SYRIA/SWITZERLAND: Laissez Passer - TootArd
Border-defying desert blues by way of Syria, Israel, and Europe is how this stateless rock duo express their musical free spirit
As a music review site based around covering all countries and as many territories as possible, our review of TootArd’s Laissez Passer is a first. The band was founded by two brothers of Syrian origin, who, by virtue of being born in the Golan Heights after the Israelis captured it during the Six Day War, are stateless. The citizens of their hometown Majdal Shams were made eligible for Israeli citizenship in 1981, but due to their historic ties to and identification with Syria, there were protests against this enforced citizenship, and it changed to a system of voluntary acquisition. The majority of the people caught up in this unenviable situation decide to remain officially stateless ‘permanent residents’ that allows them access to some state services and free travel within Israel, and, most importantly for this review, the laissez passer document for foreign travel. This document allowed the brothers to travel around Europe, where they eventually settled. Having previously been based in Haifa, they now reside in Bern, Switzerland. Their sophomore album Laissez Passer is reflective of their experiences; not only is it named after their travel document that allowed them to move across borders, the music itself shows their own wanderlust, liberally adapting styles from across the world into their own image.
“What makes Laissez Passer stand out is how they use those influences, forging their own musical identity in place of nationality.”
The band define their music as ‘mountain rock’ a reference to the landscape of their home town, but the music itself is an exercise in ambition, and while rock may be the basis for many of the tracks, this is no typical rock record. The title track may sound similar to Tuareg rock music, made famous by the likes of Bombino and Tinariwen, and while the main guitar riff clearly has those influences, the song also incorporates a horn section, which is not typical to Tuareg rock and is more reflective of their Arabic heritage. The band themselves say that talk about politics is “too complicated”, and while their music does not have overtly political overtones, the fact of the matter is that their unusual situation makes engaging with politics in some way unavoidable, and the title track’s lyrics point to the consequences of the annexation of the Golan. Translated they read “laissez passer, your roots are unknown, laissez passer, your homeland is unknown”, which is a repeated refrain in the chorus, and Hasan Nakhleh sings “I do not exist on the ID card… without a nationality, without borders”. However, the band find an optimistic note with which to end, as they note “with music I become a flying bird, I change my feathers, I change my strings,” indicating the freedom and world of possibility that the duo has found in music.
While the title track is my favourite, the rest of the album is just as good. A song like Syrian Blues is a moodily melancholy blues track that manages to incorporate much of the Tuareg sound alongside it, as well as Arabic-sounding melodies into the expertly crafted guitar solos. Contrasting with this is Bayati Blues, which is more up-beat and energetic, but still in that Tuareg-blues vein, while the pop-inflected Musiqa sees the band dipping a toe into the world of indie pop, but nonetheless keeping the signature sound of the album. A’sfur and Nasma Jabaliya are the songs that get closest to ballads on this album, with A’sfur starting with an exquisitely plaintive guitar riff, which then becomes incorporated into the horn section, while Nasma Jabaliya takes the album on a detour around space-age pop. This adventurousness is not unique to TootArd, however. Many bands do similar things, and some even do it just as well. What makes Laissez Passer stand out is how they use those influences, forging their own musical identity in place of nationality. The album is as peripatetic in its tastes as the band themselves, who rightly take pride in their heritage as well as in their place as global citizens.