Thursday, 20 June 2019

The Spirit of Tengri 2019 - Abai Square, Almaty, Kazakhstan

First published on and in Songlines Magazine issue 150, August/September 2019.

The Spirit of Tengri
Abai Square, Almaty, Kazakhstan
25th-26th May 2019

Even in Almaty – Kazakhstan’s cultural capital – the Spirit of Tengri festival is considered a highlight of the city’s cultural calendar. Now in its seventh edition (and with ever-attractive free entry), this year’s event drew in over 10,000 attendees of all ages, the already large crowd bolstered by boisterous (but good-natured) teenagers – the festival coincided with the last day of school celebrations. Over two days, 17 artists from 17 different countries took to the stage on Abai Square, overlooked on one side by the city’s famous Kok Tobe mountain and on the other by a giant statue of the renowned poet Abai Qunanbaiuly. The festival makers surely know how to put on a show: the audience were treated to very high production values that felt almost Eurovision-esque, from fancy lighting and giant screens all the way down to the cheesy short videos introducing each artists’ native culture… and on top of all that, it was very, very loud.

The festival’s ultra-broad remit is to present ‘contemporary ethnic music,’ and in practice that mostly seems to mean artists that play their national folk music with some sort of twist from other genres. It’s a concept that allows for a huge scope of artists and the mixtures range from the successful (Ezza’s Nigerien Tuareg rock, Svjata Vatra’s Ukrainian ska and Raghu Dixit’s Kannada folk-pop) to the cringeworthy (GeoTRAIN’s Georgian polyphony-jazz, Abbos’ Uzbek classical Europop). The Kazakh music scene was also represented by bands at the start of each evening ­– Ashina and Ethno5 – who blended traditional instruments such as the kobyz (fiddle) and dombra (lute) with synthesizers, rappers and heavy rock. Local DJs also provided entertainment in between the live acts, of whom Alena Lobastova – the only named woman on the bill – was the standout, and could certainly thrill festival crowds in the UK.

And the great thing is, the crowd loved every band. Whoever took to the stage, from whatever country, playing whatever instruments and mixing up whatever cultures (and no matter how successfully), the audience went absolutely ballistic. There were sections of the crowd that were never not dancing, and every piece was concluded to rapturous applause.

The musical highlight of the weekend came at the end of the festival’s first night, which was closed by Hungarian group Kerekes Band. The group play a furiously jazzy, punky funk based on the music of the Csángó people of Hungary and Romania, led by the charismatic Zsombor Fehér on the electronically-enhanced shepherd’s flute. In a banging set full of special moments such as a too-funky-by-far mash-up of their most famous piece ‘Csango Boogie’ and Kool & the Gang’s ‘Jungle Boogie’ and a special guest appearance from Radik Tyulyush of Huun-Huur-Tu providing Tuvan borbangnadyr, they blew everyone away when they led the whole audience in a singalong of the Kazakh national song ‘Kozimnin Karasi’ (written by Abai) learned especially for the occasion – a real spine-tingling moment.

This is a festival that knows what its audience wants and gives them exactly that for an entire weekend. As you might expect, that gives the Spirit of Tengri one of the most electric atmospheres you could hope for.

Photo: Ruslan Trochynskyi of Svjata Vatra gets down with the crowd at the Spirit of Tengri 2019, courtesy of

Friday, 14 June 2019

My World: Toby Jones

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 149, July 2019.

As an actor, Toby Jones has appeared in some of the biggest film series of the past few decades, including the Harry Potter, Hunger Games and MCU series. On television, too, he has worked on some of the most well-loved shows such as Doctor Who and Sherlock – and won BAFTAs and Olivier Awards along the way. Even on the screen, his love for music from around the world is clear. In his latest BBC TV show, Don’t Forget the Driver, a tragi-comic tale of a coach driver from Bognor Regis, it was his own influence that led to an eclectic soundtrack including Mulatu Astatke, Pentangle and Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita, whose music serves as an important through-line for the whole series.

Music influences Jones’s whole way of working. “When I’m writing something or making something in the theatre, music is often an incredibly useful way of thinking about space,” he says. “That way, you’re not just thinking about words, you’re also thinking about the mood and atmosphere of a piece, above and beyond what’s happening verbally, if you’re creating a script. There’s a specific track by Catrin and Seckou called ‘Listen to the Grass Grow’. God knows what they wrote it about, but to me it conjured up a shot of a coach bombing through English country roads, carrying this motley group of passengers, which is sort of what happens on our show. Although the track eventually didn’t feature in that capacity, it certainly helped me to imagine, physically, the space in which the series would happen.

