Whilst in Morocco a few years ago I caught some Gnawa trance music at a sacred music festival, which with its repetitive chanting and metal castanets is one of the more unique spiritual trance musics around. In 2015 James Holden, Floating Points, Vessel and Biosphere went to Marrakech and attempted to collaborate with Gnawa trance musician Maâlem Mahmoud Guinia. The results were curiously disappointing as these predominantly electronic producers couldn’t seem to find a way in, and their interventions just served to water down both traditions.
The Djerid is in southern Tunisia and their yearly festival, the Banga ritual of Sidi Marzûq forms the basis for Ifriqiyya Electrique’s debut album. Between the chanting, the castanets and percussion there are real links to Morocco’s Gnawa trance musicians, though what makes Ifriqiyya Electrique so fascinating is the presence of French guitarist, field recordist and nomad Francois Cambuzat (Putan Club) who’s overarching project Trans Aeolian Transmission has seen him visit China, central Asia, Turkey and now Tunisia in order to record and collaborate with local musicians, searching for emotional connection and transcendence. He’s joined by Italian bassist and founder of Putan Club Gianna Greco who herself had spent time in Tunisia in 2011. What’s interesting about both these artists is their decision to eschew the normal routes of performing and releasing music. Both spent considerable time in Tunisia connecting with local people, understanding and experiencing the culture. And this is the difference between Holden et al’s forays into Morocco – for the electronic producers there was no emotional connection – rather a fly in fly out musical problem to be solved.
Cambuzat and Greco attended and recorded at the festival, and this is where it gets interesting, adding bass, guitar and electronics, creating in Cambuzat’s words, a ‘post industrial ceremony.’ Having experienced the power of the ritual, understandably their intrusions are subtle, aimed at enhancing the ecstatic nature of the music. Thus they build up the bottom end, or mine the resonances of the room to launch cosmic electrical assaults, enhancing the natural dynamics of the music, almost focussing it more clearly, and using technology to cut through some of the muddiness in the recordings or strengthening the punch that’s already there. Then there’s their use of the stereo field, which again only enhances the power and the texture of the music.
The voices, krakebs and Tunisian tablas come from three members of the Banga community, Tarek Sultan, Yahia Chouchen and Youssef Ghazala, with a fourth, Ali Chouchen, providing vocals and nagharat on the record itself. Their devotional chanting is powerful life affirming stuff, and when they combine you realise that no other instrument is necessary, such is their power and dexterity.
It’s the most unusual combination. Sufi Spiritual music meets Ministry or perhaps Nine Inch Nails. It’s a place where programmed drums and squalling guitar can meet devotional chanting and hand percussion. And frankly that’s a place that doesn’t make sense. Of course industrial music has its own ritualistic codes, bleak dystopian and hedonistic associations, yet Cambuzat and Greco ignore this and instead elect to allow the Tunisian artists to provide the cultural associations, and their industrial additions perform strictly musical functions a chugging beat or bassline, the piercing guitar.
To be honest I can’t work out if this is sacrilege or genius. I think it might be both. I’ve sat with this for a long time, and all I can say is that it is fascinating and challenging music. It feels like a shot across the bow, with ecstatic traditions dragged into a semi industrial environment in order to create new traditions, a new kind of worship. Regardless it’s safe to say that you have never heard music like this before. It’s blown my mind. I can’t see why it wont blow yours.