‘Perception Bias’ is a much-discussed term nowadays, and I believe that it applies to music almost as much as it does to culture, society and race. After all, we here in the Anglosphere tend to associate African music with desert blues and Afro-beat, with massed voices and a sense of raw energy, with hand percussion and skin drums and thumb pianos, with the sounds of the desert and the sounds of the savannah. What we don’t tend to associate it with are synthesisers and drum machines and what the kids might call ‘bangin’ beats,’ despite any prior experience with the incredibly varied genres that span the continent. Perhaps it’s just the human way of pigeonholing what exists around us, as a way of making some sense of the vastness of the world; or perhaps it’s more like a form of perceptual laziness, whereby we fall into tired old assumptions when our concentration slips.
But no matter, for Jeich Ould Badu and Ahmedou Ahmed Lewla easily challenge this bias with the release of Top WZN, a showcase of contemporary Mauritian music known as ‘alwazan’ or ‘wezen’ (hence WZN).
Literally translating as ‘rhythm,’ alwazan/wezen is an instrumental form typically featuring Arabic-moded quarter-tone synthesisers, lutes and electric guitars and tidnits, and electronic drums and drum machines. Springing from the traditional ceremonial and wedding music of Mauritia, it reflects the influence of music from the Anglosphere without losing sight of its roots. When performed by master practitioners such as Jeich Ould Badu and Ahmedou Ahmed Lewla, it is a frantic and joyous thing, driven and upbeat and perfect for parties.
Opening track ‘Erkiz’ is 5-minutes of musical insanity, a faster-than-fast 12/8 beat made of drums machines and handclaps underpinning an in-your-face melody that never seems to settle on one motif but instead runs through phrases and octaves as wildly as the rhythm section beneath it are frenetic. ‘Chima’ is relatively restrained in comparison, featuring a dialogue between guitar and lute carried along by a shuffling, start-stop rhythm full of ear-candy. ‘Loubs’ is almost metal in its approach, a heavy half-time beat serving as a bedrock for the interweaving guitars, lutes and synthesisers, which run through their lines and phrases at such a speed it’s almost as if taking it easy was a crime. ‘El Wehcha’ is perhaps the most traditional-sounding track, its drum machines closely approximating real drums and percussion, its synthesiser work treated to sound more like a live instruments, the whole thing crowned by airy interplay between lute and tidnit.
Top WZN is a monster. If you’re at all interested in world music or African music, it’s a must.