Given this palpable link between music and acting, it’s appropriate that Jones’ first playlist selection, ‘Miradouro de Santa Catarina’ by Madredeus, is from a film, Wim Wenders’ Lisbon Story, although his personal connection is not necessarily that obvious. “It’s a film I’ve never seen but a soundtrack I’ve played thousands and thousands of times,” says Jones. “I remember it being played at the end of a very long day of filming in the south of France, someone just put it on. It was just such a beautiful day. We were shooting in the vineyards and this music just seemed to sum up how I felt at the end of that day. Just magical, you know. Like a lot of Madredeus’ music, it’s really haunting. And in fact, it inspired me, when I went to Lisbon, to go and check out some more traditional fado, which I also really enjoyed. But there’s something about Madredeus… yes, haunting is the best word.

As a child, Jones’ exposure to music came foremost from his parents, who enjoyed blasting classical music at top volume around the house. They encouraged this taste in young Toby, who grew up singing sacred classical repertoire in choirs, even attending choir school in Oxford. He resented it at the time (“your parents tell you you’ll be glad of it later. And of course, it turns out to be true. Curses.”), but it nevertheless instilled a fascination for the more spiritual side of music. He describes the Nyabinghi-jazz of ‘A Ju Ju Wa’ by Roland Downer & Count Ossie as ‘proto-reggae’: “It’s a fantastic introduction to the roots of roots, you could say. You get the sense when you’re listening to it of not-quite reggae, but of what became reggae eventually, something that is religious. Music is, I suppose, of all the art forms, the one that is most commonly employed to put humans in touch with the numinous. The unnameable, indescribable emotions around religion. It sounds so simple to say it, but that capacity of music to put one in touch with feelings and emotions that one doesn’t have names for is probably one of the things that makes it so useful to religion.

Jones’ appreciation for religious music stretches across continents, as his selection of qawwali from Pakistan shows. “Nothing I say can sum up the sheer absolute mastery of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it takes devotional music to a different level. It’s so different from our tradition of rapture in a way, but that’s what you hear, a state of rapture.” His choice of the Massive Attack remix of ‘Mustt Mustt’ didn’t just reflect the religious aspect of the music, though, but also Khan’s ground-breaking openness to cross-cultural exchange. “I suppose this choice was a nod to my interest in musicians collaborating and combining from different cultures. I could have chosen any number of his own tracks, but I just thought it would be interesting to hear the remix in case people had never heard it. I like Massive Attack very much, I’ve always really enjoyed their production. It’s an unlikely combination and I think it’s really successful.

The theme of unlikely collaboration comes up frequently when he talks about the music he enjoys, as well as discovering music in unexpected places. That’s how he first encountered ‘Jarabi’ by AfroCubism. “I was stuck for months doing a TV series in Vancouver not really hearing any music that I particularly enjoyed. But then I was in a coffee shop and that came on and I went ‘what is that?!’ This great, joyous sound. The AfroCubism album had just completely passed me by, the whole phenomenon of it. That great group of musicians, Toumani Diabaté, Bassekou Kouyaté and people, an extraordinary group of musicians working together, taking Malian and Cuban music and combining it. You can be delivered into a whole new world.

It’s not that all of his musical choices have deep roots in religion or some personal connection to a memory, though. For a track such as ‘Asaw Fofor’ by Ignace de Souza and the Melody Aces, from Analog Africa’s compilation African Scream Contest 2, his enthusiasm is simple and clear: “Well that is just dance music. It’s a great tune from Benin and it’s fantastic dance music in the same way as Afrobeat is, and there’s any number of Fela Kuti tracks I could have chosen, too. But I was trying to think of things that could lead people into more diverse areas. This little track, it’s squeezed between two much longer tracks on the double album and it’s just a beautiful little dance number. And I’ve tried it out and it works. Tried it out on my own, with my wife, and now at parties.” You have to admire Jones’ scientific approach.

