[20 May 2008]
Ever since the term “world music” was first exploited to market home-grown music abroad, its audiences have been steadily altering the nature of that music as we know it. It’s like the observer effect in quantum physics: by observing something, we end up changing it. Especially when there’s money involved. At this point, to the ears of the international market, Algerian pop may actually come from Paris. One example of many: Rachid Taha, who moved to France at age ten, has become a megastar of contemporary Algerian music. On his modern masterpiece, 2006’s Diwan 2, he yet again reinvented what it means to be North African or Arab (not to mention French) in the modern world. The disc was not just popular, it was incredibly powerful. But does it deserve the Algeria tag? Maybe Egypt would work better? Or France? Perhaps those labels just don’t work very well any more. But the process continues.
Think Of One is a Belgian “collective”, based in Antwerp but prefering to call the world its home, and Morocco is as good a stop as any. Here the band visits Shaâbi music, an urban party style whose Arabic name means, “of the people.” The hallmark 6/8 Berber rhythm, houariyat group vocals, melismatic, minor-key melodies, handclapping, and chant-like refrains dot the landscape. All the elements are there, really—instruments, voices, melodies, rhythms, styles—and they’re completely authentic, as far as I can tell. They’re just ripped out of place, mixed up, and fused with funk, hip-hop, keyboards, horns, beats, and heavily layered production. Leader and composer David Bovée is the main man at the helm (think now, folks: does a collective have a leader?) and half the songs are new. The rest are revisited pieces from previous out of print albums.
This particular hybrid deserves credit for how really mixed up it is, and there’s an adventurous vibe to that approach. But it’s still a Europeanized version of Moroccan popular music, and as such, it’s far more European than Moroccan, even if the instruments and voices regularly assert otherwise. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s just way too decadent for me. Give me the real thing—or at least meet it halfway. That’s what Taha did. I know the title says it’s only “camping,” but I have the feeling that these musical nomads knew in advance that they were going to leave and go home. Cynical thinking? The band’s stated aim, “to get many of us Westerners deeply addicted to the groove of Shaâbi,” will probably work. But this one would rather that groove be packaged a little less comfortably in the familiar Western mold.
Track four takes a detour into hip-hop, a big fat male finger pointed at the “worldwide oppressor of music in the name of the holy crown.” Whoa! I think the lyrics are meant as a form of social protest, but they come across as dated, unselfconsciously ironic, and/or patently absurd, depending on your point of view. Colonialism has its legacies, but dropping by Morocco to lift some local music and musicians, then framing them in the European pop mold sounds a bit too close to the archetypal colonial legacy for me, whether or not anyone’s actually being oppressed in the process (which is clearly not the case). In the interests of full disclosure, two members of the group, twins actually, are Belgian Moroccans from nearby Brussels.
To be fair, this is all a matter of taste and perspective. The disc is consistently groovy; each song is built around a different twist of tradition and pop, and as a whole, they’re affable, danceworthy, and engaging. A catchy keyboard-driven electro chant gets things started with call-and-response vocals that worm their way into your head, bursting out of interludes and shimmying back and forth. Keyboards, horns, and string washes return several times down the road to swirl around lyrics in Arabic, French, English, and Flemish, occasionally bathed in reverb and echo, as hip-hop, metal, punk, electro, and other forms of contemporary Western pop surge to hand-clapping highs and dip to ground danceworthy beats.
The soft romanticism of “Fantôme” (complete with strings, horns, and brief surf guitar) contrasts sharply with the distortion, power chords and Mr. Bungle-like wackiness of “Hamdushi Five”. The male voice on the title track, punctuated by irregular electronic beats, mumbles, “leave the music on, turn the volume up”, though the rest of the track doesn’t justify this exhortation nearly as much as the others do.
It’s hard to beat up on fun, engaging, energizing music like this, and in many ways it’s out of place. But I just can’t shake that overarching Euro-pop mindset, and that pretty much ruins the experience for me.