H3ritage Studios: An Interview with Shirin Mirachor & Reda Senhaji

Text by Vera Santana
Creative direction by Floor Verhulst & Isabeau Vienerius
Photography by Floor Verhulst

We live in a world with a lot of in-betweenness, whether that be in our multiculturalism, our practices, or our identities. Globalization and increasingly critical political climates are the main fuels that get us to pack up our things and move across the world, making our societies highly diverse. What do we do once we arrive at that new place? Who are our people and are they going to join us in this pursuit of belonging?  

H3ritage Studios, a program by (A)WAKE, is a space for people from the WANA (West Asian, North African) region who wish to commence that pursuit of belonging through their artistic practices. Based in Rotterdam, but with no boundaries to their reach, H3ritage Studios aims to create a space allowing a new generation of WANA electronic music artists to connect with others. Their aim is to create a platform for research, music, and design where WANA diaspora artists can explore their cultural heritage and its meaning in this digital world. The program is not just a professional journey, but a personal one too. 

We invite you to get to know the program and the people welcoming you to a heritage dancefloor. Shirin Mirachor is the Director of (A)WAKE and Reda Senhaji, also known as Cheb Runner, is an electronic music producer who takes on the shape of “a musical hurricane rooted in Moroccan soil, exploring the West European electronic musical landscapes.”  Both Shirin and Reda work with H3ritage Studios and run (A)WAKE. 

I’m so excited to learn more about H3ritage Studios and what I’ve seen so far of your music, Reda. But first, how do you two know each other? 

Shirin: Our connection has a serendipitous quality to it. It all began during a night train journey when fate shuffled my music, leading me to the 1998 Abdel Kader ‘Live in Bercy’ performance in Paris. The emotions stirred by that performance have stayed with me ever since. Fast forward to the Atlas Festival in Marrakech two years later. As I stood there, the familiar intro of the same song echoed in the distance. I followed the sound and found myself face-to-face with Reda (DJ Cheb Runner), who was spinning tracks. I seized the moment and asked about the remixed version of that unforgettable song. Sleep-deprived and determined, he found me the next day and handed me a USB drive containing his music. His effort touched me profoundly.

As I delved further into the music world, I discovered Rashid Taha—a rai hero with political drive, a penchant for blending Western and Maghreb sounds, and a heart for migrants. It felt as though our shared ambitions converged in him. And then, destiny intervened once more. I opened an old notebook with baby names I like, and there it was: “Taha” at the top. A sign, a confirmation. So allow me to introduce you to our little Taha Senhaji, born this year.

I know what H3ritage Studios is but I would like to hear from your words what the program is about. What is your role in H3ritage Studios both personally and professionally? 

S: In a nutshell, H3ritage Studios is an artistic research-based program. We invite different participants – we are actually doing the second edition this year – and the idea is that we bring artists together to rethink what heritage means to them, and identity is often quite related to that topic. It’s particularly focused on artists from the WANA region, the decolonized term for MENA (Middle East, North Africa). As the interest in the so-called ‘Oriental Sound’ was growing from the Western part of the world, we felt the urge to make sure that we could define ourselves before others took this opportunity. This is especially important as the WANA region continues to be fragmented and under so much turbulence. By connecting the diaspora and strengthening their position, we were hoping to build a solid infrastructure where artists can support each other and use this program as an incubator for their artist practice before stepping into the professional field.    

It’s loosely based on the format of Red Bull Music Studio, where we realized that bringing people to the studio and giving them time to play, experiment, and talk can be really helpful. So, H3ritage Studios is a residency where you have moments in the studio with Reda or with the visual supporting team, and you can just think about how you can represent yourself in a live show. What does it mean if you’re from Turkey or Morocco? What does it mean to the audience? How can you play with these expectations? 

Reda: I’m really glad with how you presented it! My personal experience is more about this interaction between all artists. Also in terms of practice. Exploring how we can preserve our heritage through our artistic practice, in music but also in visuals. How can we make it accessible to the young WANA generation or its diaspora? How can we make it a tool? The research is also really interesting when it comes to archiving. For me, archiving can become something brilliant, like a light in my mind. It can be a really powerful tool in these digital spaces. It is something that we would like to explore more as we further develop H3ritage Studios. For example, in Africa, we use WhatsApp most of the time. These kinds of platforms can be really interesting as a way of uploading and preserving the sounds of specific instruments. It’s like making a digital museum!