During our tightly-scheduled chat (ah, the life of an actor), Jones’ sheer passion for music of every sort was palpable. As well as taking us through his own playlist selections, he can’t help but throw in so many asides of formative musical experiences or influential musicians. The Bhundu Boys and the Drummers of Burundi that comes from his love of new wave, the reggae and dub of his punk years. Watching gamelan in Bali, kathakali in Kerala and gospel and blues in Clarksdale, Mississippi. His love of Bob Dylan, Handel, Oumou Sangaré and John Coltrane, and his most recent purchase (just that morning) of Idris Ackamoor’s An Angel Fell. With such a commitment to the widest listening possible, it’s barely a surprise that is reflected in his day job. The next time you watch a Toby Jones show, keep those ears open.

Essential 10: South Asian Jazz

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 149, July 2019.

Debashish Bhattacharya
Beyond the Ragasphere (Riverboat Records, 2013)
By 2013, Debashish Bhattacharya was already known as a master of the Hindustani classical slide guitar, but with Beyond the Ragasphere, he takes the opportunity to spread his wings. Here, Bhattacharya experiments with flamenco, country and Hawaiian music, but the album is at its best during its frequent excursions into full-on cosmic prog-jazz. Highlights include ‘Kirwani One.5+8.Five’ and the 16-minute odyssey ‘A Mystical Morning’, featuring sampled beats and John McLaughlin on electric guitar.

Soumik Datta & Bernhard Schimpelsberger
Circle of Sound (Baithak, 2012)
Circle of Sound is a close collaboration between British sarod player Soumik Datta and Austrian percussionist Bernhard Schimpelsberger in which less is used to create more: a wildly experimental record playing with many layers of reverb, echo and other effects to create huge soundscapes through and in between the cues from Indian classical and jazz traditions. An intense and cerebral listen.

Jan Garbarek & Fateh Ali Khan
Ragas and Sagas (ECM Records, 1992)
Fateh Ali Khan was one of the foremost performers of khyal in Pakistan before his death in 2017. On this recording for the renowned ECM Records, Khan and his group – including sarangi, harmonium and tabla – are joined by Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Garbarek’s contributions are subtle and well-placed, slotting into the light classical idiom and bringing his own sound without imposing or taking anything away from the musical freedom of his hosts.

Arun Ghosh
Northern Namaste (Camoci Records, 2008)
Kolkata-born and Manchester-raised, Arun Ghosh uses his clarinet to explore his identity as a modern British Asian. Northern Namaste is a powerful opening statement as Ghosh’s debut album with some of the most promising young jazz musicians of the time including Corey Mwamba on vibraphone and Idris Rahman on tenor sax. The track ‘Longsight Lagoon’ especially provides a great introduction to Ghosh’s atmospheric and often cinematic sound.

Zakir Hussain / Hariprasad Chaurasia / John McLaughlin / Jan Garbarek
Making Music (ECM Records, 1987)
A truly legendary meeting between four of the greatest in their fields, led by Zakir Hussain on tabla and introducing his long-time musical partners in the acoustic guitar of John McLaughlin, saxophones of Jan Garbarek and the elegantly swooping bansuri flute of Hariprasad Chaurasia. Making Music set a high bar for future collaboration in the sphere of East-meets-West fusion.

Vijay Iyer
Tirtha (ACT Music, 2008)
Vijay Iyer is a true star of contemporary jazz. An American pianist of Tamil descent, his work has encompassed everything from hip-hop to electronica to contemporary classical. Tirtha, Iyer’s 13th album as bandleader, was created alongside Carnatic electric guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta and explores all three musicians’ connections between jazz, classical and folk styles across continents in a masterwork of non-contrivance.

Red Baraat
Chaal Baby (Sinj Records, 2010)
Jazz takes many forms, and so, of course, does its South Asian offspring. Red Baraat, led by dhol drummer Sunny Jain, mix up some of the world’s most potent party music into one. It’s bhangra and Bollywood as played by a New Orleans brass band, full of funk and with a signature New York flair. Jazz isn’t just something to scratch a beard to; Red Baraat prove it’s also for dancing your head off.

Sarathy Korwar and UPAJ Collective
My East is Your West (Gearbox Records, 2018)
Recorded live at London’s Church of Sound after just 45 minutes of rehearsal, this double album sees drummer Korwar and his cross-cultural ten-piece UPAJ Collective take on the spiritual jazz of the likes of Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders – who were inspired by Indian music in their own styles. The result is a sophisticated set that isn’t afraid to let loose, go wild and push boundaries.

