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- Published on Monday, 10 September 2012 06:02
- Category: Artist Profile
On a Tuesday evening in mid-August, Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland, California offered a little-known musical ensemble an opportunity to perform at their prestigious venue, pleasantly surprising a small, but enthusiastic audience with a soulful 90-minute journey through North Africa.
AZA, founded six years ago by native Moroccans Fattah Abbou and Mohamed Aoualou, offers a complex tagine (Moroccan stew) of traditional Berber, Sub-Saharan African and gnawa music creatively adorned with alternative styles ranging from jazz to blues, funk, country, reggae and Latin. The result is an exotic, sophisticated za’tar (spice mixture) - a fusion of beautiful vocal harmonies, complex musical arrangements and intelligent instrumentation—all of which seamlessly unite to create a unique, trans-global ambiance deeply rooted in folkloric traditions with a contemporary twist.
AZA, whose name is derived from the symbol of North Africa’s Berber people, invites its listeners to take part in not just the music, but also a passionate celebration of their native culture. The Berbers, or Imazighen (their preferred term), are North Africa’s oldest inhabitants, with a recorded history dating back more than 3,300 years.
Historically, the Imazighen were very effective warriors and successfully managed to thwart the advances of powerful invaders such as the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines and Turks. The biblical character, Goliath, and St. Augustine, are two of history’s famous Imazighen. By the seventh century, the advancing Arab armies conquered the region and put an end to Imazighen dominance. The Islamization of North Africa, followed by French colonialism and Arab nationalism, were factors that further marginalized the Imazighen socially, politically and economically. In many parts of the region, the Imazighen were not allowed to publicly speak their native language Tamzight or celebrate their unique culture.
In recent years, there has been an active movement to improve the plight of the Imazighen and retain their culture and history. It’s therefore not surprising that music, including the work by AZA, has played an instrumental role in illuminating the disenfranchisement and rich cultural heritage of the Imazighen.
To set the ambiance for their show at Yoshi’s, Fattah and Mohamed entered, dressed in traditional Moroccan garments, to a stage adorned with an assortment of traditional North African instruments including: oud (similar to the lute), santir (a three-stringed bass) congos, tabla, rebab (one-stringed fiddle), bendir (large frame drum), tbel (tambourine), quaraqeb (heavy iron castanets) plus a drum kit, guitar and an array of other percussion instruments. As the concert progressed, AZA gradually introduced the various instruments, methodically unfolding a rich tapestry of sounds and rhythms, which transported listeners instantly to the desert and mountain landscapes of al Maghreb.
Fattah and Mohamed opened the show with “Azul” (meaning “hello”), a song from their debut CD Marikan. The tune began with a short, but evocative instrumental prelude, then led into a beautiful, haunting ballad sung in Tamzight. Armed with a banjo - a surprisingly popular instrument in Moroccan music - Fattah sang lead on the vocals while Mohamed accompanied on the guitar and sang backup.
As the second song began, Fattah introduced the sentir, an unusual bass instrument used in gnawa, a devotional music style influenced by Sub-Saharan, Imazighen and Sufi traditions. The sentir is often played using a 19th century American banjo technique known as “brushless drop-thumb flailing.” In this method, the fingers don’t strum the strings simultaneously to create chords; instead, the thumb drops down continuously in a rhythmic pattern against the freely-vibrating bass string while the other fingers on the same hand pick the strings percussively. The dynamic interplay between the distinctive call and response singing and the throbbing drone of the sentir is a defining element of North African music.
Another hallmark of gnawa is the dramatic sound of the quaraqeb, the iron castanets played with both hands to mark the rhythm using triple and duple meters. AZA combined the quaraqeb with the banjo and the kit drum in their third and fourth songs to produce very danceable, 6/8 rhythmic tunes that had the audience members gyrating in their seats. A few of the patrons even belted out a zaghareet, the distinctive, high-pitched vocal sound used to express celebration in Arab countries, which is made by quickly moving the tongue against the roof of the mouth.
The band’s full quartet appeared together on the fifth song, with Steve Robertson and Kevin DiNoto both on quaraqeb, Mohamed on guitar and Fattah on sentir. The “twangy” banjo riffs in AZA’s sixth tune was reminiscent of American Appalachian music, but the clever addition of cascading jazz rhythms and melodic vocal harmonies created a refreshing sound.
A beautiful instrumental melody followed, heavily accented with the bass beat of the bendir, showcasing the band’s expert musicianship in a rich composition inspired by the Sahara desert. The song will appear on AZA’s upcoming untitled CD, slated to release later this year.
Fattah continued to exhibit his musical versatility on the band’s ninth song by playing the rebab, a long-necked, one-string fiddle made of horse hair and goat skin, which is played with a half-moon-shaped bow and produces a lower-pitched tenor than its Western counterpart. There’s no question that the audience acquired a valuable education and appreciation for ethnic instruments during the course of AZA’s performance.
Romance was definitely the theme of AZA’s next two songs: one seem to conjure up dreamy images of a Spanish seaside with the introduction of the oud and the addition of tambourine, guitar, tabla and kit drum; and the other was a haunting, melancholic ballad combing banjo, guitar, tbel and tabla.
AZA punctuated their performance with a pulsating, up-tempo tune combining sentir, guitar, tambourine, rattle and quaraqeb that inspired more than a dozen audience members to get out of their seats and dance. The song culminated in an animated quaraqeb dual between Fattah and Mohamed, reminiscent of guedra, the North African trance dance performed to drive away evil spirits.
Throughout the performance, Fattah continually engaged the audience and charmed them with his sense of humor—at one point asking if the Moroccan instruments were in tune and if they understood the lyrics. All of AZA’s songs were sung in Tamzight without any translation (with one exception), but the band’s music transcends the bounds of conventional language, so it’s very easy to appreciate the songs without understanding the lyrics.
AZA’s music is nothing short of a revolution—and one that demands attention. The band’s sound is bold, original and contemporary, yet deeply grounded in tradition. At its core, AZA’s music is an exuberant celebration of culture offering hope to an often fractious duality—antiquity versus modernity and East versus West— and perhaps an optimistic reflection of the current political climate in Morocco and the region.
To listen to AZA’s music (the first two CDs are available for streaming), find out where they are performing or learn more about Amazigh music, visit their website: www.azamusic.com.By Fara Bullara, Aslan Media Contributing Writer