Music has always been a powerful tool in transmitting diverse stories and experiences, something especially true with the rise of socially conscious music in the Middle East.
Where restrictive visa systems, a state of chaos, and a demoralising financial state of affairs makes it often impossible to easily travel within the region, social media and the democratisation of music through platforms like Soundcloud have become important ways for young people in the region to connect through music, though they may never meet face to face.
This popularity of regional, socially conscious music goes beyond differences in culture or dialect, and much of the music deals with issues that young Arabs all relate to as themes of our time: questioning identity, who we are and why; alienation, being unable to connect with the lives of past generations nor with the forced circumstances of the present; and a sense of exile, a constant quest for belonging.
Many Arab bands have been able to connect with audiences on these topics in a way that engages new discussions, without projecting a despairing sense of apathy or creating an existential crisis.
At the recent Moroccan Timitar Signs and Culture Festival, Ahram Online spoke with two such bands, Ribab Fusion and Labess, to explore how they’ve found mainstream success even as they tackle these heavy themes head on.
Ribab Fusion, performing at Timitar Festival (Photo: courtesy of Timitar fetsival)
Bringing in the old and mixing it with the new: Ribab Fusion
On the night they played at Timitar Festival in their hometown of Agadir, Ribab Fusion had tens of thousands showing up to see their wildly entertaining show with brightly coloured costumes. The dancers and lead vocalist, Bouhssine Foulane, exuberantly moved around the stage, the latter with his ribab (in Egypt, the rababa), which he often played like a stand-up guitar.
Formed in 2008, Ribab Fusion is a meeting place for different genres, from traditional Aghadir folklore to rock, a bit of blues, and Afropop. Over coffee, Bouhssine Foulane (vocals, ribab and violin) and Ahmed Ouarssas (loutar and guitar) discuss the band’s long and bumpy road towards both critical and popular success.
Ahram Online (AO): From the audience at Timitar, it's apparent that you've impacted music by integrating multiple identities and various trends of music into a performance that tells a cohesive story.
Foulane: Our group is very diverse. From the very beginning we were determined to offer something new to an artistic space that wasn't previously available. At Timitar, for example, we included the trombone and the trumpet, which was the first time in the history of Amazighi music to include these two instruments.
Our backgrounds have also helped make this possible. For example, I studied classical Arabic music and Ahmed's [Ouarssas] music studies have all been influences by Western music. And two hours from Agadir where we both live are the roots of the Amazighi musical scales.
Ouarssas: I grew up on Amazighi culture, it's the root, but over time I became interested in other trends of music. So, with Ribab Fusion, we've tried to include various trends of music with our Amazigh roots as the foundation. Our approach to music is constantly changing to reflect our changes and growth as musicians.
Foulane: In Morocco, from the 1950s to the 1970s, King Hassan II heavily affected the Moroccan music scene by inviting Um Kalthoum, Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim to perform in Morocco. This in turn created stagnancy at the local level. It was either to produce that kind of music or nothing. But now, with King Mohamed VI, there has been a move towards diversification, especially with the official recognition of Amazigh culture. Now, we see a Moroccan culture that is very African oriented. This is important because it allows for an authenticity.
AO: The ribab, that you play, is an instrument that is very old and in many places dying. But you've kept the ribab and moved it beyond it’s traditional or folklore music. How were you able to take something very folklore in its origin to a modern set up that works well together?
Ribab Fusion (RF): The idea came in 2006 when we found that there were instruments like the ribab and the loutar, similar to the banjo, that were not being used [musically]. We wanted to preserve them, by using them and making them part of the present. I originally played the violin and when I started using the ribab, I tried to play it in my own way. We felt that at some point the ribab would disappear, much in the same way that is happening now in Egypt. Today, [in Morocco] it's an instrument that's found new popularity, especially amongst the youth.
AO: Ribab Fusion has been around now for 10 years. It's not easy being independent and you haven't signed with a big label. So how have you maintained your independence musically, while finding success?
RF: Like any other band, the road hasn't been easy. My starting point came in the bands I was with before Ribab Fusion, like Mazagan. These bands were very influential in the local scene, particularly in mixing different trends of music like Amazigh music and reggae or local shaabi music. These experiences gave us a network of contacts and an audience before we began Ribab Fusion.
Our first concert as a band was actually at Timitar years ago. We were very strategic about getting on social media very early and using the different platforms to create a presence and reach a wider audience. In the process, we created a team of about 15 people, from social media to costume designers, who have helped us develop our image in parallel with our music.
