Ssahha! : An interview with Amino Belyamani


Groove defies logic. Musicians talk about “playing in the pocket,” but that proverbial place may not always lie where you expect. Just listen to the qraqeb, a metal percussion instrument featured on more than one track from Ssahha’s new album, Ummi. Groove cannot be calculated, only felt, and when it’s good, that feeling is sublime. By this measure, Ummi is preposterously funky and it should come as no surprise: Ssahha has a top-notch rhythm section. Within Ssahha’s personnel is the Axis Trio, a piano-bass-drums combo that has already recorded some very impressive work.

In more ways than one, Ummi is one of the most surprising and compelling albums of the year. The band’s unique sound comes from the combination of Middle Eastern instruments (members of Ssahha include world-renowned masters of North African and Persian music) and re-imagined Western instruments. Each player is a strand in a beautifully woven soundscape. On the ney, a Persian reed pipe, Houman Pourmehdi’s melodies are hauntingly voice-like. Amino Belyamani plays a piano that was specially tuned to produce melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music, allowing him to create a sound that is startling and original on a familiar instrument.

All but one of the tracks on the album were composed by Belyamani, a Moroccan pianist who now lives in New York City. It is no wonder that he is drawn to hypnotic rhythms: in Morocco, performers will groove all night in order to reach a trance state. With Ssahha, the groove isn’t the only hypnotic part of the music. Just listen to “Negsha,” Belyamani’s arrangement of a traditional Gnawa song; hear the call and response between the lead and chorus vocals and be hypnotized by its beauty and the way an old tradition is born anew.

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What does Ssahha mean? Also, how do you pronounce it?!

The band is called “SAH-ha;” the H is guttural. The literal word just means health. But it has a slang use: you know after a nice tune, in English you would say that was badass or sick! In Arabic, you would say Ssahha!

RC: You describe Ssahha as a North African ensemble. What musical styles and traditions does that encompass?

AB: North African means it’s a really rich palette of stuff: you have the Berbers, who are the indigenous people. They have a lot of different rhythm cycles and melodic structures. They have different maqams [scales in Arabic music], using different kinds of microtonal stuff. Then you have Gnawa, which is the music that West African slaves brought to North Africa, so that sounds much like West African music. Then you have the Arabic influence because of Islam, so you have the influence from the Ottoman Empire and so you have those kinds of scales. Also you have Andalusian music, which is the music between the 8th and 12th centuries of the Moorish empire that extended up to Spain. Andalusian music also has its own rhythmic cycles and melodic structures.

This album seems to represent a moment in your musical life where many of your interests are finally converging. At a time when, for many artists, finding one’s voice involves dealing with a very wide scope of influences, it is thrilling to hear someone like you who pulls it off. How did you come to tie everything together?

I grew up with all of that [North African traditions] but I never considered it music because I grew up playing classical piano, so that for me was music because it’s serious. Everything else was wedding music or party music and it wasn’t until I got to CalArts that I realized that this music is so rich! I’ve always loved listening to world music but prior to CalArts, I never took it to the point of really playing it because I was obsessed with learning jazz and improvisation. I’m that kind of a person — whatever I do, I am obsessed with it. During that time period, I loved to listen at home to world music and Moroccan music, but I never really considered playing it or writing music in that idiom.

Eventually, I got tired of jazz; I was so obsessed with it, that I got to a point of saturation. Since I lost that thrill, I needed to search for another one. I started doing more improvisation but not in the jazz idiom, for example with the Dawn of Midi trio. With Dawn of Midi I started getting more of a thrill but there was still this bug in me about the world music stuff that wasn’t accomplished. So after learning classical as a child, and then learning jazz as a young adult, and then getting away from that and moving more into contemporary sounding music, I went back to the world music and I have all of that in me now. If I had played world music before I learned jazz, it wouldn’t sound like this album, for sure.

