Monday 27 August 2018

Music Review - AMMAR 808 by MAGHREB UNITED


I'm a great fan of multi-talented Medhi Nassouli, who, as we all know, is Moroccan, so when I heard that he was part of the group Maghreb United, who have recently brought out a CD, of course I had to buy a copy, which was very easy because I found it on Amazon, although it can also be purchased via Glitterbeat Records and Pan-African Music. Available in CD form or for download or streaming (whatever that is).

So, I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I put the CD into the player in my car, opened up the roof, put the windows down and set off. What I heard had me almost jumping out of my seat. Because this music is very loud, very exciting and furiously fast. What the ....? was my first thought. This is serious rave music. But I'm in my car and I'm not dancing so it's not just rave music. And the more I listen to it, the more I like it. I hear something new each time it comes round on the loop and I'm thinking: 'Are those Scottish bagpipes?'...'That sounds like music to belly-dance to'...'There's that snake-charming instrument.'...'Now they're all chanting...I wish I could understand the words.'

So, in order to learn more about this intriguing music, I did what any self-respecting journalist would do; I turned to Google and I googled Maghreb, Maghreb United and Rai music and this is what I learnt:-

Maghreb (and apologies if you know this already but I find it fascinating).

Maghreb means West and in this context it means Northwest Africa including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania (a much larger country than it is now). Plus Melilla and Ceuta - both controlled by Spain but disputed by Morocco (I don't know why the Spanish make such a big fuss over Gibraltar being British when they have these footholds in North Africa).

And, very importantly, it includes the disputed territories in Western Sahara, once known as Spanish Sahara.

The whole area has a very rich history ranging from the Berber Dynasties to invasion by Rome to conversion to Islam. But what is very evident is that it has been an area of war and turmoil for centuries, which is why Ammar 808 is so very relevant today.

And finally, this year it was estimated that over 100 million people live in the Maghreb, making this a highly populated area.

Maghreb United  

I got really lucky here because this year The Financial Times and The Guardian, both very well respected newspapers in the UK, wrote favourable reviews this year about the group and the music and I admit freely that this is where I got most of my information from about this group.

So, Maghreb United is the brain-child of Tunisian Sofyann Ben Yousef, who is the producer and arranger and is responsible for the electronics. The vocalists and musicians are Tunisian Cheb Haasen Tez, Algerian Sofiane Saidi and Moroccan Medhi Nassouli. Khalid Amrah and Jassine Gonzal are Medhi's choir. Medhi also plays the gumbri and Lassad Boughalmi plays gasba flute and zukra bagpipes (both of which I sort of identified.)

All but one of the ten songs on this CD are traditional Gnawa and Rai but very quickly they lead into bass and percussion, with 'heavy distortion and samples filters,' producing 'rhythms and textures of African drums.' There are also hand-claps and repeated chants with no background music, which add texture and variety to the music.

The title of the music had me puzzled until I read the article from The Financial Times. 808 comes from the Roland TR 808 synthesiser used by many Western musicians as well and this provides the deep bass drum sound which moves the music along at quite some pace. But as yet all I know about Ammar is that it's an Arabic name.

Now, what had me very interested is this: In May 2015 the regional co-operative of foreign ministers of  The Arab Maghreb Union met to discuss the need for stability in this region and this is the aim of Maghreb United  through their music - a united Maghrebi region, which also celebrates the regional differences. While reading about this, I'm reminded of the unrest and fighting within all the regions within the UK and Northern Ireland in the past, including the recent past in Northern Ireland, and how we are now united but without losing those culturally rich differences. The same is true about the European Union. It's still within living memory of many that European countries were at war with each other. (And for the record, I did not vote for the UK to leave the EU.)  So, it can be done. The Financial Times puts it most eloquently: The music of Maghreb United is 'a deliberate projection of a positive possible future; insistent, relentless, entranced.'

                                                            And finally Rai.

 I include this because I didn't know myself. Rai is a form of Algerian Folk music dating back to the 1920s and singers of Rai are called Cheb - hence Cheb Haasen Tej.


The three vocalists are very different and again, this adds to the variety within the music. However, I do have a favourite track and that's track two with Medhi Nassouli. Medhi just belts the song out hell for leather, sometimes holding notes for so long so that they defy gravity, and that makes it so very exciting.