That’s so on point with what the cultural sector is discussing when it comes to digitizing heritage as a way of preserving it, and as a type of evolution to access a younger generation. The fact that you’re creating H3ritage Studios as a new platform to preserve and digitize heritage is incredible. I want to ask you two about ‘in-betweenness’, I feel like there’s a lot of in-betweenness in heritage, electronic music, and multiculturalism. How has it been to solidify the program’s missions? Has it been difficult to communicate or make known what the program is about?

S: Internally, it isn’t, as we are all interrelated in some way. A lot of us feel that this in-betweenness actually is our common ground. But, sometimes it can be hard to explain to others how to deal with all these labels, and how to break out of them. It’s this burden of representation. It’s very strange to, let’s say, represent an entire country or nation. We have to deal with abstract categories. You’re suddenly very conscious of roots, of claiming, and of who can enter the space—or who cannot. Can someone from Morocco really comment on what’s going on in Lebanon? Or what about someone like me, who’s the daughter of a Kurdish-Iraqi refugee? What can I say, and what kind of space can I take? Suddenly, you’re very conscious of what you took from your motherland, and what you’re currently taking from the promised land. This is a struggle within the diaspora because some are quite ashamed that they don’t know as much. You often encounter this rigid culture about roots and about having knowledge of where you come from. There’s not much space to learn or ask each other. There’s a shame in what you don’t already know.

I can identify with that. I was born in Venezuela but moved to the States, moved to Spain, moved here. I sometimes feel ashamed when I try to claim my Venezuelan heritage, the one I feel closest to my identity. People try to challenge me on that all the time. That’s the underside of identity and labeling, right? It can have its constraints. 

S: Exactly.

R: Something similar is apparent with how we put each other within borders. Take the division between North Africa and West Asia, for example. The culture flows to Morocco, from other countries. I try to remind myself of this. Morocco has adopted different rhythms from different regions outside of its borders. And even those regions have different rhythms within them. There is a lot of richness. I see a mix of cultures that come from India to Iran from back in the day. It’s about access and credibility. However, I don’t always like the word ‘credibility’ because it’s really just about regions before they became nations. We’ve become a separation of borders. We used to be one big land, one big country, that wasn’t divided as we know it now. 

S: That’s what we wanted to do with H3ritage Studios: to create a kind of space where you don’t have to explain yourself constantly. And because of that, you can really dive into certain details. Sometimes, when you’re so focused on the expectation of the other, I think it comes naturally that you respond to it, even if you don’t want to or don’t realize it. It’s about playfully remixing and reinventing. You don’t have to focus on a particular region. The whole idea is that it can be an experiment and that it sometimes feels like you maybe don’t conform to one single region. Maybe you’re inspired by other places outside of your heritage? In that case, the question becomes: how can you play with inspiration from different heritages? These are the kinds of discussions we are always having. 

This next question is for you Reda, I want to know more about your set Angry Immigrant. What has it been like to connect with your identity and heritage through art? I must say I’m also really interested to know more about the choice of words ‘angry immigrant.’

R: Oh, haha!

Yeah, that really caught my attention.

R: For me, it’s more of a balance. I am a part of Western society now and I feel a part of it as well. It’s an identity I see carried out through my friends and community here in Brussels. They are like a reflection of me, or like the metaphorical suitcase that I have here. I compare it to the suitcase that I brought with me from Morocco 10 years ago, carrying all of the knowledge and feelings I’ve collected since. I’ve made a mix. I don’t want to lie about my experience, I just want to express it through something like my practice. The anger mostly comes from certain things like bureaucratic details. And also, this expectation of ‘the other’ in some circumstances. It’s like when you get a job and you’re working so hard because you’re afraid to get fired, so you do it super well, and even then your boss wants more from you. You sometimes feel like they are taking too much. There are so many of these micro-aggressions. Once in 2013, I received a letter of expulsion saying, “you have to go back to your country.”

How do you feel once you express this anger through your music? Did you feel a sense of relief after Angry Immigrant or did it serve as fuel for the next hurricane? 

R: For me, this anger is something that I try to transform into a happy and joyful moment. We dance to fight anger and tension.  

