Maghrebika: Moroccan maestros

Maghrebika's music is an education: not just in its African origins but in its lyrical focus on Muslims, writes Phil Meadley

Some people approach the idea of tampering with traditional music with caution, but Pat Jabbar - producer, musician and owner of the Swiss-based label Barraka El Farnatshi - prefers the all-or-nothing philosophy. For 16 years, his label has consistently chipped away at the boundaries, juxtaposing traditional Moroccan music with Jamaican dub, funk, electro, house, trance and trip-hop styles. And for a large part of his label's existence he's collaborated with bass player extraordinaire, and famed producer, Bill Laswell. Like Jabbar, Laswell is a man noted for shredding the rule book, most notably as producer of Herbie Hancock's seminal album Future Shock, seen as a precursor of the hip-hop movement, as well as his recent production duties on Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu's breakthrough album Youth.

Their most recent collaboration is on the album Neftakhir by Maghrebika, a name that Jabbar describes as "a derivation of Maghreb [a region of North Africa taking in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and sometimes Mauritania] and a little word play on Metallica". Unlike the majority of the label's output, the bulk of this one was recorded in Jabbar's hometown of Basel, with the help of Algerian singers Abdelkader Belkacem and Abdelaziz Lamari, both of whom he met at the local mosque. Other parts were added later in Morocco.

Although Jabbar was brought up a Swiss Protestant, he converted to Islam many years ago, but stresses that he only became serious about it three and a half years ago. "Before, I didn't practise," he says. "I was drinking, smoking weed, doing ecstasy, etc. But this life became really boring, so I started saying prayers five times a day, going to mosques and doing Ramadan."

Musically, Neftakhir (which translates roughly as "to be proud") mixes raï, shaabi (popular Moroccan music), and gnawa, through electronic filters and various trancelike beats, mostly aided by Laswell's sonorous, hypnotic bass. Lyrically, there seems to be a recurring theme, that of Islam and how its teachings have helped people gain a deeper meaning to their life, and also the misconceptions abounding after September 11. "It's not really that interesting to hear about how someone is having a problem with his girlfriend," says Jabbar. "So, given that most of the people in Maghrebika are practising Muslims, we thought that we would concentrate on that. It's one of the biggest things in our lives, so the lyrics talk about educating people, telling them what is true about Islam, and trying to get them to forget the misrepresentations and propaganda that's been propagated by the media, especially about terrorism and Muslims."

A good example is the title track, which implores young Arabs not to be influenced by Western values at the detriment of their own culture. It's jointly sung by Belkacem and legendary Moroccan all-women singing group B-Net Marrakech. The track "Ghourba Mourra", sung by Belkacem and Lamari, discusses the feelings of being exiled to a strange, inhospitable land. The lyrics go: "Oh my God, look how we live? Exile is bitter and exile is dark... I want to leave this exile and keep away from the troubles that we find." "From Mecca to Najaf" is about the civil war in Iraq, between Shiites and Sunnis, and is a call for Muslim's to forget their differences.

"People confuse the different aspects of Islam," Jabbar says. "Islam in Afghanistan and Turkey is a totally different aspect of Islam than in Morocco, or Algeria. Sunnis and Shiites in Iran are again very different. Most countries have a very different approach to Islam; sometimes it's even mixed with indigenous roots, which is the case in Senegal and Nigeria. So our main idea as very open-minded pacifist Muslims was to show a different path away from just having fun, going to parties and living for each thrill. If you watch people in Morocco they can be very poor, living in ghetto slums, but they're always smiling and happy, and this is because of Islam."

Jabbar met Laswell indirectly through the American composer, author (best known for The Sheltering Sky) and traveller Paul Bowles. A friend of Bowles suggested Jabbar send some material to Bill Laswell, who agreed to collaborate, so Jabbar and his Moroccan group flew over to New York to record Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects second album Shabeesation.

At the time, Laswell had started dabbling in North African music in his own right. "A lot of people became interested in that part of the world, not so much through music, but from reading things about people who had gone to live there, obvious examples being Paul Bowles, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin," he says.

Certainly one of the most prolific men in music production (he's currently switching between rock-edged drum'n' bass and remixing Ozzy Osbourne), Laswell managed to find some spare time to add his unique bass-line to 10 tracks on Neftakhir. "The way we work is more like trading," he says. "If it was 100 years before, I'd do a bass-line for a couple of goats or something."

And what of the future? With the radical idea of fusing Moroccan tradition with psy-trance on his forthcoming project Dar Beida 04, Jabbar shows little sign of compromising just yet.The ex-philosophy student, who gave up his studies in Geneva to run his small, independent label 16 years ago, is still going strong.

'Neftakhir' is out now on Barbarity/ Barraka el Farnatshi ( www.maroc.net/barraka)

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