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Arabic Music Icon Aziz Sahmaoui Brings His University of Gnawa to Joe’s Pub

When he’s not playing festivals around the globe with the Orchestre National de Barbes, Aziz Sahmaoui fronts another band, the University of Gnawa, who put a harder-rocking, original spin on an ancient North African style. The band is collegiate not in an academic sense but, like the best universities, will school you and at the same time put on a party you’ll never forget. They’re bringing their exhilarating live show to Joe’s Pub on Sept 11 at 9 PM; cover is $20 and considering how packed their US debut at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was a couple of summers ago, advance tix are a very good idea.

Sahmaoui’s latest album with this group is Mazal (Arabic for “Endurance”), streaming at Spotify – and if you’d like to avoid having to mute those annoying commercials that interrupt you when least expected, most of it is streaming at the bandleader’s webpage. Most of the tracks are Arabic love songs, although a couple have the kind of excoriating, politically relevant lyricism of Sahmaoui’s other band. The opening track, InchAllah has a groove that’s almost qawwali, but less serpentine, a catchy, mostly one-chord jam of sorts fueled by uneasily burning, multitracked guitar textures. Hada Ma Jari takes a spiky, upbeat detour into West African kora folk music. Une Dune Pour Deux sets a savagely spot-on French-language parable of divide-and-conquer politics to a more traditionally-oriented gnawa melody, driven by the gentle but resolute pulse of Sahmaoui’s bendir lute.

The album’s title track, another elegantly lyrical wartime parable, has an ominously slinky minor-key pulse to match, part defiant French chanson, part bristling Moroccan chaabi anthem. Water-line, a spiritually-infused escape anthem, makes catchy, jangly folk-rock out of a wistfully strolling chaabi theme. Jilala reverts to a scampering shuffle groove spiced with American hard funk and jamband rock.

Guest flamenco guitarist El Niño Josele‘s nimble, spiraling lines take centerstage throughout the album’s suspensefully cinematic, slowly unwinding, most epic track, Yasmine. Lawah-Lawah – a remake of Sahmaoui’s bitingly vamping hit Zawiya – rocks harder and is more straightforward than the original. Firdawss, with its rippling guitar lines, adds an uneasy art-rock edge to Malian duskcore.

Afro Maghrébin blends echoes of the jazz of Joe Zawinul – with whom Sahmaoui enjoyed a long collaboration – into North African folk. In a similar vein, the album’s last two tracks mash up soukous and gnawa: they seem tacked on rather than an integral part of this otherwise magnificently conceived, eclectic collection of songs.

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa Play a Rare US Show for Free at Lincoln Center

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa’s 2011 album is a lot closer to the rai-rock of Rachid Taha than the hypnotically bouncy Berber trance music popularized by Hassan Hakmoun. Sahmaoui – former frontman of the wildly popular French-Middle Eastern group  Orchestre Nationale de Barbes – and his band are playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors at 6:30 PM on Wednesday, July 31 on an excellent bill with shapeshifting desert blues collectives Tartit and Imharhan plus longtime Ali Farka Toure sideman Mamadou Kelly.

The crisp digital production of Sahmaoui’s album, which will no doubt be available at the merch table, separates everything carefully into its own place in the sonic picture: no doubt the band will sound more reckless and energetic onstage. Sahmaoui plays a museum’s worth of North African stringed instruments as well as acoustic and electric guitars, backed by multiple percussionists (and electric bass, when he isn’t playing the funky two-stringed bendir lute). The tracks intersperse spare, mantra-like traditional tunes within a mix of eclectic originals.

Beginning with a hypnotic, circular ngoni theme, the album gets rolling with its catchiest and arguably most haunting track, with a nod to the Clash’s Guns of Brixton. It’s a lament for a war-torn country as seen through the eyes of a young girl in the rubble of her home, reprised in a more spare, acoustic version at the end of the album. The fourth track, Kahina (Destiny), with its ominous chromatics and pensive antiwar lyric, is another standout. Samhaoui played in a late version of Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul’s band, so it’s no surprise to find a cover of Zawinul’s Black Market here, redone as swaying, surprisingly skeletal rai-rock. A couple of songs blend echoes of Malian desert blues with lilting soukous from further south. Sahmaoui uses catchy two-chord trip-hop vamps as palettes for layers and layers of tersely interwoven, tersely plucked melody.

Sahmaoui’s Arabic lyrics are excellent and often corrosive. A rough translation from the brooding anthem Miskina (The Empoverished):

Is it a miracle or a new religion?
We serve institutions
Accountants in collusion
And idiotic tv
On our knees before the screen,
Where once we got together
Electronic is the order of the day
It’s a universal problem
Books abandoned in their homes
Injustice on the horizon