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.

No comments: