MCs such as Cheb Hasni, Cheb Mami or Cheb Khaled. Reda’s nudge to Blade Runner, a cult specimen of an utterly Western cultural product, isn’t gratuitous at all. He openly wishes to connect his Moroccan roots in the rural Agadir region with the electronic music scenes of industrial cities such as Berlin, Detroit or Brussels. He seeks for a new sound of in-betweenness, intensely nurtured by both worlds and running back and forth in time. On Raï Beat System EP the North-African Raï sound goes into the blender with Western underground eighties sounds such as our very own pitched down and bass-heavy new beat, the result so infectious you wonder why it took 30 years for this intercultural marriage to happen.
We find ourselves in Reda’s home in the center of Brussels, a carefully decorated flat he shares with his girlfriend Shirin Mirachor. Our conversation takes off on a surprising element in the corner of the living room: a lamp made out of a hair dryer, the type that seems to be designed for a Star Wars movie and mostly used by elderly women shaping their ‘permanent’.
What’s the story here, Reda?
We bought it at the flea market in the Marolles last weekend. I disassembled the motor and installed a lamp. Crafting and messing around with hardware is something I tremendously enjoy and have been doing for ages. In Morocco as a kid we didn’t have many toys, so we had to invent our own using old wheels or electronic devices and wires.
Does this help you in your musical production as well?
Definitely! It helped me to create my own sound and identity. Being in between two cultures, I’m seeking for an artistic output that unites people and results into a culture where everyone is included. For this, I depend on my DIY attitude. My philosophy is maybe best understood when visiting Midi Brico, the street-wise version of the hardware store chain in Avenue Stalingrad. Unlike the original store, they allow you to buy per screw or whatever you need, instead of having to buy full sets of screws you will eventually never use. This is typically Moroccan and a less capitalist way of consumerism that I prefer much more. I made this lamp with a minimum of items, trying to reduce waste. A very hip and western concept like ‘upcycling’ has always been part of our Moroccan way of life.
Do you build your own instruments?
Rather installations, meant to evoke reflections on sociological, cultural and identity-related phenomena. Immigration remains a common thread in my work. Far away from hype and propaganda, I wish to keep the debate alive for everyone involved, not just those whose situation is temporarily relevant due to this or that mediatised event.
Your music isn’t gratuitous, right?
No, it always has a message behind it, I can’t lie or cover my feelings. I don’t want to feel like an imposter, there is only one version of me. Neither do I want to be tokenized, the work only belongs to me. When I present work as The Angry Immigrant, I translate my anger on various levels: democratic, social, individual, … This is the story of many immigrants, including those who died while trying to cross the seas to a new and better life. The weight of the salt water is audible in the subs of my music, next to the sound of the sonar, a kind of thick sound in the silent environment, the waves, the cries of dying people, … all become somehow part of the melody. But I don’t often give explanations during my shows. The Angry Immigrant only exists on stage - I played it at The Rewire Festival in The Hague - and will never be released outside of a live performance. It has to be experienced in the same room with me and while seeing the crazy live visuals of Salim Bayri Projected VR Experience.
Reda reminisces about a sleepless night in his studio in Rotterdam, on the eve of their performance of The Angry Immigrant at Het Bos in Antwerp, when they accidently lost all preparations for the show. Instead of panicking, Reda and Salim simply rebuild everything from scratch in what he calls a truly Moroccan ‘on s’en fout’ manner, while simultaneously being dead serious and utterly precise. He also calls it ‘dépannage’, the French word for repair.
Is this your Midi Brico fetish again, Reda?
Haha, yes, that’s right! Staying calm and looking for last-minute solutions is something very important for me. There is no reason to stress, whatever happens. We built our own computer and hardware, which traveled with us to the show. There is so much that can go wrong, stress can become a real burden you know.
You’re part of (A)WAKE, an organization founded by your girlfriend Shirin Mirachor in Rotterdam. What’s the idea behind (A)WAKE?
I’m responsible for everything concerning sound and all technical and infrastructural work before and during their events. (A)WAKE’s role focuses on the West-Asian and North-African communities by trying to connect the diaspora and tackle certain unanswered questions and challenges, by being a catalyst and creating a network. Their New Radicalisms Festival is an important moment throughout the year, where I’m in charge of the musical program.
Why do you collaborate with (A)WAKE, apart from the fact that Shirin is your partner?
There is a group of people that is too often put aside in our society and we believe they deserve more opportunities and open doors. Artists for example, who we offer residencies to, I’m able to help by offering my expertise. Nowadays we are investigating how we can work on an international level, how the organization can play a role in various locations.
Since when are you in Brussels?
I traveled from Agadir to Brussels in 2011 as a young adolescent, to start my studies in informatics. It didn’t turn out as I thought it would, but I’m still here! (laughs)
Were you already making music in Agadir?
