Breaking boundaries in the pursuit of art

Rafi Gazani comes from a place called ‘SIIN’. An artist and musician, brings his unique flavor and artistry to GSBTB Open Music Lab workshop. Abeera Atif met up with him to discuss his passion for art, his experience wading through the weird and wonderful world of Berlin, and his project ‘SIIN’.

Rafi Gazani. Photo: Abeera Atif.

How did you find out about GSBTB, and how did you get involved in The Open Music Lab?

The story began two years ago – it was just a coincidence. I was walking in Neukölln really close to my house and I came across Donau115 Bar. I saw some people gathered and a sign that said “Open Music Lab”. And I was really curious – so I went up to them and asked them, “hey, what are you doing, guys?” It ended up being a music-making workshop. I had never done anything with music – my first profession was being an engineer – but I was really curious, so I went in and met everyone. They started talking about everything – ambient music, how to use software – and at that moment, that very first moment, I thought to myself, “I want to do this, I want to do music.”

And from then on I just started being with the Open Music Lab. They didn’t just teach me how to produce music, but they also gave me the passion to love music. I got this idea that if I want to express myself and take my experiences of arriving to Berlin, I could do this through my music or my art.

What has your experience been at the Open Music Lab?

I don’t feel like they’re teachers. They’re like a family to me – we go out, we share things between us. Ben is amazing, he’s like a brother to me, Chad is always inspiring me and giving me the push to keep going (I send him music and he often comments on it) and Rachel, she’s an angel.

I don’t feel like I’m in a school, that someone’s over you all the time and cares about your legal status. There are many NGOs who don’t care about what you’re doing or who you are – all they care about is the numbers, because they need to get funds. But GSBTB’s Open Music Lab doesn’t feel like that. I like that the class itself is very diverse; it isn’t like, oh, this is just for refugees. I’ve met many people from everywhere.

You also went to the Ableton Loop Festival with the Open Music Lab. Could you tell us a bit about what you did there and what the experience was like?

For me, Loop was like the ocean. You can’t imagine how I felt walking in – at the first instance, I felt kind of like a little, little, little fish in the big ocean. I had thought I’d go and connect with people and talk about my music – but after I got in I was like “okay, I’m not gonna talk about my music, I’m just going to walk around and see all the stuff and listen to some electronic music”.

I felt like that until I met this big music celebrity in the Middle East – he produces music for all the big musicians – we talked and I showed him some of my music, and he liked it. We talked about possibly doing some stuff together.

I also met people from Japan, who were making this video – and from that I got this idea, about not just making music, but to evolve it by making some kind of creative videos with it. Loop pushed me to get more creative and gave me a lot of inspiration; I was recording for days afterwards. At first I felt like nothing – then step by step, I felt more safe and started to share things with other people. It was great – I made many good connections and have a lot of emails.

Let’s talk about your project SIIN. What’s the idea behind it, and where is it headed?

The idea came from the first question I was asked when I came here – “where are you from?”. This nationalistic question really takes me to different places. I started to say “I’m from Siin”. And what is Siin? Siin is an Arabic letter (س). You know how you have a mathematics equation and you find, say, ‘x’? That’s the idea.

So “where are you from?” “I’m from x.” I started doing this because the discussion often goes to places I don’t like, because my father is from Gaza, Palestine and my mother is from Aleppo, Syria. When people have just met you and ask you this question and this is your response, they’re always like, “oh, whoa, wow, what a messed up mix!”. And sometimes I feel like, why do you even need to know this?

Rafi at Cafe K-Fetisch. Source: Abeera Atif.

So in this way, I can choose – I say, “hey, I’m from Siin” or “I have a business called Siin”. You can call Siin a production company. I found that music is probably the first step that makes it easier for me to spread my thoughts. Then, I chose art for myself –  I started with music, then I started to practice art. I got into Universität der Künste Berlin (UdK) after deciding that I wanted to change my career. I wanted to make art; it’s what I need and what I love doing. Making art is like therapy for me, you know? So I started going to many different workshops and connecting with different artists. Eventually I got the idea that I wanted to make a fusion between Arabic and Farsi art culture with a European vibe. I started to share this idea and then I got involved with YouTube, who really liked it and produced a teaser video for me.