Lokkhi Terra
Che Guava’s Rickshaw Diaries (Funkiwala Records, 2012)
Each track on this album is based on a Bengali song (mostly folk songs, occasionally cinema hits), which is taken on a wide-ranging journey of globetrotting jazz. Lokkhi Terra’s Bangladeshi-born pianist and artistic director, Kishon Khan, studied under some of the greatest Afro-Cuban musicians and has collaborated widely, so it’s no surprise that the band’s sound encapsulates son, rumba, jazz, reggae, Afrobeat and funk.

Best of Shakti (Moment Records, 1994)
Shakti was probably the earliest successful experiment in combining jazz and South Asian music on equal terms, and also brought together the region’s two big classical styles of North Indian Hindustani music and South Indian Karnatic music. Made up of tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, violinist L. Shankar, ghatam (clay pot) master Vikku Vinayakram and (it’s him again) jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, Shakti only recorded three albums but their impact on the worlds of jazz and fusion music is still felt today.

Reclaiming a Lost Culture That Lives on in Memories

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 149, July 2019.

All across the world, the spectre of colonialism and racism has never stopped casting its long and oppressive shadow. It shows itself in modern-day economics, politics, language and religion; it also affects cultural life and infiltrates itself into the communal memories of the people. An exhibition due to open at SOAS, University of London, in July explores these notions and helps people to reclaim the culture that was denied them. Entitled Stolen Moments – Namibian Music History Untold (1950s-80s), the exhibition focuses on the pop music of Namibia under apartheid rule, through the eyes and ears of the musicians and the listening public.

The project was conceived after documentarian Thorsten Schütte stumbling upon a never-released record by Ben Molatzi in the archives of the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation that sounded like nothing coming out of the country today. After connecting with scholar Aino Moongo and broadcaster Baby Doeseb, the trio dug up similar recordings as well as hundreds of photographs documenting this era when of musical life had been forbidden or persecuted. “We thought, the materials are so colourful and so rich, let’s share it with the local public,” says Schutte, “let’s see how far we can go.

After placing a request for more information in national newspapers, they received over 1000 phone calls, eventually collecting hundreds of hours of interviews with people of all generations – the oldest interviewee was 106 years old. “We went there to talk about pop and how popular music was established in Namibia, and what we found was how strongly it was connected to the lives and times of the people.

The exhibition has previously garnered acclaim during spells in Germany and Switzerland, and is raising funds to allow it to be permanently – and publicly – housed in the Namibian capital of Windheok; the digitised materials have already been shared with the national archive.

Dr Angela Impey of the music department at SOAS says “I am thrilled to be hosting this important exhibition at SOAS. Its focus speaks to SOAS Music's priority to engage with marginalised people and to better understand how music is used to define and defend interests. Stolen Moments offers a unique insight into the sounds and stories of remarkably resilient people.” A programme of events will take place alongside the exhibition, including panel discussions on the role of culture inside and outside Namibia at that time, and guided tours by Moongo and Schütte.

The importance of the exhibition and its aim of reviving hidden music and memories is summed up by Moongo: “this beautiful music exists with a liveliness as if it had never stopped playing. You only have to dig for it. It is still there in the minds of the few who can remember, it is still there with the ones who played it and it is still there on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered all around the globe.

Photo: Namibian worshippers record the sermon of an evangelist onto tape from boom boxes, by John Liebenberg.

Various Artists - London to Addis

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 149, July 2019.

Various Artists
London to Addis
No Hats No Hoods Records (61 mins/87 mins via Bandcamp)

This is a simple idea with a great pay-off: record traditional Ethiopian krar (five-stringed lyre), washint (wooden flute), masenko (one-stringed fiddle) and kebero (drums) during one intense week in Addis Ababa, hand those recordings over to a load of big-name grime producers and let them go nuts.

The resulting instrumentals use the samples as springboards for so many different directions. Some tracks retain quite a lot of recognisably Ethiopian qualities, whereas others sound almost completely unrelated. Considering that each track has its own producer with their own way of approaching the material, the whole thing holds together really well as an hour-long set.

