Anouar Kaddour Cherif Releases an Inimitably Gorgeous North African Album

by delarue

Anouar Kaddour Cherif’s axe is the mandola, the gorgeous, woody-toned North African lute, akin to an oud with a larger body and expanded upper register. The Algerian expat’s latest album Djawla – streaming at Bandcamp – is a deliciously edgy mashup of North African Arabic music and Balkan jazz. Cherif’s songs are unpredictable: dirges burst out into scampering, deftly syncopated dances and vice versa when least expected. It’s closer to chaabi or Turkish diasporic styles than it is jazz, and his quartet play briskly but with a striking economy of notes: noodling not allowed here. There’s really nothing quite like this out there.

In the opening track, Sans Pap the group take a slinky chromatic riff, go scampering, then slow it down, the mandola and Clément Meunier’s tersely looming bass clarinet over the lithe, understated pulse of Antoine Brochot’s bass and Hannes Junker’s drums.

Meunier’s aching, desolate, duduk-like upper register flutters over Cherif’s spare riffage as the group slowly make their way into Albatross over an ominous bass drone. Eventually they pick it up – and suddenly the bird breaks free of its shackles! Was this inspired by the Baudelaire poem maybe?

Likewise, Cherif backs away from his scrambling opening taqsim for more plaintive bass clarinet to introduce Savage Butterfly, then the band scramble and team up for bristling chromatic harmonies over a tricky dance beat. Brochot opens Call of the Night with a mysterious, skeletal solo before Cherif’s Lynchian chords enter from the shadows, only to back away, leaving just the rhythm section and low-key vocals.

Neatly orchestrated echo effects shift between instruments in Sirocco, a return to tight, rapidfire syncopation, with a break for spare, misterioso solo mandola. The band hint at the Pink Panther theme, slowly building Automne Occidental into a slow North African noir blues and then a briskly circling, vampy theme.

A True Lie is an ingenious, seemingly halfspeed take on what would otherwise be a lickety-split dance tune that would be just as much at home in Macedonia or Turkey as Algeria. Virgule – French for “comma” or “decimal point,” depending on context – is the loopiest and most rhythmically straightforward track here, with playful exchanges between the instruments. The group wind up the record with Amiret Erriyam, a loping, stately anthem in the biting Arabic hijaz mode with a tasty microtonal bass solo at the center.