Doueh, the guitarist and leader of Group Doueh, is Sahrawi, of the Western Sahara. The Sahrawi were displaced in the 1970s when Spain followed the death of Franco by throwing off its colonial holdings in North Africa. Different forces clashed over the newly unheld land and many of the Sahrawi ended up in refugee camps. Nubenegra’s Saharauis series, the most concentrated attempt by a European label to bring their music to the attention of the wider world, was recorded in these camps.
The members of Group Doueh live in Mauritania. So in a pedantic sense the band is Mauritanian, but its music doesn’t sound quite like the other Mauritanian music you might have heard, the Moorish kind performed on traditional instruments by Dimi Mint Abba and her husband Kalifa Ould Eide, or the Afro-Arab folk pop of Malouma. There are strong parallels between Doueh’s music and Dimi’s, but to a casual listener Group Doueh is more likely to suggest the Sahara blues of Tuareg groups like Tartit and Tinariwen: rolling, confident splashes of electric guitar, the clapping and chanting of women, the singular response of a man.
The most obvious difference between the albums from those bands and the current album from this one lies in the recording. The songs on Group Doueh were recorded by the group itself, “at home”, say the liner notes, “on modest cassette recording equipment”. But you don’t need to read the packaging to know that. All you need to do is listen. Different musicians seem to shriek noisily or fade out altogether, depending on their proximity to a single microphone. In parts of “Tirara” the women are heard as if they are in the distance, a faint ricochet of clapping sitting far back in the landscape of the song, while the tangled chainsaw of the guitar claws obtrusively across your ear. During “Eid el Arsh” the voice of one woman, who might be Doueh’s wife Halima, shoots forward with a metallic screech, followed by the guitar, which blots her out. She resurfaces when the guitar pauses, then disappears behind it, then surfaces again. Listening to this song is like listening to two people scream at one another, although there’s nothing in the tenor of the album to suggest that Doueh and the other members of his family band actually do scream at one another. Instead they have the same group-sound that usually winds its way through the roots music from this part of the world: everyone in the same snug room listening attentively for their cues and judging their tempo against the decisions of the others.
Sublime Frequencies appears to be acting as a conduit here, not a producer, not an intrusive presence, no nipping and tucking involved, no polishing or tidying. These were cassette-quality recordings to start with and that’s how they’ve stayed. Technically speaking, Group Doueh stands in relation to an album like Tinariwen’s Aman Iman as a studio rock album stands to a lo-fi indie release recorded in somebody’s garage. On the former the production tries to seem transparent, it wants to vanish so that you forget it’s there and imagine that the artist is singing directly to you. On the latter the production is sometimes all you can think about, the deficiencies of it, the way it alters the sound, the infidelities, the uncleanness, the grit. You become aware of the obstacle that sits between yourself and a living experience of the band, as you might become aware of the air you breathe only when the morning is foggy.
The liner notes hint that the members of Group Doueh prefer it this way. “As the group began to draw more attention [in the 1980s], recording offers came from the Moroccans and Europeans but all were refused. They soldiered on and recorded prodigiously at home.” Then again, the labels offering to record them might have been crooks, obvious exploiters, eager to make a quick buck and dump the band afterwards. I wonder what kind of money they’re getting for Group Doueh. A nice amount, I hope, since the album covers several decades of work, compiling songs from the 1980s along with more recent ones recorded in 2006. A New Wave percussion effect zoops into “Dun Dan” for no more than a few seconds and grounds the song weirdly in several places at once: the Arabic-sounding folk wail of the singing, the Hendrix jangle of the guitar, and then this breakthrough of dayglo light from a roller skating rink circa 1985. It’s in moments like this that Group Doueh overcomes the limitations of its recording style and startles you on its own terms. On the whole though, the style wins: too often on this album we’re left listening to the intrusions of the recording rather than the accomplishments of the band.