News From North Africa

I’d don’t get to write about new music, or recent issues, as much as I would like. This usually comes down to  timing and the focus of my writing, but it also reflects the current nature of my listening habits. I don’t buy as many new releases as I once did. It’s a great time for music. There are countless labels putting out fantastic albums, many of whom I follow closely, and wish I got a chance to talk about more. They all deserve more credit than they get.

I’m a big fan of music from North Africa. It’s an area of my collection that I want to see grow. Sadly, sounds from those countries aren’t easily available, and these days, given the state of politics and strife in the region, things have gotten harder for musicians with every passing day. When something leaks out, it’s worth paying attention and acknowledging the incredible effort it took to produce. Two great albums have entered my collection this week – one a new recording, and one a reissue. I thought I would take this chance to recommend them.

Since the events in Paris last month, I’ve watched anxiety creep across the globe. I’m losing track of how many times I’ve seen the pattern repeat. We never learn. The lens refocuses, but the method remains. Fear of “the other” – the public unifier, the media’s muse, the politician’s subterfuge. Music is a force against this poisonous impulse. It carries humanity – voices separated from us by distance and difference. It dampens the drums of war with empathy and joy. As the refugees of the Syrian war pour into Europe, we should acknowledge the displaced. Take their lives and experience into our hearts – hear their voices. To deny the humanity of another is to deny our own. We only have ourselves to fear. As the borders tighten and carpet bombs fall, damning countless innocent lives, we can not let silence prevail. We can not let fear and greed blanket the human cost. The music must rise, fortify our ears and bring us crying into the streets.

Much of my writing of late has focused on music as a means to understand each other over great cultural and geographic division. Though these two albums are not from Syria, they are from countries which are vulnerable to similar iterations of religious extremism and where music has often been attacked as a threat to conservative political ambition. I ask you, when you listen to them, to allow your mind to drift across those borders, and remember that these are people who make music, who bring joy into the lives of others, and who fight far harder to make these sounds than we can understand. They are the light at the end of the tunnel and the beauty of a possible future.



 Abba Gargando ‎– Abba Gargando (2015)

This album just came out on the incredible Sahel Sounds. It’s fantastic. It’s already sold out at the source, so you should get your copy fast. I’m a huge fan of the amazing music the label is releasing. If you haven’t encountered them, you should check them out. You won’t be disappointed. It’s run by Christopher Kirkley, who has spent a ton of time in Africa searching out, and often recording, the great music he issues. Sahel Sounds was also responsible for co-releasing two of the albums I mentioned in River of Empathy, which focused on my favorite releases by Mississippi Records. Abba Gargango is a Tuareg guitarist based in Timbouctou. This album was recorded in Mali and Mauritania on cell phones. It’s pretty lo-fi and feels all the better for it. Like many field recordings, you can hear the voices of listeners in the background, furthering an image of the space in which this music lives – in this particular case, a refugee camp. The Tuareg are a traditionally nomadic people who live across the Sahara in parts of Mali, Algeria, and Niger. They are an ancient people who long predate the current borders found in that region. Their homeland has been shattered and divided between countries which are often unsympathetic to their way of life. Somehow they’ve managed to persevere, and maintain one of the most interesting cultural legacies on the globe. There’s been a growing interest in Tuereg music over the last decade, largely the result of touring in the West by bands like Group Bombino, Group Inerane, Koudede, Tinariwen and the efforts of labels like Sublime Frequencies, among others.  This is one of the best examples I’ve heard. Much of contemporary Tuereg music is guitar-driven and is a blend of Arabic modes, traditional music from North Africa, and blistering guitar-driven Rock & Roll. This is dance music. It’s traditionally played at weddings and other celebrations, and brings the party straight into your life. If you don’t find yourself moving to it’s rhythms, go to the doctor.. there’s something wrong. This music is one of the greatest things going!

Gargango’s playing is incredible. It vacillates between percussive acoustic guitar and distorted electric. Music as rhythmic as it is melodic. It’s raw and full of life – feeling as distinctly African as it does Islamic. It is tough, emotive, droney, hypnotic, and slightly psychedelic. A mystical music drawn from real life. The singing is beautiful – often getting lost in the blanket of sound and becoming its own instrument. I couldn’t ask for more. This album couldn’t be confused with anything other than what it is. Music from the desert. Get it now before it’s gone.



 Nass El Ghiwane ‎– Nass El Ghiwane (1976 / 2015)

If you dig deep and get past the readily available recordings from the Islamic world – which are often ethnographic, you will uncover a complex history, almost always overlooked in the West. Over my years of listening to music from North Africa and the Middle East, I’ve been continuously surprised by how much diversity their once was, and how much has changed.

For centuries, while the West languished in cultural darkness and ignorance (The Dark Ages / Medieval Period), Islam embraced the beauty of human intellect. It took the heights of every culture it encountered, and made them its own. Islamic culture was defined by tolerance to diverse spiritual belief and intellectual thought. It supported advanced science, philosophy, poetry, art and music. It alone preserved all of the ancient Greek achievement we now possess – once thought to have been lost as Rome burned. Outside of academic circles, that history is obscured in the West. In an era when fear and gross generalization of Islam grips our society, it is worth remembering that nearly everything that has made the West great, was preserved and brought into Europe by its people. Without them we would be centuries behind. Islam, both historical and contemporary, is far from how it is understood from the outside. Its most extreme and intolerant factions are not only unrepresentative of its history and the body of Islam, but are very recent and largely the result of Western intervention. You can track the rise of these terrifying ideologies, by following the decline of music. Sound is democratic, and thus something all conservatives fear. Only a few decades ago, spread throughout the Islamic world, there were countless musicians such as the ones found on this album. Today the music is dying at the hands of conservative religious belief, and survives, particularly in progressive forms, in pockets alone.

I’ve been looking for this record, and others by Nass El Ghiwane, for so long, that I actually forgot I was hunting for it. When I noticed this reissue at Honest Jon’s, it looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Fortunately the haze faded before I missed my chance. It’s insanely good. Nass El Ghiwane is a band that grew out of an avant-garde theater troupe in the Casablanca during the early 1970’s. They’re still working today. The album is a perfect example of the rich cultural discourse between Islam and the world beyond, which was widespread only a few decades ago. This music should be our lens into the Islamic world, and the door to its history, rather than the dark cloud of Wahhabism, which in recent years has obscured its beauty. During the 1960’s and 70’s there were countless musicians across the Middle East and North Africa who, like their forefathers, took other cultures into their hearts, learned from them, grew, adapted and spread that beauty far and wide. Nass El Ghiwane is one such band. Because of Morocco’s more liberal attitude toward music, they are one of the few who’s music survives in the country where it was created. These musicians brought aspects of Western music into their own creative practices, and in so doing, created some of the most dynamic, original, and exciting music I have ever heard. The band is closely aligned with Gnawa music, which is an ancient Islamic music, historically related to religious rituals and celebrations. Gnawa is Morocco’s most popular music both inside and outside of the country. In the last few decades, largely stemming from the popularity of groups like Nass El Ghiwane, there has been a rise in the secular realizations of Gnawa. The band and this music is incredible. Trance-like vocals swell and ripple over throbbing and entwining rhythms played on drums, castanets, banjos and ghimbri. It’s incredibly beautiful and engrossing. On one hand it is unmistakably what it is – music from Africa and the Islamic world, on the other it feels like hippy music flowing out of a 1970’s commune. It’s wonderful, hypnotic and surprising in a way that few things ever achieve. I seriously can’t recommend this one enough.

-Bradford Bailey




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