After close to six years of reviewing music I don’t whether it’s less forgivable or more understandable that I would get trapped into assuming I’d know what to expect musically from a band based on the region of the world they come from. There’s no use denying that after a while as a reviewer you come to expect a particular sound from musicians based on where they live. However, it’s also a disservice to any artist to automatically attempt to pigeonhole them for any reason. People changing, evolving, growing bored with an approach and looking for new ways in which to express themselves is the very nature of art. Therefore, just because a band is from an area of the world which has become known for a very distinct style of music is no reason to expect the same from them, no matter what they’ve recorded in the past.
Over the past decade or so the music of the Tuareg, or Kel Tamashek, people of the sub-Saharan desert region of North Africa has been heard more and more in Europe and North America. Its distinctive mixture of traditional rhythms and modern electric guitar has grabbed the attention of world music and popular music fans alike. Bands like Tinarwian and individuals like Bombino (Omara “Bombino” Moctar) have garnered international recognition with their performances and recordings and have done much to popularize the music. Born out of rebellion, most of the first generation of musicians had taken part in uprisings by the Kel Tamashek against the governments of Mali and Niger, as a means of inspiring their people to keep fighting for their rights and reminding them of their cultural traditions. The music has gone from being banned by regional governments to being in demand at international music festivals.
While not as well known internationally, Group Doueh, a family band headed by father Salmou Bamaar on guitar, has been around since the early days of both the Kel Tamashek rebellions and the guitar-driven music it spawned. Like others Bamaar lived with the knowledge that just by playing his music he was risking his life. Members of Bombino’s original band were assassinated by the Niger government, and at one time possession of any “guitar player” music was against the law. Its only been since the peace treaties of late 2009 that it has been safe for musicians from Niger to return from exile. Still, cassettes of their music were made and passed from hand to hand, listened to by the people, and made their way into the hands of interested outsiders.
Hisham Mayet from the Seattle-based label Sublime Frequencies has been in and out of the sub-Saharan region filming and recording the music of various groups for years now. Primarily field recordings made on portable equipment the results are sometimes spotty, but their immediacy and ability to capture a moment are usually sufficient compensation for any deficiencies in quality. His latest recording of Group Doueh, Zayna Jumma, made on location in the group’s home in Dakhla, West Sahara, and released on May 24, is probably the best yet. Not only is it technically superior to any of the previous releases, it also captures the band as they are in the midst of making a musical transition. Bamaar has expanded his band to include his next two eldest sons and three additional vocalists. In the process he has also incorporated more pop influences as his one son, Hamdan, plays a full drum kit and the other, El Waar, organ and keyboards.
However, while this album is definitely more rock and roll oriented than either of their previous work or any recordings I’ve heard from bands from this region, it’s still not, thank goodness, what you’d call a standard pop offering. First of all, how many bands can you name where one of the vocalists also is credited with playing Kass – tea glasses? Secondly, the female voices — lead vocals provided by Halima Jakani, Bamaar’s wife, and background/harmonies by Tricha, Lamnaya and one uncredited vocalist — are nothing like anything you’ve heard on the radio. Pitched to a point sometimes just slightly shy of shrill, they cut through the sound of the accompanying instruments like a knife blade. They are both the emphatic statement punctuating the background music and an extension of the rhythms driving the music forward. Part chant and part lyrics they rise and fall throughout the songs, giving them shape much as the desert wind folds sand into dunes and troughs.
The eight songs on the disc (originally released as an LP, so the song list is actually divided up into sides A and B) move back and forth between what we’ve come to expect from music from the region and the group’s new forays into a more popular sound. “Zayna Jumma,” the title and opening track, is along more traditional lines, with the lead instrument being the traditional four-stringed tinidit. All of which makes the second and third songs on the disc, “Ishadlak Ya Khey” and “Zaya Koum,” more surprising with their almost straight-ahead rock and roll drums and guitar. Just when you think you’ve found your bearings, they bring you right back to their roots again with “Met Ha,” featuring guest vocalist Bel Kheir, singing what sounds like a traditional-styled song of the region.
While it’s a little jarring to go back and forth between the modern and the traditional like this, these first four tracks prepare you for the fifth, where the band starts to combine elements of both into one song. “Jagwar Doueh” is a stirring song featuring driving keyboards and drums supporting the vocals of Halima. While the sound is modern and electronic, the feel is still something wild that would never be recorded in our studios in North America or Europe. Over the last three tracks on the disc the band never quite goes as far into popular music again, but they also never completely go back to their traditional base either. In some ways “Aziza,” “Ana lakweri” and “Wazan Doueh” are, for lack of a better description, the most typical of what we have come to assume music from sub-Saharan region will sound like, with the only differences being the inclusion of instruments, drum kit and keyboards not normally associated with it.
The latest offering by Group Doueh, Zayna Jumma, is probably not the type of music most people familiar with other groups from the sub-Saharan region of Africa would expect to hear. It might not be to everyone’s taste, and it might even disappoint some, yet it is an exciting and challenging collection of music by a collection of musicians not afraid to experiment and push themselves and their music in new directions. As far as I’m concerned that’s something which should be encouraged at all times as it’s the only way for music to continue to grow. Unfortunately, while the quality of this recording is still a big improvement over earlier field recordings done by Mayet, there is still a lot of room for making it even better. While Sublime Frequencies and Mayet must be given credit for bringing bands like Group Doueh to the world’s attention, we will only discover their real quality with proper recordings. I hope somebody is encouraged after hearing this disc to offer them that opportunity. Their music deserves it.
(Photo Credits: Hisham Mayet)