North Africa in Europe: Yousra Mansour.

Rock Around the Maghreb

Bab L’ Bluz’ Nayda!

Nayda!, the debut album from Bab L’Bluz, demonstrates the virtue of running towards trouble instead of away from it.

Rock has never been less culturally significant, relative to popular music as a whole. And, while interest in so-called “World Music” continues to soar, the vast majority of that attention is directed at rap and electronic dance music, styles particularly well-suited to low budgets, not to mention an everyday life turned upside down by the current pandemic.

Yet the music of Bab L’Bluz proudly declares their affinity, not only for rock but the sort of classic rock favoured by Baby Boomers.

The foundation of this French-Moroccan quartet’s distinctive sound is the interplay between two traditional stringed instruments, the guembri and awisha.

It’s telling, however, that the band describes their relationship in terms of rock-and-roll expectations, noting that they tune the guembri to function as the equivalent of a bass guitar and the smaller awisha as a lead guitar.

Bab L’Bluz wants you to rock out, too. Out towards the desert, that is. While the words that frontwoman Yousra Mansour sings are sometimes poetic and often political, the fretless “bass” and “guitar” figures they snake around put the groove first.

This is music that never forgets to make room for rhythm.

To be sure, the percussion is more stutter-step and subtly accented than is typically the case with classic rock. The guembri has to take up a larger share of the beat-keeping burden.

Nevertheless, Nayda! is still easy for anyone who loves psychedelic jams to enjoy. It provides all the ingredients for tripping out safely.

Mansour’s lyrics may be advocating greater awareness of oppression, yet the majority of listeners – since even most Arabic speakers will struggle with her dialect – will find it all too easy to turn them into a kind of “trance supplement”, stripping them of their semantic value.

That’s where the trouble lies.

By titling the album Nayda!, after the Moroccan youth movement of that name, and having Mansour sing most songs in the Moroccan-Arabic dialect of darija, Bab L’Bluz demonstrate a desire to move a very different audience from the sort that still gravitates towards rock in the West.

But the fact that Nayda! is also clearly being marketed at European and American music lovers complicates matters.

While Jane Cornwell’s promotional copy on the Real World Records website is undeniably effective, it sometimes tries a little too hard to appeal to that Boomer sensibility and the neo-hippies who perpetuate it through countercultural backpack tourism:

“Think old-school Gnawa meets funk. Moroccan chaabi meets trance. The sung poetry of Mauritania meets the deep spiritual cry of the blues. Imagine ninja-style flute, propulsive drums and percussion including spiralling metal qraqeb castanets. Wrap it all up in the turned-on-tuned-in psych rock grooves of such countercultural heroes as Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Nass El Ghiwane, Morocco’s very own Rolling Stones.”

And the band seems perfectly happy to facilitate this mode of what the Twitter left terms “cultural appropriation”.

Although it may be perfectly true that Mansour’s influences growing up included Lebanese legend Fairouz and Janis Joplin, declaring so initiates a cascade of effects which, while not necessarily incompatible with reaching rebellious Moroccan youth, are likely to ensure a different reception for Nayda! than the work of other artists associated with the Nayda movement, such as classic Moroccan rap acts Casa Crew and Mafia C.

This is not to imply that Bab L’Bluz are any less sincere than these less Boomer-friendly artists. They have performed in Casablanca’s Boulevard festival, which has played a crucial role in the consolidation of Nayda and have emphasised that their music is inextricably bound up with this collective project.

Honestly, rap has become so dominant worldwide as a way for working-class youth to express themselves that Bab L’Bluz might benefit from seeming a little out of step. Words that are sung instead of rapped can reach hearts and minds at a different register.

It is also heartening to see the problem of Orientalism turned on its head.

The experimentation with non-European traditions that countercultural dilettantes popularised in the 1960s is easy to mock. The hubris to pick up a sitar or gamelan, instruments that take native musicians decades to master, and play it with no proper training is astounding.

When Western rock stars began to recognise their ignorance, they either turned into collectors of exotic sounds – usually extracting an outsized promoter’s cut along the way – or decided it would be more seemly to collaborate with native musicians.

The former approach led to the creation of World Music as a record store category, one whose bins were filled with a series of fads, such as the “mystery” of Bulgarian voices (made even more exotic by the Balkan band’s use of French in their branding: Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.)

The latter yielded some commercially and critically successful records, including influential, highly successful recordings by Paul Simon and Byrne and Eno, and Ry Cooder, in which the aforementioned artists served more as tour guides than auteurs.

While these developments may have seemed less embarrassing on the surface than half-assed sitar solos (especially in the case of Byrne and Eno), they nevertheless betrayed the same arrogance, introducing, as it were, ‘primitive’ music to the more refined West.

Indeed, it almost seems impossible for Western musicians to communicate the proper degree of respect and humility when engaged with the culture of places like Morocco. The best-informed among them incline towards a fetishisation of minority otherness that threatens to make even the most exuberant music feel like a sterile exercise.

Particularly in a fraught political context like France, with its colonial history in North Africa and its still discriminated against Arab citizenry. It’s impossible to separate that context from Bab L’Bluz’s mix of rock and Gnawa.

That’s what makes Nayda! so special. Unlike their World Music forebears, Bab L’Bluz find a way to celebrate their Moroccan heritage without producing the kind of work that appeals to foreign collectors.

Their music may not be particularly authentic. But it is all the more lively as a consequence of the risks it takes.

Screenshot courtesy of Bab L’Bluz. All rights reserved.