Think of One: Have stage, will travel...

The Belgian band Think of One – plus their African guest stars – have been on the road for a decade. Tim Cumming joins them
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The Independent Culture

The Belgian world music group Think of One have been on the road for more than 10 years now, a cross-cultural moveable feast housed in a raggedy fleet of vans, trucks and trailers.

Their base of operations is in a former military warehouse on the edge of Antwerp. It's here that they store their original East German Barca van, which they have adapted to open up to make three levels – brass on the top, bass tuba in the middle, guitar and vocals at the bottom – and which has served them as an impromptu stage in countless stops along their decade-long journey.

The core band numbers a half dozen – three brass players, a drummer, bassist, and guitarist – and they've just finished the first gig of a new tour for a new album, Camping Shaabi, that mixes, in Bovee's own words, "Berber rhythms with Django Reinhardt".

The band's guitarist, singer and main songwriter, Bovee is a longtime veteran of the travellers' movement. He is the only band member still living full-time on the road. But, he admits, "It's getting much harder. There were three big camps in Antwerp – a mix of Turks, Romany and travellers. Sometimes there'd be clashes, but we were all in the same boat." He shrugs. "Then they literally cleaned it out, brought in container trucks. I live now on what looks like a touristic mobile home. But we know all the good spots for stopping, we know where can stay for two or three nights before moving on."

Think of One grew from a loose, communal pool of musicians and friends based in Antwerp. Right from the off they were jamming with African musicians based in Belgium, mixing it up with their own angular, sometimes atonal European folk, rock and jazz dynamics. Their first single release was so home-made it was packaged in a coffee filter stuck on to cardboard. A year or so later they'd acquired the Barca van and set out on the road to play their first festival.

"What turned it around was that van," says Bovee. "We kitted it out, and we went to Avignon, played on the street and had real success. Made enough money for petrol and pizzas. That was the start of Think of One in doing it yourself, so that whatever else happens, we've got our own stage. With these trucks we'll always be able to play on our own terms."

Their last album, 2006's acclaimed Trafico, took them to Brazil, where they recorded in situ with local musicians. Other projects have brought them together with gypsy, Congolese and Inuit singers and musicians, and for Camping Shaabi they've steered the compass back towards the Moroccan rhythms they started out with back in the Nineties.

"A percussionist from Marrakesh, Abdellah Marrakchi, came to jam with us, and we went back to his uncle's house in Marrakesh and stayed there for four months, really studying the rhythms. He introduced us to the Houara singer Amina."

Hourara is a powerfully rhythmic, full-throated, guttural vocal style. Amina Tcherkich, along with fellow Houara singer Lalabrouk Loujabe, are here with Think of One in Utrecht to take Camping Shaabi on the road. Though the album is stuffed with layers of samples, on stage it's the African elements that dominate.

Nor are they the only guests pitching tent with the freewheelin' Belgians. As well as shaabi singing star Mustafa Bourgogne and violinist Hakim Bouanani, the album features Gnawa master musician Abdul Kabir, who plays the ghimbri.

Shaabi is Arabic for ghetto, and it is a rough and ready street music, a dance style that weaved its way out of Egyptian pop and got itself restamped by radical Moroccan bands of the Seventies. It dominates the new album, from the opening song, "J'étais Jetée", all ebullient call-and-response choruses in Shaabi time signatures, to the likes of "Gnawa Power", a traditional tune with the ghimbri mirrored on bass and guitar. Even after the gig is over, the venue's after-house DJ spins superb Moroccan shaabi, as Think of One finally climb into the back of their van, heading towards the roads that'll take them to the rest of Europe, and the festival season.

'Camping Shaabi' is out now on Crammed Discs