My only regret is that I don't understand the words so if any kind soul out there who buys the CD, downloads or streams - and I strongly suggest you do - could give me an English translation of just one of the ten tracks, particularly track two, I'd be eternally grateful. Merci Beaucoup.

Maggie Knutson is an author, blogger and fan of  The Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festival and Gnawa London and Gnawa Blues All Stars (both led by the charismatic Simo Lagnawi), Gnawa Manchester, Gnawa France, Gnawa Germany and Gnawa Japan. This looks rather like an encouraging trend, folks, for those of us who think that the world should wake up to the wonderful music of Gnawa.

Friday 3 August 2018


Maalem Mohktar Gania playing with Africa Gnawa Experience at The Borj

I can't really remember life before I started coming to the festival round about 2001 but I'm sure it was much duller than it is now. For someone who didn't like Gnawa music to begin with, I've done a complete turnaround and am now one of its keenest fans. So, the festival, which usually takes place in June/July and now lasts for three days, is always an exciting delight and each year is so very different from the others, discovering fantastic music that I've never known before, and this year I witnessed, again, some truly remarkable music.

But before I write about the music, I want to make two points:

Firstly, the weather was unusually kind: hot but not unbearable during the day, pleasingly warm in the evenings and nights. So often, we have had to battle ridiculous winds, sand storms and cold temperatures so the good weather was a real bonus.

Secondly, I need to tell you about the Festival Press Office because for the second year running they have totally alienated two of the festival's keenest Internet reporters - John Knutson and myself  (The DaftNotStupid Team) - making our jobs (unpaid) far more difficult. If you want to take good videos and photos you really need to be in the press pit and for three years, the Press Office, recognising our contributions to coverage of the festival, granted us camera press passes. Last year, however, they refused, saying that since it was the 20th anniversary of the festival, there were too many requests for such passes. Fair enough, we thought, although there were a fair number of young women taking the occasional photo on their phone in the press pits and then chatting and dancing. And at the beach stage there were barely any photographers at all.

Same thing this year except the Press Office didn't even respond to our request. We only learnt from a third party that they had yet again refused our request. They just never replied to us. And again there was plenty of room most of the time in the press pit at Moulay Hassan and, barely a photographer at the beach, and all those young women with phones.

Luckily, we had bought VIP badges but at Moulay Hassan they proved to be almost worthless. That venue was packed to bursting with some people actually sitting on the floor. I reckon that they sold far more VIP passes than there was room for and I predict that if this continues, someone will be injured. And John was stopped from videoing in the VIP areas so he only recorded the sound which is not in any way as good as a decent video and John has been posting decent videos from the festival for years. With more than a million viewers he was obviously doing something right. BUT NOT THIS YEAR.

As for me, I managed to get near the front to record Imarhan at the beach and was right at the front at the Borj for Maalem Mokhtar Gania and Africa Gnawa Experience so I captured some good videos and photographs. But as for Moulay Hassan, it was impossible to squeeze in at the front of the VIP area because I encountered such unpleasant opposition from people who were way taller than me and trying to get back out was also a nightmare.

Therefore, our coverage of this year's festival is far more limited than in the past and we missed some performances we really wanted to see, including Maalem Said Oughessal with the jazz trio Holland, Hussain and Potter, Asma Hamzaoui and Fatoumata Diawara (oh, how I am all for girl power and the short recording I saw later sounded absolutely awesome) and Maalem Hassan Boussou with Benin International Musical.

So, if any festival performers or anyone who has influence at the festival read this post and value our coverage, could you please contact the Press Office next year and put in a good word for us. Thank you.


So, to the music.

The festival opened at Moulay Hassan with Maalem Hamid El Kasri and Snarky Puppy and what an inspired fusion that was. Hamid is a real master of Gnawa, working the audience almost into a frenzy but also encouraging his audience to join in so by himself he is a formidable talent. But team him with Brookly-based Snarky Puppy, who play funk, jazz and R and B, and the music was very, very exciting. Snarky Puppy have such a following that there are people who are jealous that I actually saw them playing live. The violinist in particular was brilliant, playing so quickly that you could hardly believe that that was possible. Watch this video and you'll see what I mean:-


Maalem Hamid El Kasri and Snarky Puppy - Essaouira Gnawa and World Festival 2018

(Since the festival, Hamid has played at The Royal Albert Hall with 23 year old musical whizz-kid Jacob Collier and the Metrople Orchestra as part of the BBC Proms and he and his four Gnaoui dancers blew the audience away. He was then due to play at Nells Jazz and Blues Club in London, organised by Raxa Mehta but that was unfortunately postponed due to unforeseen circumstances. However, he did have an impromptu playing at Mo Mo Restaurant in London, which I attended, and then performed at Womad. Maalem Hamid El Kasri is most certainly on a roll.)


