Hasan, all band members of TootArd hail from Golan Heights, an area occupied by Israel in 1981 and pressed in-between Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Maybe you could start by explaining what life in a place like that is like?
Hasan Nakhleh (Guitar, Keys & Vocals): "Well, basically we're not Israeli citizens; we're considered "permanent residents", meaning that officially we're stateless. Apart from that it's a very remote rural and mountainous region. Our village of Majdal Shams is right on the border between Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Of course you get used to all these border crossings and military presence after a while, as that's the reality you're confronted with on a daily basis. As far as things to do, Majdal Shams didn't have much to offer, so that's how we started playing music."
As you say, at this moment inhabitants of the Golan Heights are stateless, but being wedged in between these various countries one can't but wonder, where do you feel in your hearts you belong? Do you feel Syrian, Lebanese, Israeli or even Jordanian?
Hasan Nakleh: "I think that depends on who you ask in Golan Heights… (laughs). The older generation where still born as Syrians, so it's only logical they still feel connected to that country. Others, who were born there under Israeli occupation, might have grown to accept the fact they're inhabitants of Israel now. We're definitely not Palestinians; that's a misconception we get a lot. Personally, growing up in Israel, I've lost a lot of my sense of being Syrian, but I can't say I feel like an Israeli citizen either. Culturally though, if only for the fact we speak Arabic, I guess we lean more towards Syria and Lebanon then we do to Israel."
Strangely enough, musically it all started with you guys playing covers of Bob Marley songs. What does this iconic figure from reggae music represent to you guys?
Hasan Nakleh: "Before we even knew or understood what he was singing about, we just fell in love with Bob's music. So much so, that we wanted to recreate it ourselves. Discovering more and more about his lyrics while we were learning these songs, we loved the fact most of his songs were political protest music and to us it felt like a very peaceful way of protesting against the injustices that were surrounding us. That being said, this was all when we were still teenagers trying to find ourselves and our musical identity, but at that time it seemed like a perfect fit."
At one stage you left Israel for Europe (Hasan currently moves back and forth between Bern in Switzerland and Haifa in Israel, red.) and the band was put on hold for a while. What was the spark that brought you guys back together?
Hasan Nakleh: "Because it was so hard for us to travel and move around, after a while we felt we could only introduce our music to a very limited audience and we weren't really satisfied with that. We took a break for about two years, traveled a bit and that gave us fresh energy and a lot of new ideas we wanted to try and incorporate into our music. That's how the 'Laissez Passer' album eventually came about."
One of the influences on the album is that of Tuareg music. What was it that attracted you guys in those desert riddims?
Hasan Nakleh: "Well, we love African music in general, and of course we have great affection for Arabic music as well, as that was the music we grew up listening to. The last few years we just started listening to a lot of Tuareg music and somehow the simplicity of the music combined with the mesmerizing sound of their electric guitars, just did it for us. And of course the clapping element in Tuareg music is something that was very recognizable for us, as it's also present in some styles of Arabic music. In essence the Tuareg people are also stateless, like we are, because they are a nomadic people, so that also created a bond."
Before I forget, what does the TootArd band name stand for? What does it mean?
Hasan Nakleh: "Translated from Arabic it means "the strawberries" (laughs)… When we were just starting out, we wanted a simple name without any connotations or political innuendo. We kept the name and somehow it still fits."
You're now signed with Glitterbeat Records. How and where did that happen?
Hasan Nakleh: "Well, in April of 2017 we'd just finished the 'Laissez Passer' album, and to promote it we decided to take part in the Palestine Music Expo in Ramallah. At that expo a lot of European music professionals were also present and that's how we met our booking agent, Isla Angus from ATC Live Agency in London. She was acquainted with Chris Eckman, founder of Glitterbeat Records and sent him our music. He liked what he heard and the rest is history. We love what Glitterbeat Records stands for, and we're now surrounded by artists we love and admire, so we couldn't be happier working with them.".
TootArd is touring internationally now, but you guys being stateless, how does that work exactly?
Hasan Nakleh: "Well, as I stated before, we're not Israeli citizens, which means we can't vote in the Israeli elections and we don't hold an Israeli passport either. So whenever we want to travel outside of the Golan Heights, we need a travel document called a laissez-passer. Actually, that's also why we chose that term as the title of our new album, because the thought behind it was we could use the album as our laissez-passer. Of course if you're talking international travel the usual visas still come on top of that. To be absolutely sure we get all the necessary paperwork we really need an invitation letter from a festival or a concert venue stating they want us to come and play, so we can take it to the embassy of the respective country in Tel Aviv as proof to get our visas. It costs a lot of time, energy and money."
Do you see a future for yourselves in Golan?
Hasan Nakleh: "Where this subject is concerned, I think we have different opinions within the band. Some band members will probably prefer to stay in Golan, but personally I moved to Europe a while back."
We've talked about what life in Golan is like for the people living there, but what about if foreign tourists want to visit the region? Is it easily accessible or do you need special permits?
Hasan Nakleh: "No, not at all… If you come to Israel and you want to visit the Golan Heights, you can just drive up there. There are no borders or checkpoints; in fact it's getting more and more touristic because Israel has started developing the area as a ski resort, which admittedly hasn't been bad for the employment in a region that before was just an agricultural area. At the moment it's still mainly Israeli tourists who visit Golan, but hopefully in the future foreigners will also want to discover the north of the country when they visit Israel."