Jamal Sul had just started his PhD in immunology at Trinity College when he began a music project on the side called “Moving Still”.
“It kind of became an outlet because the PhD was really stressful. Writing music was just an outlet. I never thought I would be sending songs to any label,” says Sul.
Sul’s speciality is mixing music from different traditions, digging through old record and cassette stores for tracks that will resonate.
As Sul walked into The Rage vinyl shop on a recent Saturday evening, it was clear that he’s a regular. He’s on first-name basis with the guy behind the till, and they greet each other like friends.
Sul heads down the narrow steps into the basement, where there’s an eclectic selection of records in plywood boxes. He begins his search.
Moving Still is Sul’s stage name – both as a DJ and a music-producing project in Dublin, editing up dance music with Middle Eastern influences.
The name was inspired by jellyfish. “It is a nostalgic thing I remember when I grew up as a kid in Saudi,” says Sul.
He would regularly go to the beach, where jellyfish bobbed in the ocean. “Seeing a jellyfish in the sea, it moves but it looks very still,” he says.
Sul heads for the middle aisle. He flicks through record after record, his fingers running over the tops of the narrow covers. The genre labels are from all over: Bollywood, Indian Classical, South American, Latin/Afro Cuban.
“It’s like a trophy, when you bring a record out. You went digging for this record that nobody has,” he says. “Quality-wise, records always win.”
Sul grew up with a variety of musical influences that spanned from the Middle East over to Western music, he says.
“When I was a kid, so there was always a mixture of music in terms of me listening to Arabic stuff in the car that was on the radio and then coming over here [Dublin] on holidays and picking up a Now 43 CD,” says Sul.
His focus changed to different music genres such as rock and punk in his teenage years until he turned his attention back to Arabic songs when he was 22 and started to DJ.
“Moving Still” didn’t originally start as an Arabic music project, he says.
“I never used to play Arabic stuff out, and then I slowly started to introduce random songs,” he says. Like tracks by Samira Said, a Moroccan-Egyptian pop artist who was big in the 1970s.
“I started to realise that people actually liked it and I thought, ‘That’s weird,’” says Sul.
Many were nostalgic or pop songs, he says. “I never thought that they were songs that anybody would really care about them.”
Much of the material Sul digs up to play on dancefloors in Dublin are songs he is revisiting from his childhood, he says.
These include “Ya Mustajeeb LellDaii” by Mohammed Abdu, and Sarya Sawas’ “Bas Asma3 Mini”, a Syrian wedding song that people often dance dabke to.
Chasing down these nostalgic songs is the challenging part, he says. “The best way to find this kind of music is by cassette, which is quite hard to find.”
After Sul has browsed the basement of the vinyl shop for about 20 minutes, he bundles up his bags of Christmas shopping and heads back up the stairs. He didn’t buy anything this time. But the search for records never stops.
There’s one cassette shop in Saudi Arabia he returns to, he says. “There was this one spot that was basically a treasure and I still have your man’s number.”
When he’s trying to find music from an Arabic artist but can’t find it online, Sul will text the owner. If what he wants is in stock, the owner sends it to his sister, who is still living over there, for him.
He finds other tracks through social media, he says. There’s a record label, Hard Fist, in France that Sul contacts through Instagram, to find Arabic house music.
It was after a night in the Sugar Club on Leeson Street that Sul gained the confidence to start playing Arabic sets, he says. He was performing at Woweembeem, which “celebrate[s] global music & culture at … Dublin based parties”.
To his surprise, there was already a niche market in Dublin that appreciated his sound, he says. Most at the event were Syrian, Lebanese, Saudi or Egyptian, he says.
“For me to play a set and see them dance to all the electronic stuff I was making plus some nostalgic Arabic stuff made me realise, ‘This is amazing I can’t believe that there is some people that are really into this,’” he says.
“It kind of gave me the confidence to start delving even deeper and that’s when the edits started to move alongside it,” Sul says.
Sul began to find traditional Middle Eastern songs and edit them to make them more suitable for the dancefloor.
He rearranges elements in the songs, adding in drums and basslines to the originals. “I try not to put too much on top of the track just to respect the original,” he says.
But “I probably spend a couple of days just getting the right arrangements on the song,” says Sul. “I probably try six different bass lines with it, just to see what is good with it.”
Mostly, Sul was entertaining himself, rather than thinking he was going to play the tracks to a crowd, he says. He didn’t think there was an audience, he says.
It was one of his friends, a fellow DJ, Lee Kelly, who saw the potential of the Moving Still edits, and pushed him to use them.
“He had all these deadly rhythms in him that he was never really using at the time,” said Kelly, on the phone. “I was like, ‘Man you have to get them into the music.’”
“After a while of hassling him he finally listened,” said Kelly. Every now and again, Kelly would pull out a song, and ask Sul how he did the rhythms, pushing him to get them into Moving Still’s music.
Sul says that he was taken by complete surprise when last summer one of his edits started to gain traction on the international stage.
The Moving Still edit of “Cheba Yamina” by Sidi Mansour was picked by Dar Disku, a British music label. It’s a popular Tunisian folk song that Sul put an electronic twist on, with upbeat drums and a dark synth line.
It was played at music festivals in Russia, Belgium, and Amsterdam, by international DJs such as Hunee and Palms Trax, Sul says.
“The ability to intertwine traditional Arabian components such as vocal scales and Khaliji polyrhythms with more western Italo bass lines really made him stand out to us,” says Vish Mhatre, co-creator of Dar Disku, by email.
Kelly, who also works as a music promoter in Dublin, feels that Moving Still’s sound is what Dublin dancefloors need. “I’m delighted with it. I think that it’s just like adding more flavour to our particular scene.”
For Sul, the opportunity comes down, in part, to the city’s diversity, he says. “It kind of gives a platform for myself to play the stuff that I want and it could influence someone that would be from the same influence as myself.”