Little can prepare you for when you first hear French/Tunisian ensemble Ifriqiyya Electrique. They’re big bombastic dark and ritualistic, an all encompassing amalgamation of traditional Tunisian incantations, Banga percussion and qraqebs (castanets), alongside decidedly western heavy metal bass, guitar and post punk industrial percussion. It’s huge and ridiculous, a marriage that makes no sense at all yet burrows down into your consciousness until you find yourself fist in the air head-banging along to their unique blend of sonic madness. It’s unrelenting and hypnotic. Their first album, 2017’s Ruwahine was like nothing else around, while their second album, last years Laylet el Booree, or Night of Madness upped the stakes. It’s the most metal tribal music you will ever hear.
It’s genesis itself occurred by accident when Parisian musicians François Cambuzat and Gianna Greco from the post punk Putan Club found themselves in the remote Djerid desert in southern Tunisia living amongst the descendants of African slaves, where they were lucky enough to witness the ritual, and recorded the music. Initially recorded solely for their own interest, over time they began collaborating with the musicians and this unique hybrid was born. With their imminent trip to perform in Australia next month at Womadelaide, Cyclic Defrost had the opportunity to discuss the project with founder Cambuzat. We began by expressing our admiration that music so strange and beautiful could even exist in this world.
François Cambuzat: Well we didn’t look for it and it was not made on purpose. At the very beginning it was just personal research from Gianna the bass player and me. We thought about it from when we were kids and when we are playing music, especially in public on stage we feel that the body is not feeling anymore anything, like when you have a big pain like a toothache or a fever. So once when a friend told us about these communities in the desert we said well, we are playing there touring a lot in Africa with another project, so lets go and see how they do that. And that’s how it starts, just a personal workshop.
So the first attempt was to learn the music then do some field recordings and the writing it on the computer to know where it was slowing down and accelerating and so on, where were the musical bars. And then playing the ritual in the desert. And then it was done for us. And of course the movie was kind of a notebook for us, but it was not meant to be a band. And we were quite surprised that it was accepted by the western world. Because when we published the first extract of the images of the videos, lots of festivals asked us to perform. The first reaction was no. We were fearing that money would bring problems and the light on the community could change the music like the Gnawa in Morocco where the music is great but the spirituality is lost.
Cyclic Defrost: I spent some time in Joujouka in Morocco and I saw the impact Western interest and money can have, how in some ways it can make life better but in others more complex and more political.
François Cambuzat: Exactly. I think its very dangerous. That’s why the first reaction to the festivals was to say no to everything. But then we thought that the music is not ours, lets ask the old guy who was in charge. This time we were in Tunisia in the desert with the Banga and we told him, it’s going to bring money and light on the community but its also your music so you should decide. We are living there, we are your neighbours, we are 20 metres from your house, we are there for months, so lets think about it for a month, take a decision in a month. We met everyday and after a month he told us I understand everything but it will make some good for the community. He was right in that sense, because from that moment the only Tunisian project, the only Maghrebi project travelling all around the world was from their community. That is very ostracised because the music is coming from the former slaves, brought by the Arabs when they invaded Maghreb. That was good but other did bring all the problems we talked about. But he knew, we all knew that was good and terrible.
Cyclic Defrost: So do you believe that the success of the music has brought more understanding of their culture and respect in Tunisia as well as outside?
François Cambuzat: Success in Tunisia of Ifriqiyya Electrique brought a lot. Now they are really respected and actually the people in Tunisia didn’t know about the music, so it was very good. Outside of Tunisia I don’t know what to say, that the project had lots of success.
Cyclic Defrost: Maybe its people like me who are just confused by the music that we want to know more.
François Cambuzat: Maybe its because this project wasn’t meant to be commercialised and marketed and so on. When we did the second album it was like ‘what are we gonna do?’ I spent a whole year asking why do you like this? It’s so strange, I’m not used to that. So then at the end when we had to do it, because people from the community wanted to do it, we said lets do like we did.
So field recordings, working on that, not changing one note, or one word from the field recordings keeping all the tempos decelerating and accelerating and so on. And we were like ‘who cares?’ If its going well great and if not who cares? It’s not about how many records or concerts we’re gonna do, why we are doing this? For Gianna and me it’s very clear. It’s for learning, so we kept on learning. But then we wanted to learn more. Getting into the Maghreb stuff we understand the Gnawa, the Diwan, the Banga, they were all neighbours former slave community and coming for sure from the same area of deep Africa of black Africa. It was still research to know more about this. That’s all. What we want is to learn and if we sell it who cares? We are from many different other projects, it was not money, being greedy or surfing the wave or whatever I really don’t care, I’m happy with the life I’m doing I have all the money I need to pay the rent and bills and after that, success if just, not my interest. I prefer really to go into Tajikistan Dushanbe with no money. Festivals are great but it’s not the goal. The goal is somewhere else.