I imagine there’s also something very personal about this album; with the Moroccan influence, does it feel like you’re bringing the music home in a way?

Absolutely. One direct connection is that the album name is Ummi, which literally means mother, but in my family it’s actually the name we attributed to my grandmother. She passed away last year and it was in the midst of my research and compositional process for this album so I dedicated it to her. My grandmother was very old school. Sometimes she would come to the house and stay with us for two weeks at a time. She would see me practice classical piano and she would always joke and be like, “stop playing that nonsense! That’s not music!” And I would always have these arguments with her and be like, “that’s very serious music, grandma!” She’s like, “no, music is like this,” and she would point to Moroccan music or anything that was folk and danceable, and I was just too young to understand.

So that’s the first direct connection, why this album is attributed to her, because she was right from the beginning, although I don’t regret learning classical and going that route. Also, she was really an amazing figure in our family. She was like the godfather of the family, even though she was the grandmother. It’s a very a deep connection I had with her — I loved her so much. The opening track of the album, a piano solo, is entirely for her.

The single traditional Moroccan piece on your album, and the only track that you did not compose, is “Negsha”. “Negsha” lies right in the middle of the album and it is such a beautiful song. What is the meaning of the words and how did you choose to arrange it?

It’s a song of the Gnawa people that has always spoken to me very deeply. I always loved it and could sing along to it more than some of the other ones. The words are praising God and the Prophet. The Gnawas usually do an all-night event of music and this is the song that opens up the night — the slow grooving one. It’s very Sufi in a way that’s very trance-y so that you start getting in the mood for what they call lila. Lila is the night of Gnawa playing; they play from sunset to sunrise, basically.

Do you ever strive for that trance state in your own approach to performance and improvisation?

I do, and I always want to go there. I never get there because I think the main ingredient to really get there is repetition and rhythm. In improvisation, you can have repetition but you never get to that same level of trance because it’s not the same. But I always seek it. A lot of times when I play a concert, from beginning to end I have my eyes closed. Just because of that, you already go somewhere else, and then it depends on the music and the listening level of that night. I always seek that trance element but never reach it unless I’m really playing repetitive music.

RC: What was your compositional process for the album? I imagine it started with a lot of research in order to work in those North African scales and tunings.

I would say the research really started when I was still in Los Angeles. I started this research in April ’09, so three months before I moved to New York. I was just doing transcribing and tuning with Logic [music software] to find exactly the ratios and the real intervals: with the Logic window of the tuning system open all the time, I would then open iTunes and play Egyptian music, Moroccan music, Syrian music, Palestinian music, all sorts of music from the Arab and North African world. Then I would loop sections so I could find exactly the number of cents it was deviated. It’s never really a quarter tone — its just theory when you say quarter tone. A real quarter tone is 50 cents but I found it’s never a quarter tone. It all varies from 25 cents to 45 and they are all consistent within their thing. I learned so much from that!

So that was the first process of research — doing transcribing and tuning. Then I started writing snippets of melodies based on my comprehension from all these months of how they used tetrachords with these microtones: in terms of tension and resolution, and in terms of rules just like in jazz — playing the chord progression. Because that’s the thing: in Arabic music there’s no such thing as playing vertical harmony. It’s all horizontal harmony and all the research I did built up this unconscious understanding of that because I listened so much. So I started writing these snippets of melodies and over a six-month period of time I then started sticking them all together. It was like, “all right! That’s one tune,” and “ok that’s another one.”

What was your process of becoming comfortable with the language of North African melody on the piano? For example, mastering the phrasing and ornamentation.