Then I had to make a choice between Hoba Hoba Spirit at Moulay Hassan and Maalem Omar Hayat in a much smaller venue: Zaouia Issaoua. I saw Hoba, Hoba Spirit some years ago and they were fantastic but I met Omar at Xmas so my loyalty was with him. John calls him: "The Little Richard of Gnawa" because on a big stage he is such an outrageous showman, with flag bearers and I don't know how many Gnaoui dancers. But at Zaouia Issaoua this was obviously a Lila, which is a very spiritual form of Gnawa music, with some people going into trances. Omar emerged with his Gnaoui like a wild man but very soon they sat down and I couldn't see Omar because there was a pillar in front of me. The Lila goes through a process of seven colours with incense and coloured cloths and by colour number four, I had had enough. As you can see, the guy in the red shirt was on his phone most of the time and another prat next to me kept singing along badly and calling out Omar's name and a woman from the audience did some kind of trance dance which diverted attention from the music. Not even sure if it was genuine. Anyway, it was well after one o'clock in the morning and sometimes enough is enough. But here's a little taster. I do, though, prefer Omar on the big stage.

Maalem Omar Hayat


The next evening, I was determined to see Algerian group Imarhan at the beach so got there in time to get to the front of the VIP area. I had no idea what to expect, except that the beach venue often has young, exciting groups performing there but as soon and they started, I knew I was watching something rather wonderful. Not Gnawa but World Music. My Facebook post later that evening started with the words: "Wow, wow and wow again."

They reminded me of the French group Thalweg, who played at Bab Marrakesh way back when it was one of the venues and, in my opinion, the best, and who ignited my love of World Music. However, Imarhan are an incredible group in their own right and I danced almost non-stop as I recorded and took videos. The percussionist all in desert white drove the music along and again, here's a little taster:-

Imarhan playing at the beach venue


It was returning to Moulay Hassan to watch the fusion between Maalem Said Oughessal and Holland, Hussein and Potter that I found the VIP area so very, very packed. It was such an unpleasant experience - one woman almost spat in my face - that I vowed that I wouldn't do that again. Here is the solitary photograph that I took of the jazz trio (the concerts were over-running big time) before I turned tail and struggled my way out.

Holland/Hussain/Potter Trio

I collapsed into the arms of a friend who was right at the back and after eating half of his chick peas, I returned back to my hotel so shaken up was I. However, the evening was not totally lost because we chatted with two fellow Gnawa fans: Cherbatli Yassine, who paints Gnawa pictures, which are really very good. He's based at the moment in beautiful 'Blue City' of Chefchaouen high up in the Rif Mountains; and Ricci Inagaki, who is Japanese. Apparently, Gnawa is becoming popular in Japan and these two are writing a book about Gnawa, which should be very interesting, particularly if it includes some of Yassine's work.


Saturday night and a performance at the Borj to watch Maalem Mohktar Gania and Africa Gnawa Experience. I have a particular interest in this group because I was privileged to interview them at Yacine Ben Ali's recording studio Planet Essaouira at Xmas and I wrote a post about them on my blog. They were preparing an entirely original piece of music and had already been working on it for months. And just before the festival started, during Ramadan, John, myself and our dog, Betsey, saw them rehearsing at Dar Souira. So, I knew how hard they had been working and I knew how good the music was.

The setting of the Borj was perfect. It's a much smaller and therefore more intimate venue, set in a turret within the city walls, with the audience sitting on cushions. Very comfortable, thank you very much. It was one of those calm, barmy evenings with a bright blue sky transforming into a midnight blue night, colours which complemented the luxurious colours of the costumes, Mohktar looking particularly handsome in his, like a Regal King. There was an important addition to the group who I hadn't seen before - the renowned jazz saxophonist and improviser/composer Geraldine Laurent.

