The 30-year-old Syrian producer Obay Alsharani’s debut album, Sandbox, is stunning. Its textural layers and floating fragments of melody easily match Burial or Boards of Canada’s abilities to deliver devastating emotion with a dreamy lightness of touch. But where many talk about ambient music and virtual worlds as providing sanctuary and succour, for Alsharani, the reality of that is deadly serious. Sandbox was conceived and written while trapped in limbo in a refugee centre, north of the Arctic circle and around 2,000 miles from home, struggling to come to terms with the terrors that had brought him there.
Talking via video chat from Stockholm, Alsharani is as disarmingly gentle as his music, maintaining a friendly, matter-of-fact tone whether discussing his tastes, or the realities of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. “From when I was eight,” he says, “my father worked in Saudi Arabia, he had a good job, and I got used to moving around, which is useful to me now.” The family lived in four different Saudi cities, returning to Damascus for the summer each year.
Alsharani’s father worked for a Japanese car company, so despite Saudi Arabia’s conservatism he had access to stacks of foreign CDs: “Beatles, hits of the 80s and 90s, Arab metal music,” he says. “Metal became my favourite in my teens.” When he moved back full-time to the more culturally cosmopolitan Damascus for college in 2009, he “wanted something different” – and took a path familiar to millennial teenagers the world over: through alternative metal like Tool and Melvins, into the Cure and Radiohead, Flying Lotus and Burial.
He began sampling old Arabic vinyl and cassettes for hip-hop beat sketches, aligning with a loose SoundCloud “Arabic beats” scene. Then, in 2011, came the Syrian revolution and vicious clampdown – and Alsharani began to value creating his own worlds. As well as his music community, he was an early adopter of the “sandbox” video game Minecraft. “Assad admired North Korea and Ceaușescu’s Romania: he wanted to control everything,” he says. “You felt like even your thoughts weren’t free. But in Minecraft, when you build the world yourself, it felt like you could think freely, too.”
This escape didn’t last for ever though. “I studied with my cousin,” Alsharani recalls, his voice just about steady. “We did civil engineering at Damascus university together. But there was a university council that monitored everybody, they knew my cousin was political, they knew I went on a lot of demonstrations too. I fled Syria in 2014 because I knew my name would come up; very shortly after I left my cousin was arrested, and he died under torture.”
He was lucky to get out before “the big wave of people escaping in 2015”, he says. “And I could fly to my family in Saudi Arabia, and then on.” He went slowly via Jordan and Turkey to Cyprus, where he waited a year before getting permission to take up Erasmus studies in Sweden. This fell through again, and in 2017 he was sent to a refugee centre for 200 people in a tiny town with minus-35 degree temperatures. “The first two months there I was low-key panicking,” he says. “Though we had good food and medical attention, the system felt chaotic. There were people who’d been there more than a year. I was scared.”
Only creating, he says, kept him sane and “restored some sense of familiarity”. Instead of hip-hop beats, he leaned to the chilly textural music of Scotland’s Boards of Canada and Swedish Minecraft composer C418. “I didn’t understand that music before – there’s so little there,” he says. “But then I realised it gives you space to put yourself into. And I was constantly thinking, ‘What am I doing here? Everything is different here, this feeling of alienation, even trees look different.’ I wanted to express that feeling instead of staying in a one-sided image of me and where I come from with Arabic beats.”
Thus his album Sandbox. Alsharani was already in touch with Brighton’s Hive Mind label, which specialises in global fusions and in 2017 had stumbled on his Arabic beat-oriented tracks on SoundCloud. When, after 12 months, he finally had his asylum approved and moved to Stockholm, he finished the album and gave it to them complete. He now works long shifts in a warehouse, but continues to compose and make video art, still creating that safe space of “familiarity” as he comes to terms with his new life, the music capturing the bittersweet tension between survivor’s guilt and relief at escape. “I still can’t fathom it,” he says of his latter years in Syria and his cousin’s death. “Sometimes it still feels heavy, but I am lucky to be alive, and I know that.”