Our biggest obstacle when we first started was the language barrier between the Amazighi language and the colloquial Moroccan dialect. But, today, we can say that the Amazighi song competes equally with the Moroccan colloquial song.
We just recently finished a tour in 14 states in the US and we discovered that there is a place for our kind of music, the kind of music that is socially conscious, and that can compete both locally and internationally. More specifically, now there is a place in the Arab world for music that is based on the African identity, which has allowed us to find ourselves. I mean, there is a place for bands like us with lead vocal being black, and it's okay and accepted.
AO: The Amazighi identity is a bit problematic, in terms of still not achieving equality as a minority in various countries. But, in Morocco, the situation is different. Has your identity been a problem here in Morocco?
RF: I don't think that there is something here called Arab. Morocco is a country of diversity. Here, in Morocco we consider ourselves African, with different languages and different cultures. I'm proud of my culture. The problems arise when politics gets involved and tries to differentiate between people and groups. I'm against being specifically identified as only Amazighi. I'm Moroccan-Amazighi and this is what ties us all together here in Morocco, our identity as Moroccans.
Labess performing at Timitar festival (Photo: courtesy of Timitar festival)
The last of the troubadours: Labess
Algerian-Canadian, Nedjim Bouizzoui, was born in Algeria and emigrated to Canada with his family in 2003 at age 18, leaving a life behind that was scarred by the Algerian civil war.
The son of a guitarist, Bouizzoui learned music at home, joining his first band, Fiesta Day, in Algeria in his early teens. After arriving to Montreal, he played in metro stations, gaining recognition for his talent, and in 2004 formed Labess (meaning "all is good" in North African dialect).
Labess found some success in North America with their first two albums, the 2007 Tout Va Bein (All Will Be Well) and the 2012 Identité (Identity). Oddly, the band gained major audiences in Tunisia, which spread quickly to Algeria and Morocco, especially after the release of their third album, the 2016 La Route (The Road). They played their first major global festival, Visa for Music, last November and since have been booked widely, including playing at the globally renowned UK festival, Glastonbury.
Listening to Labess, it’s not hard to trace Bouizzoui’s travelling footprint. A true troubadour at heart, he has easily infused his mostly Arabic lyrics with Romani (i.e., Gypsy), rumba flamenco and traditional North African music, like gnawa and shaabi.
Much of his music deals with exile, the violence he left behind in his homeland, and his personal struggles to define himself.
In Agadir, Bouizzoui talked to Ahram Online about travel and being a sponge for different types of music. He approaches music the way he does life: a traveller on the road to everywhere, collecting stories to take with him from place to place.
AO: You left Algeria, went to Canada, and became famous on this side …
Nedjim Bouizzoui (NB): Lived in Columbia too …
AO: Why did you live in Columbia?
NB: For the adventure. I just came from there, stayed for a year and a half and formed a band there. We were 12 musicians. It was a fusion of Latin and Arabic music. It was really good.
AO: Most bands work in their city or country and they work on their music and that becomes part of their identity and they take that and export it out. But, I feel you are literally taking that guitar and going wherever there is music. For you, then, what is success?
NB: For me money is not the point. It’s funny because someone asked me about my career and when I’m going to stop. But for me it’s not a career, it’s my life. I mean money is good because I’m getting older and I need more stability, but the best is meeting people and learning music.
AO: Many musicians are always worried about how you break into the West, especially when you have a different language, and still have the identity that is authentic.
NB: It was really important for me in the beginning. I played for four years in Canada and then I stopped for a year to figure out who I am and what I’m doing. Am I Canadian? Am I Algerian? What? So I stopped the music and I traveled a lot and heard a lot of music and read a lot of poetry from everywhere. And with all this, I was proud to be myself. Even in the beginning, I was told that I had to sing in French or English to make it there (in Canada), but I said ‘No, I’m going to sing in my language!’
I think that the first step is to have integrity [and authenticity] in your work. For me, what helped the most was the movement from place to place. I was always taking my passport and going off to different destinations to see how others live and how they thought.
AO: So, is Arabic still easier for you?
NB: Definitely. My Arabic, the North African Arabic.
AO: Now that you have your own success do you ever think that you might want to come to the region and work locally, with musicians?
NB: Yes, it’s my dream. Right now my percussionist is Tunisian. I met him when I made a band in Tunisia, because after the revolution they wanted to invite me to Tunisia, but they couldn’t bring my band from France. And now he is here with me in Agadir. I want to be able to do the same thing, create bands like I did in Colombia, in the Middle East. It’s like creating a diwan thaqafy (cultural salon), and is a contribution to our culture.
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