The mix of the grime electronics with the unique Ethiopian scales and rhythms actually ends up sounding akin to dark, apocalyptic dubstep. It’s really exciting to hear these pioneers of a distinctly London-rooted genre take on something so far removed and coming up with interesting, unexpected results – a great example is Ignorants’ ‘Uncolonised’, supposedly the very first grime track in 3/4 time.

London to Addis is the first of a whole series of British Council-funded Ethio-grime collaborations, and I can’t wait to hear what else is to come; it would be brilliant to hear MCs get their lips around some of the instrumentals presented here.

Ebo Taylor, Pat Thomas & Uhuru Yenzu - Hitsville Re-Visited

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 149, July 2019.

Ebo Taylor, Pat Thomas & Uhuru Yenzu
Hitsville Re-Visited
Mr Bongo (28 mins)

The cavalcade of 70s and 80s African album reissues shows no signs of slowing. This one, originally released in 1982, is the work of two pioneers of Ghanaian music, guitarist Ebo Taylor and singer Pat Thomas. It wasn’t the first time they’d worked together; by the time this album came about, they’d already made several albums together which really solidified the genre of highlife funk, a harder-hitting, often minor key take on the lighter highlife style.

Hitsville Re-Visited isn’t that, though. Here, together with Taylor’s band Uhuru Yenzu, they go back to an earlier style from the beginnings of highlife. As such, there’s much less funk and disco here. In fact, the overriding sound that jumps out is that of classic calypso, topped with Thomas’s easy vocals and Taylor’s palmwine-style guitar. A particular highlight throughout are the solos from saxophonists George Amissah and George Abunyewa, who inject an element Caribbean-inspired jazz à la Sonny Rollins’ ‘St Thomas’.

The end result is feel-good and fun but not mind-blowing, and only four tracks leave us with less than half an hour of music. A pleasant listen, but perhaps best as a short diversion among the rest of these artists’ funkier back catalogues.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Boomtown 2019: Five Ones to Watch

Boomtown is a festival that I’ve had my eye on for quite a few years. Its reputation is immense, and so, by all accounts, is its personality. The whole thing is a giant performance art piece with a narrative that slowly reveals and trundles along year after year, with so many plots and subplots playing out in what has grown to be a city of music. Like any city, there are loads of districts in Boomtown (up to 14 this year), each with their own character, architecture and culture = and each with their own set of stages. There’s over 25 main stage and 80 smaller ‘street venues,’ all with their own programmes – that means there’s a LOT of music, of all sorts of styles.

And excitement – I get to go this year for the very first time! This year, it’s held over 7-11 August. The line-up looks amazing – as it does every year – and, yes, it’s absolutely humongous. So in my excitement, I thought I’d give you a run-down of just five artists that I cannot wait to catch there…now I’ve just got to hope that none of them clash!

Ozomatli feat. Chali 2na
Ozomatli are basically a globetrotting party. I’ve seen them live a handful of times now and every time they have absolutely blown me away – they’re still some of my favourite live shows to date. Their mix of hip-hop, rock, tropical pop and all sorts of Latin music from son to cumbia to samba to norteño and more is just so infectious, their shows turn into a joyful riot, it’s absolutely amazing. Even better: they’ve now reunited with Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 and an original Ozo band member – he’s got one of the most recognisable voices in hip-hop and his thoughtful lyrics and supreme flow put him, for me, right up there with the greatest rappers. I can’t wait to see them perform together.

Prophets of Rage
Okay, I’ve never actually heard any recordings of this group, but their pedigree is unreal. They’re a supergroup featuring members from Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill. Do I really have to say more? Yes yes, I know supergroups usually come out as less than the sum of their parts, but I’m willing to risk it. Come on: Chuck D and B-Real battling it out between funk-metal solos from Tom Morello – inject it directly into my veins.

BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) are a group from Soweto that combine all the music of their neighbourhood, from traditional dance styles, church music and beerhouse songs to hip-hop, soul and rock. The group have been getting so much hype over the past 12 months, and I’ve got friends who are absolutely mad about them, saying they’re the greatest live group around right now. I saw them myself at WOMAD last year, and the crowd went nuts; thing is, their forever-looping riffs and heavy beats didn’t strike me at all, and I left, bored, after about 10 or 15 minutes. But the hype train has continued, so I fully admit I’m the one in the wrong – I’m looking forward to seeing them again in August to give them (and me) another chance.