Cyclic Defrost: So what is it that interests you about the music of different cultures?
François Cambuzat: The social role of the music is so fucking great. It’s helpful that’s the thing. The thing of being elevated, just like it was in the Western world, even in Italy 70 years ago it was still very alive. It’s a common heritage that we all have. We are not really losing it. We think that we are losing it that’s the same thing with techno breakbeat and dub, using the same kind of language putting out the percussion and voice. Like pogo from punk, you touch the bodies, and the moment that you can do that during a rave, or punk concert, or a metal concert or even a jazz session when jazz was really lived by people. We didn’t lose it, but now you have to pay for it. That’s the difference. It’s the music industry. The will to learn things is still there, the things we don’t understand that is the music that is calling us, for studying, for knowing more. We are curious people.
Cyclic Defrost: It’s really interesting what you are saying because I’ve often thought about what the role of music is for me in my life, and I often use it for medicine, it can make me feel better, or sad, or can make my whole mood change, but the social role I was feeling like was lost too. But the way you were talking about a punk concert or a rave, they’re very social things. But you’re right, you’ve got to pay to go there, its not everyone in your street is doing it.
François Cambuzat: Absolutely that’s the only difference. It’s fine for me, but its just that the music industry for more than a century have crooked everything. It’s okay, it’s fine, it’s not so nice but still its there. Art and culture.
The last night time art really helped me I was looking at art and I was crying in front of paintings, because my body my brain was needing it, culture is helping me, its not entertainment. I mean entertainment, okay we can all need it somehow, but that’s why we love so many different music. Because one moment I feel stupidly happy and I need that music and the next I need Olivier Messiaen stuff with organs and classical music and the moment after a flute from Japan. Culture is helping you.
Cyclic Defrost: And we’re lucky too because we have access to so much of it.
François Cambuzat: We are so lucky and privileged. That’s true.
Cyclic Defrost: One thing I wanted to ask you about the second album is that it feels crazier, it feels more like you’ve let loose. More industrial, more screaming, louder…Is that what you think has happened?
François Cambuzat: We had a lot of trouble making the second album (laughs). Everybody from the community wanted to do it. We were surprised of the success, and the year before recording I kept on asking everyone why the hell do you like that? I had no clear answer so when we decided to record this one we did the same as the first so field recordings (laughs), and you know get involved by the music.
We knew the language better so it was easier to get into it, but do what you want. So when the music was calling for a metal riff or violent stuff or playing 7 when the song is in 4, just do it. Don’t think about how the album will be listened to by the western world, we don’t care. Don’t put any metronome on it, keep it all. And we have to go along that. Who cares about selling? Who cares about playing here and there? It’s more about what the gypsies are saying. It’s about Duende – about what you put into music.
Cyclic Defrost: Because I’m a little bit scared of your second album, it’s a bit mad and crazy, which I like but it scares me.
François Cambuzat: (laughs) yes, that’s why the title is this, because it’s more based on the third part of the ritual when the spirits are possessing the bodies, that’s why it’s called night of the Booree. The Booree is the last day when they do a long ritual for like 5 days. It’s more like a gathering in that case. Of course it’s a healing, but it’s healing a lot of people together, not going only for one person. It’s annual or bi annual gathering when they feel the moment to all be together and it can be 5,000 people. The night of the Booree is the summon and it’s the last night of the gathering and its completely crazy there and sometimes you have 2,000 people playing teshektshekas. You know a band like Meshuggah or heavy metal its nothing, they are much louder, from any other band. Otomo Yoshihide is playing a recorder next to them.
Cyclic Defrost: I’d like to see Otomo play with them, that would be great. You talk about music is for healing but then there is the industrial element or a rock riff which is traditionally not so much about healing. Then you put it together and it somehow works. Have you thought much about that?
François Cambuzat: No. After the field recordings and we were putting everything on computer to analyse it, we were taken by the first instinct. Sometimes, for example in the key changes we thought it was nice to play a kind a kind of flamenco on it with strange accents so it was making kind of polyrhythms. Sometimes, yes of course, this is metal, it was just going naturally where it was going. The music was calling for it. It was not thought about. With techno the influences are a bit more obvious because you have this beat, well no, what we did was to try and not go where it was so obvious, for sure, to avoid formatting the music that’s happening a lot in world music that I don’t like. You are formatting for a western taste. We try to avoid this. Trying to go more to the essence of it, for Gianna and me, this song or rhythm was calling.