Maurice Louca is an exceptional composer and performer, who has become a prominent figure of the Egyptian experimental music scene. He has collaborated with some fantastic artists, such as Nadah El Shazly on her seminal record Ahwar, and most famously he has been a member of the mystical act the Dwarfs of East Agouza, whose free-jazz explorations have trespassed into the realm of spiritual, traditional middle-Eastern and Arabic music. But Louca has also been active on his own and through the years he has released some excellent works, with his experimental electronic debut Salute the Parrot and the follow-up Lekhfa, which found him exploring world music, rock, and electronic motifs.
The transition from debut to sophomore was substantial for Louca, and he performs another impressive move with his upcoming full-length Elephantine. In his new work Louca tilts much further towards the jazz side. Working with a 12-piece ensemble, Louca attempts to bridge the elements of jazz music, from the free improvisational side to the more mellow and smooth qualities of the genre, with elements of African music, Arabic melodies, and a subtle minimalistic touch.
What is prevalent through this work is the hazy, dreamlike sceneries that Louca brings to life. This aspect arrives in full view with the start of “The Leper” as the beautiful guitar melodies build this mystical experience, while the percussion takes an improvisational approach before turning to a more ritualistic pace. The Arabic element provides in big part this otherworldly experience, infecting and altering the sonic landscapes. “The Palm of a Ghost” sees this adaptation come full circle as the ritualistic progression and the hypnotizing vocals create this oasis within the desert-like scenery.
But in Elephantine one dimension tends to bleed into the others, and that expands the range of the record. The more traditional, folky side is visited in “One More for the Gutter”, taking on a more subtle characteristic with the acoustic guitar, while the saxophone is let loose upon the background. What is really impressive here is the ability of Louca to switch gears and using the exploratory jazz side to alter the tone of the track, driving it away from its traditional roots and moving it towards a cosmic a la Sun Ra space.
With this process of transformation what is impressive is the range of emotions that Elephantine transmits. A track such as “Laika” showcases how it is possible for Louca to pass from one mode to the next, starting off with a maniacal saxophone rendition, morphing into an Arabic-style phrase, and then retreating to repetitive motifs in order to enhance this magical experience. The versatility of the jazz renditions further lifts this endeavor, with the ensemble capable of taking on a more laid back vibe, even when the instrumentation becomes busier, as is the case in the opening track. The minimal motifs of Louca fall right into this side, slowly constructing the soundscapes and making this experience richer. On the other hand, the ensemble also dives into some more complex renditions with the second part of “One More for the Gutter” presenting a more grand vision from Louca, something that occurs in an even more towering fashion with “Al Khawaga”.
Elephantine sees a point of further evolution for Louca’s vision. Stepping more firmly in the cosmic jazz realm he has been able to still retain the traditional elements of his music and his minimalistic and exploratory aspects. Considering his previous works, Elephantine stands as his most accomplished moment so far.