It was all part of the transcribing process. I basically tried to transcribe mainly flutes and ouds to get the technique of the ornamentation down. The flutes were the hardest to transcribe because they have so many crazy ornaments! Sometimes it was impossible to get it on piano so I made my version of those ornaments. But sometimes I could figure it out and straight up learned how to play those kind of ornaments or kind of accents, like gracenotes and subtle accidentals right around the notes. I practiced that a lot in the transcribing process. I would also practice looping a groove, for example the Samai [track 4], I would put in logic two bars of the ten-beat cycle, looped with some kind of a simple bass motion in that key and start improvising to see if I could land in the resolution, on beat one or on another beat. I would mess up, and then figure it out, and then I would start noticing that there are certain patterns. For example, you anticipate — you know if you’re going to do a descent starting on the minor sixth, there’s a certain rhythm you need to do to land on the tonic by beat one.

How did you choose the tuning for the piano?

I had to figure out which notes I could retune and still get a variety of modes, and I ended up tuning only two notes. However, this solution did not work with the Gnawa song, “Negsha”. So, every other track uses one piano in one tuning, while “Negsha” is with a different piano because I could not find a compromise. All the other tracks, it’s E and B that are retuned; E is 33 cents flat and B is 35 cents flat. That way, in between E and B is a beatless fifth. With this tuning, I managed to get a variety of traditional modes. However on track 7, “Triq Akchor”, the tuning is solely experimental; I did it in F minor pentatonic but using the E quartertone so it sounds kind of out! This tuning is kind of a hybrid — I don’t think any culture really uses that scale. It’s experimental but it still sounds very traditional because of the groove. That’s what I noticed — if you have a traditional groove under anything, it won’t sound experimental!

Since you didn’t have a retuned piano on hand while you researched this album, how did you practice?

It was entirely on a MIDI keyboard unfortunately! Even when we rehearsed in New York with half of the band, I set up my MIDI keyboard and speakers. It was terrible sounding but it was just to work on grooves. A week before the recording, the pianos were available for me to use. Alan Eder [the piano tuner] did a great job and helped me out by making them available.

I’m very curious about Track 3. What is the meaning of its title, “1833?”

1833 is the Slavery Abolition Act. When I was writing the melody, it gave me this feeling of the joy of when the African people finally knew that there would be no slavery.

What about the voices that you sampled on this track?

They’re unrelated to the title! The vocals are these two comedians in Marrakesh — I think they’re dead now or very old, it was back in the 80s. They used to just go in the streets and do improv, one after the other. He would just say something and he would reply back and forth and I have this archived recording of them. When I would hear it I was like, “this is so rhythmic! I’m sure if I layer it on top of what we did, it will work!” And I layered it one day and I was like, I’m keeping this!

But the freak thing of this whole track is the appearance of Pedro Eustache on Berber flute! Pedro is Venezuelan and he’s this freak of woodwinds! He came to the recording session, and in thirty minutes recorded one take. He’s super hard to get a hold of — he’s touring non-stop. Literally, the day before we recorded, he was in Tunisia. Up until the day before we recorded, I wasn’t sure he was going to make it. At the last second, he calls me and he’s like “send me the MIDI file — I’ll be able to come between noon and two.” He shows up right at noon; he shows me the Berber flute and shows me how he can match the piano quartertones. I was already blown away — it was exactly the same. And then he’s like “all right, roll it!” We gave it to him, one take, and then he left. I’m really excited that he came through on that track because he’s the one who really makes it shine!

I enjoy hearing the Axis Trio play in a new context, with additional instrumentalists. How would you describe the character of this new group compared to your other bands?

It’s really rich, in a way that the sounds marry really well; like the oud and the piano — I think that’s one of the best marriages. And the ney, even alone it is an amazing instrument, but in this band it works really well.

How do you hear Sam and Qasim, the other members of Axis Trio, adjust to this new group?

Just like any time that something is new and really exciting, they bring a fresh element; like Qasim plays stuff that I have never really heard him play. And the same with Sam — he’s starting to let loose on certain tracks already so I imagine if we would go on tour, he’d be even more free to go out of what I told him to play.

It sounds like Qasim did some preparations to his kit. What am I hearing?

