New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: Aziz Sahmaoui

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.

The Caravan for Peace Takes Over Lincoln Center

“We’re the Caravan for Peace,” Malian desert blues band Imharhan‘s frontman Mohamed Issa told the crowd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors earlier tonight. He paused. “You know, you can’t have development without peace.” He was speaking in French. But someone must have advised him what the average income is in zip code 10023. And he was speaking to it. The French have a word for it: BCBG.

A bit earlier, longtime Ali Farka Toure guitarist Mamadou Kelly told the crowd how hard the past year had been for his fellow Malians. But he and the rest of the Caravan for Peace were clearly glad to be out of the line of fire, whether here or elsewhere. That’s the benefit of being a musician lucky enough to be chosen for this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. Even by cynical New York standards, this year’s festival is an event not to be missed: the remaining concerts are here, and the Malians travel to Littlefield this Saturday, August 3 where you can watch Tartit play the roots of desert blues and then transform into Imharhan, a current-day electric band, plus sets by Kelly and luminous South Asian ghazal chanteuse Kiran Ahluwalia for a very worthwhile eighteen bucks.

That Tartit aka Imharhan have women in the band may seem almost expected in 2013, but remember that this group comes from a culture where Islamic extremism has wreaked even more havoc than Christian extremism has here. To put it in better perspective: the first successful all-female American rock band, the Go Go’s, are playing Coney Island tomorrow night. Tartit opened the night with spare, acoustic one-chord jams animated by a lot of call-and-response and ecstatically shrieking woo-woo-woo-woo-woo’s to bring a chorus over the edge. Their electric side turns what they do into Tuareg folk-rock: long jams driven by resonant, reverb-drenched electric guitar spiked with nimble hammer-on riffs and more of the same vocals. Issa offered insight into why their music drifts and wanders like it does: “In the desert, there’s no electric power. Just sand dunes, and the sky and the moon.”

Where Imharhan stuck to the roots, Kelly was clearly amped to show how diverse Malian music has become. He and his band – spiky lute, terse bass, and deep muddy calabash drum – opened with a brightly attractive song that worked an American folk-rock lick. Later on Kelly vamped through bluesy riffage that either predated John Lee Hooker or was nicked from him – or maybe both: this music brings the African influence on the guitar full circle. He went to the north for swaying camelwalking grooves and to the south for funkier rhythms, all the while airing out his bottomless bag of hypnotic yet biting licks. And he’s a funny guy – thinking his show was over, he told his band to pack it in, building to a big crescendo. Then he learned they had four more songs, grinned and launched back into another long, slow upward trajectory.

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa headlined. Sahmaoui earned a worldwide cult following in the now-legendary French/Middle Eastern Orchestre Nationale de Barbes, and he played a few of that band’s long, crescendoing anthems to an ecstatic crowd massed in front of the stage, his fellow Algerians alongside French and Americans in a scene that Frantz Fanon would never have envisioned in his wildest dreams. The band felt the moment – it was their New York debut, after all – and rose to the occasion. Who knew that kora player Cheikh Diallo was also an excellent keyboardist, as adept at reggae as gnawa rhythms? Their bassist grinned and switched in a split-second from warm lead guitar lines to growly, snapping funk interspersed with evil, booming chords. The most jaw-dropping solos of the night were taken by Sahmaoui’s astonishingly good acoustic lead guitarist, firing off barrages of biting, terse, flamenco-tinged lines and then finally a whirlwind of hauntingly modal tremolo-picking, somehow managing not to break a string as he impersonated a guitar army.

Depending on the song, the crowd either sang along or didn’t. The Americans couldn’t cut it on the vocalese or the Arabic (Sahmaoui energizing the audience in Arabic, French, Spanish, English and possibly multiple other dialects),  but the home country posse swayed and roared as the anthems reached sudden, towering heights. Sahmaoui stuck mostly to his low-register, two-string bendir lute, playing nimble oud on a couple of songs including the haunting Makhtoube (“Destiny”), a grueling chronicle of wartime destruction as seen through a child’s eyes. Through bouncy, hypnotic call-and-response gnawa rock, then rising to stadium levels, Sahmaoui had come to bring the Arab Spring to New York and reaffirmed its power and honor for everyone who could understand it, whether or not they knew what he was talking about.

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