Definitely. There has always been traditional music in the neighborhood, on the street and in my family, through my mother and grandmother or other relatives. On the streets we used everything we could lay our hands on as an instrument, for instance a car or garage door and practiced ancient drum rhythms. I have vivid memories of Boujloud, a sort of Moroccan carnival, where music was also a major part of the festivities, next to wearing a pelt of livestock. When as a teenager I finally got access to a computer, a Pentium III at my cousin’s house, I experimented with Fruity Loops, the free music software I had secretly installed on it.
On your latest EP you mix the Arab raï music with Belgian new beat. I haven’t heard such a convincing reinterpretation of new beat, a genre that had its heyday in the second part of the eighties. When did you discover the match between those genres?
Raï is originally North African folk music from the twenties. In the eighties it was popularized due to the use of synthesizers and drum machines. They were able to interpret the rhythm with these new instruments. Raï has always been a liberating movement by and for the people that touches me deeply. On the other hand, new beat has touched me on a musical level. I stumbled upon a pile of new beat records at the flea market at Het Vossenplein / Place du Jeu de Balle. And I often visit Geert Sermon in his record shop Dr. Vinyl, who has an immense knowledge of the genre and helped create the movie The Sound Of Belgium. I wanted to make an EP where I connect my roots with my current home and reflect on the dynamics of Brussels, resulting in tracks such as Molenbeat! (laughs)
How did you end up with Oddball Fantasies, the label run by Crevette Records boss Pim Thomas?
The music I made definitely belongs to Brussels, so I wanted to find a local label to share the music with. Pim really focuses on artists for the scene here, which I really appreciate and where I feel welcome. I consider myself as a Belgian just as much as a Moroccan, a local just as much as an immigrant. Wherever I go I’ll have this immigrant feeling and I try to deal with that feeling. I’m kind of a Touareg traveller: where I go, I am.
Your track مربوحة Marbou7a on the 2022 Listen Festival compilation was some kind of a predecessor to the Raï Beat System, right?
This track is just as my latest EP part of a series where I reflect on the eighties, more unreleased music is waiting on the shelf by the way. And I’m also working on reflections on the nineties, focusing more on jungle and rave rhythms, really designed for the dancefloor.
Immigration from the African countries to Belgium started already in the 1960s, but there aren't many examples to be found in the past of artists such who independently collaborated with Western electronic music labels. The only one I could find was Tunesian house music artist Adel Dibi who released in Belgium between 1993 and 1996. Today there seem to be growing more connections between both worlds, do you agree?
The most important factor to me is the access to technology: internet, synthesizers, software, computers, … These are becoming more easily accessible in Morocco, giving young kids opportunities to create. And through access to knowledge has also grown a new generation who are more interested in our own musical history and identity. As a kid for instance, we didn’t like the very popular Moroccan Chaabi music much, we wanted to listen to western music from Wu-Tang Clan or whatever. But now there seems to be more open mindedness towards local or traditional music. The remix I recently did for Dalila, the first Moroccan singer to have started merging Moroccan music with a modern style like disco & house in the nineties, is a good example. This happened in collaboration with Retro Cassetta, a Moroccan digger for old and forgotten music on cassette tapes. Finally local music diggers are pushing forward local music, instead of western diggers.
So it’s also a matter of having a seat at the table?
Having that seat at the table should have been always the case. But unfortunately for a long time we didn’t. Today we grew smarter and more conscious, with more self-confidence. We earned our new position and only agree when the interest is genuine and two-sided.
You’re a resident DJ now at Not Your Techno, the Brussels collective and event host.
Yes, it’s such a strong collective so I’m very siked to be part of the team. I’m equally excited about working with Not Your Techno founder Sara Dziri, with whom I’ll be DJing back to back but also collaborating in the studio. We get along very well, both musically and as friends. I predict a very exciting 2023 for the collective and its members. We have a lot to share, wait for it!
For Beursschouwburg you made a city walk podcast during the Covid pandemic. If you were asked to make such a walk today, where would it lead to?
Let’s start at the flea market at Het Vossenplein / Place du Jeu de Balle. From there we pass by Andalucia, a snack bar owned by people from Tanger, where you eat the best Harira soup in town. Other stops are the supermarket and butcher Omar at Place Anneessens and the hairdresser Anspach on the eponymous street, a real classic for me.
And in Agadir?
Definitely in the souks, the busy marketplaces. That’s my favorite place in town. I regularly make the trip to visit my family, especially in wintertime enjoying the soft Moroccan climate. They live right next to the souks.
Is there a lot of music in your family?
They aren’t classically trained musicians, but rhythm, music and entertainment has always been vividly part of our daily lives. At family gatherings, surrounded by good food and tea, we laugh a lot and sing and dance. Last time my mother called me, I was about to enter a club to DJ while they were having a party at home. I could hear their booming drum rhythms until Brussels (laughs).