Well on certain tracks, I asked him to tune the toms to the specific pitches of the buzzing frame drum. When we were rehearsing, I heard these conflicting things and I said on those tracks, tune it exactly to the fifth or the octave. Also, throughout rehearsals, Qasim figured out on each track what to use — what kind of toys, what kind of snare sound. He worked a lot on it.

Almost all of the musicians in Ssahha you met when you studied at Calarts. How did you meet Brahim Fribgame?

I met Brahim through Houman. One day, I was in Brooklyn and I get a call from Houman from LA, and he’s like, “Amino, let me pass you to someone on the phone.” He gives me this guy and he starts talking to me in Moroccan. I say, “where do you live?” He’s said “I live in Astoria,” and I’m like “oh, I live in Brooklyn!” and that’s how easy it was. We met up in New York; he actually came to see an Axis Trio show and that’s how we met up the first time. He loved it and he said, “to tell you the truth, when Houman said there’s this Moroccan musician, I thought ‘I don’t know!’ but when I saw you guys, it was really great. We should play together.” I said, “all right, well I have a project here and I need you. Are you willing to?” And he was really excited. We started rehearsing in New York and then we came to LA. That’s how I met this guy and he’s unbelievable!

Houman Pourmehdi is a master of Persian music. What is the connection between Persian and Moroccan music? How do you guys bridge those cultures?

The common denominator between Moroccan and Persian music and between my own feeling of music and Houman’s music is the trance element. Houman is a Sufi — it is a branch of Islam — and it is entirely based on getting drunk on music, that’s the point. That’s who he is and most of the influences I brought to this album are from trance or Sufi elements. He picked it up immediately and he actually told me on many of the tracks while we were rehearsing, like “oh that’s from the Southeastern region of Iran!” or “this one is the mountains near Kurdistan!” So that explains why he felt so comfortable playing in those grooves and in those scales.

What’s next for this group?

Touring with this band! I don’t want it just to be a project of recording because it’s so fun and these people are so fun! I went on tour with Brahim in Senegal in December and he’s so fun to hang out with! And Houman is hilarious; just Monday I was hanging out with him all day at his house, cooking Persian food, and he just so funny. I know if I go on tour with these guys, it’s just going to be really good times! So that’s the next step I’m really looking forward to. And after that, obviously write more for this band — keep writing!

I’m curious about the title of the last track, “Water Get More Enemy.”

It’s obviously an allusion to Fela Kuti’s song, “Water Get No Enemy.” It is in the same key as “1833,” the same kind of pentatonic scale, so it reminded me of that same emotion: that joyous feeling, but also kind of an angry joy. I know that everybody is talking about oil being the main resource in this world and that’s why there are all these wars, and these politicians going crazy because of oil. Yes it is oil, but I believe that it is beyond oil. It’s actually water; water is the real resource that people are really fighting for and they’re not really talking about that! Because the melody gives me that feeling of fighting but still being proud, it reminded me of Fela because he was that kind of a guy! Also, because of the way Qasim plays the fills — it’s very afrobeat-ish — I was like, ‘It’s perfect!’ I’ll just call it Water Get More Enemy, because that’s really what we’re fighting about in these present modern-day wars. It’s really about water instead of about oil!

With all of the demonstrations and protests going on today in the Middle East, what do you think is the role of music throughout all of this?

I think music and art is the most important thing in these moments. We’ve noticed it throughout history: art has always been the one that really triggers or in a way supports a change or a revolution because people are going to try new things, and are going to want to marry ideas. SSAHHA is basically an example because I’m marrying a lot of different stuff. Also the fact that I’m working with all of these different nationalities, although it might sound cheesy, it’s to show that we’re all the same and let’s just get along! I think music and art has a huge role in these moments. When I was in Dubai [at an arts festival], I noticed that almost every other project there was based on these recent revolutions. You can see that’s the place art has — it’s to question things and to provoke and stir up! It’s really important.