Chaabi grooves
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Chaabi grooves

Bab L'Bluz's latest release Swaken blends psych rock with North African flavours

Chaabi grooves
Swaken album cover.

Morocco and southern Spain were favourite destinations when I was a student in Manchester in the 1970s. We could get a cheap package tour flight to Alicante, ditch the package holiday, jump on a bus to Malaga and then onto Algeciras to take a ferry to Tangiers. We left behind the (more often than not) rainy skies of Manchester for the piercing azure of Morocco's open vistas.

There was music, too. Gnawa in Marrakesh, a rootsy mesmerising trance-like dance groove that dates back to an era when slaves were brought from West Africa, and Berber music that is found in the mountains of North Africa. Old recordings from American writer and composer Paul Bowles, who lived more than 50 years in Tangiers, piqued my interest in Berber music, in particular. And, of course, most of my generation were familiar with the recording made by Brian Jones, then of The Rolling Stones, by The Master Musicians of Joujouka -- currently led by Bachir Attar. In 2014, The Road To Jajouka was released with guest appearances by Ornette Coleman and Bill Laswell.

On my trips to southern Spain and Morocco, I also heard for the first time a fusion music drawn from both Hispanic and North African (Berber and Arabic) that originated in Andalusia, which draws on Arabo-Andalusian, medieval Spanish, Ladino (Jewish-Spanish), North African and Arabic rhythms. In recent years, jazz, Western rock, classical and south Indian have also featured.

You can sample some of the historical roots of this kind of music on a compilation of Paul Bowles' field recordings from 1959, Music Of Morocco (Dust-to-Digital), a 4-CD boxed set, and also on The Rough Guides To The Music Of Morocco.

North Africa in general has embraced rock with local vernacular styles. While not a fan of rock music, I have seen some excellent Algerian rock bands at festivals over the years. Morocco also has a lively rock scene and in 2020, I featured the French-Moroccan band Bab L'Bluz and their award-winning debut studio album Nayda! (Real World, UK). The band has followed that up with a sublime release, Swaken (Real World), which ranks top on the Transglobal World Music Chart for June.

The band was founded by singer Yousra and French musician Brice Bottin who plays the electric gimbri (gnawa three-stringed bass lute). The new album develops the band's rocking, trancey, driving rhythms with a musical tajine that features gnawa, the popular street music called chaabi, Hassani and Houri music, and more than a few nods to Hendrix and local rockers Nass El Ghiwane. In the world of chaabi, the album's title Swaken means to visit another dimension.

The album kicks off with an homage to diversity on Imazighen and is followed by drum-driven ode to solidarity Wahia Wahia. The beautiful Hassani love song Zaino follows. You can hear echoes of Tunisia and Algeria on AmmA but my favourites on the album are Bangoro, which would not be out of place on a compilation of West African psych rock from the 1970s, and IWAIWA FUNK, based on music from the high Atlas Mountains. I suspect, though, that many folks will go for the song that tells about "what goes around, comes around" -- called, appropriately, Karma.

I'm still enjoying the surprises from this album. It has an urgency that seems totally in synch with the perilous times we live in. More information available at

Another Moroccan band I've written about recently is Asmaa Hamzaoui & Bnat Timbouktou. The band also plays gnawa music but unlike Bab L'Bluz, the sound is more traditional and features amazing vocals with lyrics that focus on women working in the gnawa tradition. Their new album L'bnat is a follow-up from Oulad Ighaba, which was released to great acclaim in 2019.

One album of Moroccan fusion that readers may have missed is the amazing meeting of musical minds between a valiha (bamboo Malagasy zither) player Rajery, oud (Arabic lute) player Driss El Maloumi from Morocco and 21-string African kora player Ballake Sissoko on Anarouz, released on the 3MA label in 2018. Outstanding.

John Clewley can be contacted at

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