Dance music fans waiting for the start of a Hello Psychaleppo show don’t always know quite what to expect. Neither does the man behind the decks.
Zimo, the 28-year-old Syrian-born producer who put together this wide-ranging dance music project, stands at the ready. He’s lined up a set list of traditional Arabic tracks, but only once his performance begins does he know what shape his mix will take.
“I just become one with what I do. The songs are there but what I improvise with is the form, the solos, adding some synthesizing here and there,” says Zimo. “You feel very occupied with everything that’s happening, because you are conducting an electronic orchestra.”
Zimo manipulates older Arabic pop music to create something new and contemporary. Some of his tracks, like “Fog Alghaim” and “Tarab Dub,” bend traditional Arab voices to fit modern EDM grooves. At other times, as on “Flower Jam” and “The Gobble Wobble,” he plays with the tones of an older song until he’s created a new electronic beat.
A Syrian refugee who found his way to Minneapolis, Samer Saem Eldahr — to use Zimo’s birth name — has always lived in a state of flux. As with his music, he’s never known what his next move would be until the moment demanded a decision.
Zimo sits in Mapps Coffee & Tea on Minneapolis’ West Bank, his long curly hair pulled back in a messy bun, black-rimmed glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. As he talks about his music, his eyes light up and his hands dance across the table as though he’s behind the boards, explaining his art with sound. When he’s asked about his life before Minnesota, though, his eyes gaze off into the distance, perhaps glancing back over his life.
“The worst thing for me is I don’t know if I’m going to get to have my parents come one day,” says Zimo. “And that’s kind of the only thing you want to do when you travel, is to be reunited with your family, especially when you’re their only child.”
Raised in a traditional Muslim household, Zimo graduated from the University of Aleppo with a degree in fine arts, specializing in painting. He soon found that his country’s conservative values and pragmatic mindset didn’t make it the best climate for starting an artistic career, so he looked beyond Syrian borders for a place to exhibit his work.
“Aleppo was pretty safe and stable, definitely, to a point where you’re like, ‘I want to do something with my life,’” says Zimo. “But then everything happened without anyone really planning for it.”
What happened, of course, was an uprising in Syria that would spread from its 2011 beginnings to spark a full-fledged civil war, with Zimo’s hometown at its center. He left Aleppo in September 2012 to set up an exhibition at a gallery in Beirut, planning to stay a month. Instead, conditions back home forced his parents to flee and join him in Lebanon.
Here Zimo’s passion for music flourished. Growing up, he’d learned to love hard rock-bands like AC/DC, Metallica, and Iron Maiden from his uncle, who owned a record store, and from his older brother, Fadi, who died of cancer in 2003. It was Fadi who gave Zimo the childhood nickname that he’d adopt as his professional moniker. “I don’t know what it means,” Zimo says. “He passed away and took the meaning with him.”
Zimo had played guitar and keyboard, even sang a little, in a few bands back in Allepo — “mostly rock covers and some originals,” he says. But in Lebanon, he not only continued playing rock, but started fiddling around with electronic music. Soon he had enough material to release on SoundCloud.
It was all a happy accident, to hear Zimo tell it. “I never planned to become an artist or a musician, it’s just the way things happened,” he says. “I played a gig, then the next one, then I played with someone — it just built up.”
And while his career was starting, the music scene throughout the Middle East was also taking off, with many new artists popping up all around the region, according to Zimo. “You didn’t see that before,” he says. “I think that a lot of that happened when the uprising everywhere happened around the Middle East. Lots of people felt the need to express themselves.”
After two years in Lebanon, Zimo met his wife, Jessica, a Minnesota native working overseas as a third-grade English teacher. Then Lebanese regulations changed, and only those with work permits were allowed to stay. Zimo’s mother, who worked for an NGO researching crop growth, qualified for a permit, but as an artist and freelancer, Zimo had no such luck. So in 2015 the happy couple packed their bags and headed for the Midwest, where Zimo secured a green card.
“I’ve never seen so much snow in my life,” he says.
In the last two years, Zimo has played throughout the Middle East and Europe, creating a following and attracting the attention of many media outlets including Public Radio International, the Near East News Agency out of Italy, Swiss Radio and Television, and France’s Konbini. And he’s working on a new album, scheduled to come out this summer, though he’s still not sure what to expect from his American audience.
Despite the new life he and his wife have made in Minnesota and the stability he has found here, Zimo always keeps Aleppo in his thoughts.
“Home, for me, I think is still back there because I didn’t leave of my own my will,” says Zimo. “But it is just good to find a shelter somewhere else.”