Nubya Garcia
The UK jazz scene has been booming in the last decade, and saxophonist Nubya Garcia has been one of its leading lights. Her music brings in modal and spiritual jazz in the Coltrane way together with the contemporary styles being fermented in places such as Trinity Laban and Berklee as well as hip-hop, soul and electronica. I’ve never seen her show before, and festivals are all about new experiences – I reckon Nubya Garcia is one I can bank on to be a winner.

Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip
Would it really be a festival season without Mik Artistik? The loony Leedsman* has been a staple on the festival circuit for many years and he’s the perfect act for when you’re quite drunk, quite muddy and just a little disorientated. He’s absolutely bananas, he’s hilarious but he’s also touchingly earnest when he wants to be, all while making music behind his trusty little Yamaha keyboard. The man is a legend, and if you’ve never heard or seen him before, you owe it to yourself to go and experience this true institution of British festivals.

…and then there’s so many others. Gogol Bordello, General Levy, San Salvador, Bassekou Kouyate, Napalm Death, DJ Yoda, Asian Dub Foundation, The Streets, Skream and the man behind it all AAA Badboy…there is so much great music happening everywhere that it seems pretty much impossible not to see some amazing and unexpected artists wherever the current takes you. And really, what I’m most looking forward to is that atmosphere, and diving into the huge, deep and bonkers world that is created at Boomtown every year. Basically, I can’t wait! So if you’re heading over, I’ll hopefully see you there, and either way I’m sure you’ll hear about my exploits on here sooner or later.

*Okay, I just looked it up and the actually demonym for someone from Leeds is a Leodensian, which is awesome but also completely impenetrable, so I’m leaving it as Leedsman, and all of you Yorkishers are just going to have to deal with it.

Maghreb Bass: Sofyann ben Youssef

First published in fRoots issue 425, Summer 2019

We allow ourselves to create this dream space where we fantasise about the future. That is because our respective countries are witnessing very strong changes, politically, economically, geo-politically. In those places we feel a sense of responsibility to be proactive toward a future. The present we don’t like at all and we have to fucking change it.

In talking about the process behind his solo-with-collaborators project AMMAR 808, Sofyann ben Youssef gives a succinct manifesto for a Maghrebi futurist movement, and the philosophy that permeates his music regardless of its musical direction. Whether he’s behind the synth, behind the mixing desk or behind the scenes, there is no doubt that Sofyann is changing the future of Tunisian music.

Tunis-born and Brussels-based, Sofyann has been crucial to three of the most banging projects to explode out of North Africa in the past five years: Nigerien Tuareg rockers Kel Assouf, Tunisian mountain musicians Bargou 08 and the aforementioned AMMAR 808. His masterful synth wrangling, drum programming and holistic production wizardry have instilled these projects with a heart-pounding energy and a deliciously dark undercurrent while taking nothing at all away from the traditions at play. When Sofyann is involved, multiple musical worlds come together with mutual enrichment.

In his time, Sofyann has studied everything from Western, Arabic and Hindustani classical music to jazz, metal and all manner of electronica. It’s all beloved to him and it’s all there in his work, and it’s as AMMAR 808 that he allows his musical philosophies and practices to be most easily heard – and seen. The first album under that name, 2018’s Maghreb United, saw him joined by musicians from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, all bringing their own influences to play among Sofyann’s ever-sympathetic production to create a style that he calls ‘Maghreb bass.’

His way of working is at once that of a mechanic and that of an artist. He spends a long time learning about every musical element involved, and breaks them down into their most basic constituent parts before building them up into a different form. Where so many ‘world fusion’ projects collide different cultures together to mixed success, Sofyann brings them together from the same foundations into one, new culture. And once that material is prepared, he becomes the sculptor. “Once the song is recorded, the most exciting part kicks in, which is placing new elements on the rhythm, and that’s going to change everything. It’s a superfast process. Sometimes it takes ten minutes to make a song, sometimes I do it while listening to it and that’s it. And that’s super intense. You get all sweaty and you’re scared to lose that momentum. That’s the most intense part, and the rest is just fine tuning.

The end result is a hypnotic soundscape that stretches from the dusty ground to outer space. Science fiction is an important cultural touchstone for Sofyann, so it’s not too surprising that his outlook – musically and politically – tends towards the intergalactic and the cinematic. His solo project AMMAR 808 is as much for the eyes as it is the ears.