But it’s not just about me – I wanted to involve many people with me. Because when I make or play music, I feel really happy – I look at my friends smiling and enjoying themselves and I think, “okay, I want to create something that makes other people happy”.

So after this video, I approached many people and many artists for potential collaboration opportunities. I got connected with Urous, who has a label called Balkan Beats. He’s been a music production professional for more than 15 years. We both started to move away from simply DJing to making our own music. Then, we started to make videos about different things and put our music in them – like a festival in Germany, life in Sonnenallee, and so on. The next step was curating an exhibition in an ice-cream shop.

My friends invite me to play my music and showcase my art in many different spaces. Personally, I want to play everywhere – I don’t have this need to only play in clubs. I want to show my art, but for everyone – so I play music during demonstrations, or in house parties, ice-cream shops and supermarkets.


Still from SIIN’s teaser video (posted above). Source: SIIN YouTube page.

Right now, Siin is three people; I am the founder. Urous is our professional producer – his focus is on Balkan music, and mine on Arabic, so I give him a few ideas and we mix our two interests together. There are also different friends who get involved with us – someone does tattoos, someone else makes food. The whole concept is just “fusion”. We want to make everything into art; food is art, music is art, journalism is art. Everything we do is for Siin.

We also started cooperating with different partners – for example, we had a meet-up with a group of scientists, engineers, programmers and artists. We just started with a small concept – how to make music out of the sounds of a water drop.

Berlin has given me a lot of chances, that’s for sure. But I’m also working hard. I just wanted to be able to move away from this kind of nationalism, this focus on one’s status and just say, “hey, I’m Rafi, I’m from Siin, and I make art”.


Still from SIIN’s teaser video (posted above). Source: SIIN YouTube page.

What’s your hope for the future for SIIN? 

Siin gives me the chance to connect and collaborate with many people. It is a business first and foremost, but it’s something that gives me experience and the chance to meet many new, talented people – and I love that so much. This is why I came to Berlin.

Now that it’s become bigger, I want to make it into an actual collective or a production company, so it’s more organised and professional. It will be something for everyone – a consultancy for artists, or a space for exhibitions. The idea behind this company is that we don’t care where you’re from or what your status is – if you’re interested in mixing your art with that of other cultures, to remove all the labels you’re sorted by, then you are welcome to join us.

Most people will call me a DJ. I’m not just a DJ – I’m an artist. I want to have a balance between the professional and artistic side of my career – because I do earn money from being an artist, and I’m very proud of that. I’d really like to stress that this is something I chose for myself – when I came to Berlin, I came to start a new life. I could finally eat whatever I wanted to eat, wear what I wanted to wear. This is the meaning of ‘freedom’ for me.

My initial profession as an engineer gave me the skill to work with materials like wood and electronic equipment. I found an old radio in the street and took it apart, cleaned it and put it back together. I am very proud of skills like this, that I can take something from the street that’s broken or dirty and make it beautiful.

Siin playing at Cafe Grundeinkommen (known affectionately as the ‘tiny cafe’). Source: SIIN Facebook page.

What’s your advice for people who want to get into music?

I think Open Music Lab is a good place to start. It’s a great school – and more importantly, a great community. The teachers are amazing and the people there are very special. Everyone there has their own story or their own journey they’re on. It would fit anyone’s expectations, because they don’t tell you what to do, they keep in mind what you want to do also. So if you just want the “push”, or you have problems with something, you can always ask them for help.

You should also find artists that inspire you: my biggest inspiration are the Gorillaz, because they don’t just focus on music, they also focus on their aesthetic and their art.

Another thing you should always do is share. I make music and always share it with my friends. I’ll make something and send it to a friend and say, “this is for your Saturday”. I talk about music a lot, with my friends and with others, because I have such a passion for it. Music is like conversation – you need to work on it, and talk about it, think about what your idea is: just making music, or telling a story through your music?

Abeera Atif is GSBTB’s Communications Assistant. You can find SIIN on Facebook, SoundCloud and YouTube