Originally formed in 2017 as a duo, Maroccan-French band Bab L’ Bluz is now a four piece power quartet based in Marrakesh. Comprised of Yousra Mansour on lead vocals and guembri, Brice Bottin on guembri and electric guitar, Hafid Zouaoui on drums and Jérôme Bartolome on flute and percussions, Bab L’Bluz distil an exhilarating blend of influences ranging from traditional North African trance music, popular Chaabi music and Funk to late 1960s American psychedelic rock and desert blues. The quartet’s début album Nayda! was released on the Real World Records label on 5 June 2020 last.
Introduced by the pulse of the guembri, the syncopated rhythm of the qraqeb (large metallic castanets) and a high-pitched and trilling ululation often heard at North African ritual events, “Gnawa Beat” heralds a high-octane percussive swing which never abates.
The guembri is a three-string traditional lute with a stretched skin over a wooden box acting as a resonator. With a deep sound very similar to the modern bass guitar, it is also the main melodic instrument of the Gnawa music tradition. A mainly Sub-Saharan spiritual style originally associated with Islamic religious rituals and ceremonies involving ecstatic and trance-inducing singing and dancing, Gnawa Music has long transcended the borders of South-Western Morocco to influence roots and contemporary music worldwide as a secular trend.
Bab L’Bluz’ unique idiosyncratic sound is constructed around the iconic three-stringed instrument. “We use the awicha (a smaller version of the instrument) as a guitar and the guembri as a bass, both at different tunings” notes of Yousra Mansour. By customising and electrifying their instruments and marrying them within a standard rock format, the band turn the inherent limitations of the guembri into an ingenious sonic opportunity.
Like many other musicians of the same generation, Bab L’Bluz is not a fusion band as such. There is no attempt to find a common ground between distinct traditions. Growing up with immediate access to a global music scene via the internet has naturally fuelled creativity and enabled the musicians to formulate a novel musical statement.
“Nayda” is a Darija term – the Arabic dialect widely spoken and used in daily life in Morocco – meaning “up”, “get up on your feet” or “wake up”. Nayda is also the name given to the youth movement which coincided with the emergence of a modern Moroccan identity following the arrival of King Mohammed VI to power in 1999. Since the turn of the millennium, Morocco has witnessed an era of greater artistic freedom and the flourishing of an alternative music scene. Held annually at Essaouira, the Gnawa World Music Festival for instance celebrated its 22nd edition in 2019. Yousra Mansour as a strong African-Moroccan female lead in a traditionally male-dominated field is further evidence of a slow liberalisation of the Moroccan music scene.
Most songs are written in Darija and express an unconditional love for the riches –real and metaphorical – of Africa, denounce corruption and call for a united Africa to stand up against poverty and submission. Two songs – “Ila Mata” and “Waydedel” – are sung in classical Arabic. The latter was originally written and sung by Dimi Mint Abba and her husband Khalifa Ould Eide in a traditional Mauritanian Moorish style. On Nayda!, “Waydedel” turns into a rock anthem concluding with a rousing solo on the one-stringed rahab by guest musician Aziz Ozouss.
Spanning between a traditional Gnawa sound with guest guembri player and singer Mehdi Nassouli on “El Watane” for instance and the glorious saturation of the concluding “Bab L’Bluz”, underpinned by the continual hypnotic swagger generated by the guembri / qraqeb pairing, the quartet shape a vibrant and infectious new sound. The thrilling sound of a contemporary psychedelic Moroccan rock band.