I wanna present things that are useful to the world, and beautiful, and also that could have impact and inspire people to a different way of thinking,” he explains. “I think today we live in a very visual world, and the bandwidth of an image is much higher than a sound. You see a lot of information in an image that sound sometimes cannot cover. It’s complementary; that is why AMMAR 808 as a project is very visual. We shot original material for the show. I did a residency of one week or so with visual artists, a fashion designer, actors, dancers, to create the filmic material of the project. I wanted to do some sort of holistic experience with this project and find the best way to express it and articulate it on the stage.” The outcome, as engineered by VJs during the AMMAR 808 live shows, is an ever-changing collage of film and images equally inspired by the traditional and the abstract, full of masked dancers, ecstatic swirls and distorted colour. The whole thing feels actually rather disorientating and unnerving. The atmosphere created by the visuals generates the perfect mindset to allow the audience to fall into the music head first.

The all-encompassing fusion of musical styles, emotions and worldwide traditions is making waves back in North Africa, as well as in the European/North American ‘world music’ scene. With his musical projects, Sofyann is challenging and changing the way that Maghrebis discuss and imagine music: “I get super positive reactions there, but to process the information, people always feel obliged to make some sort of comparison to western bands. ‘Yo, this is like the Chemical Brothers of Tunisia!’ things like that. It’s kind of interesting really. There is a missing vocabulary to grasp the project.” In this way, his work is changing not just Maghrebi music itself, but also fertilising the ground upon which it grows, opening up new possibilities and directions for potential exploration while still empowering the roots and traditions from which the rest are built. That development is also taking place thanks to Sofyann’s activities in Tunisia’s home-grown music industry.

Mass upheaval has affected every level of Maghrebi society over the past decade, and the musical ecosystem reflects this, but Sofyann sees this as an opportunity for optimism: “To be honest the music scene in Tunisia is not too structured and not too organised, but that makes a lot of things possible to happen. In Europe, for instance, things are super-organised on that level, but we have the chance to rethink the whole system. So I hope that at least in the Maghreb and the region that I know that changes like that can happen.” Naturally, he’s leading the charge.

In 2013, he co-founded the first Tunisian music export office, Tumex. That came a little early; the scene wasn’t quite ready to export to an international audience, and political instability meant that funding streams eventually dried up. Tumex closed after three years, but it started to lay the groundwork and began to get Tunisia’s local scene noticed on the international market. It’s only been a few years, but a lot has changed since then, and Sofyann is once again making moves to evolve the landscape. This year, he launches Goul Music, a record label “based in Tunisia, from Tunisia, and with Tunisian dinar.” With Goul Music, the aim is to showcase the music of now, introducing the lesser-known sounds of Tunisia to the rest of the country itself, as well as the rest of the world. The label launches with a series of field recordings of contemporary folkloric music, and will move onward to younger traditions, with the view to change opinions of Tunisian music: “the catalogue will be more about stimulating young people into new ways of seeing music and themselves.” And here again we see Sofyann’s holistic approach: great music on its own can touch a person, but its impact is all the more powerful when contextualised in an effective way – as such, the Goul releases will be comprehensive and multimedia, featuring interviews and documentary footage to allow a depth of understanding that has so far been lacking in relationship to this music.

I hope that it is not too obvious to say that he is a busy man. Busy is never in his plans, but it seems to creep up on him nevertheless. “The thing that can fail sometimes is time. I don’t want to do much, but I want to do good. But I always end up doing much as well!” And looking at his schedule for the coming few years, he is definitely doing much. As well as the forthcoming releases on Goul Music, the latest album by Kel Assouf, Black Tenere, came out just last month, and the second AMMAR 808 album is very much in the works – he hints at a South Asian focus this time around. And that’s not to mention the five or so other albums that he will be producing or guesting on over the course of 2019. It seems his work is only just beginning.

With everything that he does, it is clear that Sofyann ben Youssef is working towards the future of Maghrebi music and, with that, society at large. “We have all sorts of events happening in Tunisia, on a political level, on an economic level, it’s not easy. But it’s hopeful. And I think that has an impact on music. It has a positive impact in a way that people are trying to reinvent themselves. It’s always like that after big changes, you see different possibilities.

Photo: AMMAR 808, by Sia Rosenberg; Sofyann ben Youssef, by Stine Sampers.