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Sirens of Lesbos' Worldbeat for a New Era

The Swiss collective translate smooth beats and influences as diverse as their cultural backgrounds into catchy hooks and sociopolitical messaging.

by Ben Boddez

Photo by Binta Kopp

In Homer’s poem The Odyssey, the sirens were half-bird, half-human creatures whose singing voices were so alluring that people leapt to their demise in order to get closer. Luckily, the work of soulful Swiss collective Sirens of Lesbos won’t have the same destructive consequences – but a similar kind of allure is clear even before they start singing. With a futuristic look and a genreless cultural melting-pot of a sound that’s already attracted collaborators like Bootsy Collins, JID and Flatbush Zombies’ Erick the Architect, they provide laid-back, jam-session aesthetics with sociopolitical undertones.

Made up of sister vocalists Nabyla and Jasmina Serag, producers Melvyn Buss and Arci Friede, and art director Denise Häberli, the group started in the Ibiza club scene the 2014 dancefloor anthem “Long Days, Hot Nights” – a track they’ve admitted to being an attempt to score a hit by following formulae as close as possible – before realizing the music they really wanted to make was as diverse as the cultural backgrounds they bring to the table. Although all five were born in Switzerland, Buss’ father hails from the UK, while the Serags’ and Friede’s parents all arrived as refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, and the Prague Spring conflicts in former Czechoslovakia. With a war still raging overseas, it makes sense that they titled their latest effort PEACE.

“We all live in circumstances today where it’s often shown that we live in very uncertain times,” Jasmina says. “We have lots of people that have stories around them that are not very peaceful, so peace is a term that’s very important to me. It’s connected to my own story. I’m not even talking about a country not being at peace, but peace itself, peace of mind, peace of whatever, was always something that was a subject in our lives.”

Despite parents who elected to raise them in a country known for its famously neutral stance, its status as the globe’s 132nd largest nation in area can also have its pros and cons. It’s not only their cultural backgrounds that prompt the sisters to get a little more worldly when it comes to their musical approach.

“The Swiss music scene is very small, so it gives you a feeling of knowing everything that’s going on, but it also gives you a motivation to look beyond it,” Nabyla adds. To find the origin of the group’s moniker, however, you just need to take a hop over the Adriatic Sea. When drawing on a wealth of history by combining the mythological siren with the Greek island of Lesbos, it was initially meant to open up pathways to add storytelling and lore to their work – not to mention ratchet up intrigue behind the mysterious group dominating the Ibiza scene.

But with recent developments on the island, the name has inadvertently taken on an added degree of significance after the fact. With the recent re-opening of the Mória refugee camp on the island – the original, destroyed in a fire, was dubbed by Doctors Without Borders as “the worst refugee camp on Earth” – the group see their name as a reclamation of sorts.

“When we chose the name, people would go and do holidays there,” Jasmina says. “No one would do that today because it’s such a political place.” “The first reason why we decided to go with the name is because it sounded like one with a lot of potential to actually create the story that fit us,” Nabyla adds. “It’s vague enough but it also rings a bell, but that was way before it was a super political name, which gives it another dimension of course.”

For all of the weight behind their motivations to create at times, however, the spacey, chilled-out music that results could only come from a studio space that’s open, highly collaborative, and often improvisational. When starting the process of making an album, nobody in the group knows what’s going to happen by the end, preferring instead to show up and see what comes out in the moment – from lyrics, to instrumentals, to the messaging on display.

In fact, Nabyla believes that in comparison to the group’s 2020 debut, SOL, the lyrical content on this one is a lot less “mystical” and full of hidden meanings – they felt the need to be more straightforward with what they wanted to say, especially about the nature of their relationships, on their latest. Still, the freeform spirit of their recording sessions becomes all the more evident when poppier anthems like “Run Run Run” mix with instrumental tracks, or briefer ones full of little more than jazzy vocalizations from the sisters on top of the funk riffs going on in the back. It’s an all-encompassing vibe to get lost in.

“We usually have some kind of frame, and it will be a frame that normally makes sense for one person or maybe two,” Nabyla says. “But because we work collaboratively, it will be a framework that the other people in the room have to navigate because it’s not their own. So this is the jam session moment where people come together and offer suggestions.”

“Even lyrics are being written in the moment,” Jasmina adds. “I like the fact that when you collaborate with others, you’ll show them stuff that’s not finished yet. It makes you less shy about the stuff that you do, and also getting to see how others put forward stuff that’s not done yet.”

When asked about trying to bring in sounds from all over the world, Jasmina Serag took the most objection to the word “trying.” While aspects of something like traditional Eritrean music that would have been played around the house by their parents do find their way into the mix on PEACE, Jasmina asserts that they never go into the studio with a mission statement about putting their own spin on worldbeat – it comes out anyway, because it’s part of their identity.

“When it comes to Eritrean music, we had a couple instruments and rhythms that were coming from this geographical area, but we don’t put the emphasis on our geographical background or want to make sure people understand that we are Eritrean people,” she says. “If it’s the mood that we’re in, or one person has listened to a certain kind of music and the other listens to another, we might accidentally have the world represented somehow. It could also turn out that we have an album that goes with only one genre, that’s not very global. We’re open towards those kinds of things. But it’s our identity, so it makes sense that we could find it somewhere.”

“It’s not so specific, it’s not like, ‘I’m going to take a flute from this country or that country,’” Nabyla adds. “It’s just nice to have these different inspirational wells that are just there, because this is who we are.”