Those of us who want Gnawa to take a more prominent role in World Music, are very excited about this music because it crosses so many musical genres and is beautifully sublime. It didn't take long for people to move to the sides and the back of the turret so that they could's just that kind of music. A European woman actually danced in the aisle for a while and she did the Gnawi dance in a most impressive way.

This music will hopefully be recorded with the addition of French/ Moroccan vocalist Hindi Zahra, who has a large following in both France and Morocco and has an incredible voice that can make the chandeliers shake or be as soft as a gently flowing stream. So watch out for the recording when it becomes available. For now, here's a little taster:-


Maalem Mohktar Gania and Africa Gnawa Experience

We were watching this performance with Raxa Mehta who has set up a company called The London Jukebox which books exciting World Music musicians to play in the UK, Maalem Hamid El Kasri being just one. She was very impressed with Mokhtar and Africa Gnawa Experience so there's another space to watch. (I think that their music would play rather nicely at The Royal Albert Hall (home of The Proms.))

Afterwards, the three of us - John, Raxa and myself - set off to find a street vendor selling crepes so we could eat as we walked along the to the beach stage but we just happened to pass the famous fish restaurant in Essaouira - Sam's Restaurant - and we were all agreed that they were emotionally spent and decided to have supper there. And what a good decision that was. We certainly needed that break. Listened afterwards to some street music played by the lovely Simon who is doing film studies at The University of Ouarzazate. We became friends with him and his little rascal of a puppy called Puppy at our campsite. (Puppy will most certainly have an important role in my sequel to Walkies - my light-hearted novel about a group of friends who just happen to be dogs.)


However, I was determined to catch the final act at Moulay Hassan: Maalem Hossam Gania with his Gnaoui dancers, led by Miizo Gania (his brother), and Shabaka Hutchings, Nyugen Le, David Aubaile and Omar El Barkaoui. I remember Hossam and Miizo when they were small boys and we were at their home in Essaouira for a Xmas Eve Lila led by their father - the great Maalem Mahmoud Gania, who sadly passed a few years ago. So, how were the boys shaping up? I wondered. And did I dare return into the VIP area after my bad experiences on the Thursday?

Raza suggested that I stand in the VIP area by the side barrier almost opposite the green room and that is what I did and it worked very well for me. The concerts were again running way overtime so I caught the tale end of Snarky Puppy, playing for the second time, with Maalem Hamid El Kasri, although it wasn't billed on the programme. Hearing them again certainly put me in a good mood, as did not being pushed and insulted. And during the interval I got to chatting with a group of young Moroccans, some of whom I'd met before, and we had a delightful conversation. There were also a few Moroccan mums with their children and we managed to communicate in French. The mood was so very different from the Thursday. The audience was much younger and far friendlier. Perhaps it was because the people around me were Moroccans and not Europeans which had been the case on the Thursday.

And how did Hossam and Miizo shape up? Well, pretty darn well. In fact, pretty wonderfully. Hossam has the makings of a very good Maalem and I particularly liked the way that he took control of the stage as a good Maalem should. I also liked the way that he held his head back and steady as he played his guembri and sang. Your dad would be proud, I thought. Because of where I was standing, there was some light distortions on my videos but they are still reasonably good. Take a look for yourself.

The traditional opening of a Gnawa concert with Maalem Gania Hossam and his Gnaoui, led by Miizo Gania

The full fusion group with Maalem Gania Hossam, Shabaka Hutchings, Nguyen Le, David Aubaile and Omar El Barkaoui


The set finished at 5a.m. (!!!!!!!!!!!) but I danced along merrily, so pleased that I was there and enjoying every minute. The fact that I could hardly walk for days afterwards seemed a small price to pay.

So, the festival is now over and I have so many good memories as well as a lot of decent videos and photographs that I'm still posting on Facebook. I shall be downloading my videos onto my You Tube site and I'll also be posting my photographs on Instagram instead of Flickr where I have a lot of photographs from previous festivals if you'd care to take a look. And as for next year, who knows what that will bring. I'll probably faint if we get press passes next year but what I know is that the music will still be fantastic and Insh'allah I will be there to enjoy it.