S: It’s very energetic and constructive in some way. I personally feel like Reda was an inspiration for the H3ritage Studios project. He came from Morocco 10 years ago, entered the music scene, and is now entering the electronic music scene. It’s hard. It’s much easier for him to get assignments or gigs that tick other boxes than the electronic music one. The outsiders constantly try to sell him as this Moroccan electronic music producer, ideally placing him in this ‘world music’ category. Especially when he produces Moroccan sounds that are familiar to what the crowd more or less expects. However, when he wants to move away from that. I experienced Angry Immigrant as a 10-year reflection, a stage where he was free to talk about his anger, his annoyance, and whatever.

So, how have the first few years of the project been? 

S: We’ve bumped into quite a lot of subjects, and I think the archive has been the biggest one. It was very inspiring to talk to other people from the WANA regions via Zoom and speak about how they deal with their heritage. It was really nice, but you also notice how everyone is kind of doing it on their own. There is not that much of a network. There’s a lack of means, knowledge, and access. It’s quite hard when you’re already in a bit of a vulnerable position. Often the other artists we work with, not just at H3ritage Studios, have a lot on their mind. Maybe they have issues with getting a visa, having to support their family, having access to financial means, or creating their art more professionally.

When you’re all on your own and you have to deal with those things, it can be really hard to also concentrate on being represented the way you want and getting out of this what you want. We hope from this project a network arises where they can ask for advice and where we can support each other in the future. As a program, we do our best to plug that support in different cities and places so that these artists can at least feel right with the people around them. That’s a good starting point for your practice. The idea is that within the program everyone has their own artistic practice, so there can be moments of crossovers. 

That’s so beautiful, it sounds like even though you’re in this program to help these individuals with their professional selves, you’re also going beyond that. There’s longevity in this program and that’s a priceless support system. Along those lines, how do you want to help future H3ritage Studios participants? What do you want to give them? 

S: Actually, the initial idea was to create space for experimentation. I kind of like that we didn’t really know what the outcome was going to be, going into this. I still feel like we don’t know. At the least, it’s about getting in touch with other artists and having some time to rethink how you want to represent yourself as an artist. I would love to see this project going to different places and building a big network where we can share our experiences. We have a huge infrastructure of funding for the cultural sector in the Netherlands, and I’m afraid many artists don’t know that their practices qualify for this funding. So, it’s about bringing them closer to this reality too. It’s only the beginning of making sure that we are distributing access to financial means to people from WANA regions and its diaspora. 

I think I have a good picture of what H3ritage Studios is about. Any final thoughts? 

S: It’s good to know that H3ritage Studios is a program of (A)WAKE and (A)WAKE is located above MONO, a club space in Rotterdam. At (A)WAKE, we call ourselves a cultural institute in progress. Someone once jokingly said, “I hope you will forever be in progress so that you continue to be critical of what you make”. We used to be seen as a grassroots program – which was nice at first – but it was really important to step away from that so that our critique could be taken more seriously. (A)WAKE is a collective run by different artistic practitioners, all with roots and heritage in the WANA regions. The H3ritage Studios program particularly focuses on electronic music. New Radicalism focuses on digital art. And we also have an artist residency. So in a way, we are a part of a bigger…

R: Institution!

S: Haha yeah, an institution that’s trying to collaborate with the WANA region. We are based here in Rotterdam, it’s solid, and we have access to certain resources. It’s all about how we can use this immense support of digitality to work with our people. And I think it becomes more and more relevant and urgent as the region becomes more vulnerable. Now is really the time to be proud of your in-betweeness and see how you can use that. 

R: This is a bit of a summary, but we’re always developing it. I always tell myself that there’s always something to learn. Everyday. 

I couldn’t agree more! I wish my community had something like this. 

R: But you can come anytime. We focus on our community, but also on communities that welcome everyone. 

S: All of the ‘outsiders’ relate.

R: We are not closed, we are all human beings. 

We are a community of in-betweeners. 

Join Shirin and Reda on November 25 as they proudly showcase the talents of this year’s H3ritage Studios Rotterdam from 22:00 – 03:00 at MONO. Tickets can be found here. H3ritage Studios is initiated by (A)WAKE and supported by the Municipality of Rotterdam. Read more on H3ritage Studios here and follow them here.