Interview: Meet the Psychedelic Gnawa Blues of Bab L' Bluz

Interview: Meet the Psychedelic Gnawa Blues of Bab L' Bluz

We talk to the Moroccan-French quartet about their latest album Nayda! and the new wave of women fronting Gnawa bands.

Bab L' Bluz, translated as "The Door of the Blues," is a Franco-Moroccan group created in 2018 in Marrakech.

At the beginning of 2017, the Moroccan singer-guitarist Yousra Mansour met the French guitarist and producer Brice Bottin. They had been working with Moroccan musicians for several years, at an artistic residency mixing Gnawa music with other styles. Both passionate about Gnawa music, they decided to learn the Guembri together.

In mid-2017, while they were learning how to play Guembri (the primary instrument of the Gnawa music, with a bass sound and three strings) and Awisha (a descendant of the Guembri but smaller with the same strings, and with a high tone that sounds more like a guitar or looks and sounds like a Mauritanian Tidinît), they started composing the foundations of the first Bab L' Bluz album. It was a repertoire of ten songs that respected the analogical universe of the '60s and '70s. The group want to mix their influences tastefully and prefer to be a psychedelic Moroccan rock band, rather than just be labelled as world music.

In mid-2018, long time friends and musicians from Lyon, Jérôme Bartholomé on Qraqeb (Percussion used in Gnawa music)/ flute/vocals), and Hafid Zouaoui (drums/backing vocals), joined the band. They performed their first live concert on Radio Nova. Months after forming the quartet, they began recording their debut album called Nayda!, released by Real World Records in June.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bab L' Bluz - Ila Mata (Official Video)

We've noticed that the amount of female-fronted Gnawa acts is increasing these days.

Yes, indeed, it's a great pleasure to see more and more women leaders of Gnawa bands or even playing other styles of music, especially in a very patriarchal society. The woman who played music was seen as a negative because maybe she gave off an image of the strong and free woman, something that wasn't very appreciated at the time. After all, it scared the man and the society, especially in the musical environment of Gnawa, which is very male-dominated compared to other traditional Moroccan kinds of music. We're now seeing significant changes on that side in Morocco. In many other societies, fortunately, women are becoming more and more ambitious, many of them choose to live their passions to the fullest, even if they risk rejection by their own families. Thankfully, even the way societies look at these women nowadays has changed, it has become more supportive and admiring.

In the past few years, we've seen a beautiful wave of women musicians, such as Asma Hamzaoui & Bnat Timoktu, Hind Ennaira and Bnat Guinia and many others not known yet, who artistically transmit this message of equality between men and women. Finally, the love we can have for an instrument or a style of music shouldn't be limited by the fact of being a man or a woman.

What are your main inspirations? After all, there seems to be a lot of fusion of other genres with Gnaoua music.

Our main inspirations are broad; we have as many inspirations as there are styles. We grew up listening to very different types of music such as rock, pop, soul, funk, Jazz, Arab-Andalusian music, Moroccan Chaabi, classical oriental music, Indian, and also South American music. In addition to that, we discovered other music thanks to the appearance of the internet, and which also made it easier for us to learn different instruments without having to travel to take lessons. We love and respect all styles of music because it is key to understanding music in its universality. We don't see what we do as fusion. [It's] a logical extension of who we are, because we're not trying to mix the styles, it's just our brains that have assimilated a lot of different music that they unconsciously reflect that when we are in the process of creation. We grew up with rock as much as traditional music, with R&B as much as Afrobeat, we transcribe that into our compositions, putting the music at the service of the lyrics and vice versa. Our instruments, which come from the tradition of West Africa are electrified and this is, therefore, a limit, but in our case, a richness, for the research and creation of our music.

What are your ambitions for this project?

We want to make the best music we can. Music that encourages and motivates people to be better people, but also music that brings people together and pleases a young African as much as a young American. We want young people in societies where it is tough to express themselves freely, to have access to this freedom and to several other fundamental rights. We want the physical or psychological violence against women to stop and want women to be free and empowered, and to be as equal or even superior to men.

We'd love to learn from other people, have access to different cultures and other music, make mistakes and learn from them, move forward in life in a healthy way. We'd love to play all over the world to transmit a message of peace and love and justice, words of solidarity and compassion, to change racist, sexist and repressive mentalities, to help ourselves and others find their way in a tough life, where our brains are conditioned, and happiness is tough to achieve. We would like to reach as many spiritually awakened people as possible and to awaken the sleeping and indoctrinated mentalities.

Can Gnaoua music become a worldwide phenomenon? World Music seems to be gaining in popularity in the last few years.

We think that Gnawa music is already a worldwide phenomenon thanks in particular to the Essaouira Festival, which has been spreading this music worldwide for several years now. Gnawa music can be a precious key to musical understanding for musicians but also for novices. We also think that a lot of people are more and more interested in African culture in general, probably because Africa is the cradle of humanity, or even because of the similarities between different African music and other music from outside, like the simple example of Brazilian Samba rhythm that sounds monstrously similar to the rhythm of Gnawa music played with Qarqabs or Karkabs, even though the melodies of these two styles of music are very different. There are more examples of this kind of similarities that somehow show that the world has always been connected. The term "world music" is gaining in popularity because we also realize that a rock band can be labeled "world music" in the same way as a traditional band. The word "world music" is so vast that it can encompass countless styles of music and reach many different populations. A lot of musical freshness is going to arrive from the young generation, in the Maghreb and other countries, far from the headlights for the moment.