Speed Caravan, 2009
"I've always had this rage that I need to express." Mehdi Haddab sits back, rests his electric oud on his lap. "Rage against, I don't know... injustice. Inequality. The system." He pauses, smiles. "And music - loud music - is the thing that helps me channel it."
Better hold on: with Haddab behind the wheel of Speed Caravan you know you're in for a ride. Electrified, amplified and fuelled by creative fire, the Paris-based quartet charge towards a psychedelic horizon; slaloming through rock, dance, electro, hiphop, world and other music - blazing a trail with raised fists, a hand brake turn and a sharp spray of desert sand.
Haddab is a virtuoso of the classical oud, that fretless Arabic lute beloved of Middle Eastern orchestras and an instrument with a history stretching back over 5,000 years. Inspired by traditional players such as post WW2 sensation Udi Hrant Kenkulian, a blind Armenian Turk who eased the oud into popular music by rearranging traditional songs, Haddab mastered the instrument and took it with him into French global electronica trio Ekova and the acclaimed experimental duo DuOud.
"I'm actually a bit of a purist," says Haddab. "My favourite style of oud playing is from before the Second World War because it doesn't try to copy or prove anything." He pauses, smiles. "If you want to go far in the future," says the Algerian-born thirty-something, "then sometimes you have to look back."
Haddab also happens to be a virtuoso of rock. Growing up in Algiers, the son of an electronic engineer whose vinyl collection included Beatles, Stones, Creedence and a lot of psychedelia, he started playing guitar aged five. "People think that if you grew up in North Africa then rock 'n' roll is not part your culture. But we all watched television; rock's energy hits you wherever you are." Another pause. "Right now my sister and her friends in Algiers love thrash metal. There are so many problems in Algeria; it helps them let their anger out."
Speed Caravan's debut album Kalashnik Love - its title track a furious homage to Udi Hrant - combines tradition and future, ancient and urban, beauty and fury to stun-gunning effect. Laden with special guests and throbbing with raw rock energy it references everyone from The Cure and The Chemical Brothers to Algerian rai and other Arabic influences. The sublime result of several year's worth of incendiary live touring, it is fusion - but not (hurrah!) as we know it.
Rewind, for a moment, to 2002. Haddab and Tunisian-born Jean-Pierre 'Smadj' Smadja are in the middle of a world tour with DuOud ("I felt like I was on some sort of Tuareg caravan with all the travelling on planes and cars and things"). Somewhere along the way Haddab got hold of a purpose-built electric oud ("I been changing my acoustic oud over to electric") and after testing the new instrument's potential onstage and off, put plans for a new project into action.
Haddab had wanted to work with bass player and long-time friend Pascal 'Pasco' Teillet for a while. "Pasco really understands Arabic music and scales," he says. "He started coming over to my house and we'd work on new and old songs and play late into night most nights. I was going through a divorce at the time," he adds with a sigh. "So I was very available."
After signing up electronic beat mistress and former Ekova member Hermione Frank, Speed Caravan started playing live as a trio. Word of mouth spread. The bookings kept on coming. Audiences marvelled at Haddab's flamboyant, frenetic style (not for nothing has he been called the Hendrix of the oud); at the way Pasco's bass underlined the oud's arabesques; at the way Frank grooved at her computer, throwing in some beats here, twiddling a dial there. Later they would marvel at the deft percussion skills and throaty vocals of Moroccan-born Mohamed 'Simo' Bouamar, who kept the vibe firmly in the East.
A multitude of other artists marvelled, too. Many clamoured to climb aboard. Kalashnik Love duly boasts an army of like-minded collaborators: sound engineer and sonic architect David Hussar. Rachid Taha, the rai rebel himself, weighing in on an urgent version of The Cure's 'Killing An Arab'; a song inspired by the Albert Camus novel The Outsider and - wrested back from Crawley's Robert Smith and sung for the most part by Wattie Delay from Alsace - given even more complex meaning.
"I had forgotten about that song entirely, and then I found it on an old Cure cassette" says Haddab. "I thought it would be interesting for a non-western band to perform - it becomes instantly political."
Want politics? A cover version of The Chemical Brothers' Galvanise grabs by the scruff and doesn't let go. Adding their own rage to the already considerable fury of the Berber-music-sampling original are Spex MC of Asian Dub Foundation; Algira, Rabah and Deymed of Algiers-based hiphop outfit Micro Bries le Silence; and civil rights activist Paul Kendall. "The Chemical Brothers were using Arabic music to shock," says Haddab of the English electro rock duo. "We're hitting them back with another interpretation, like you would in a racquet game."
Yemeni singer Abdulatif Yacoub and guitarist Rudolphe Burger join in on Qat Market, an ode to the psychotropic plant ("You gotta have a drug track; this is rock 'n' roll!"). The pounding, relentless Dubai - featuring vocals by Simo, Asian Dub Foundation's Rocky Singh and Richard Archer from indie-rock gods Hard-Fi - is an indictment of the dross beneath the gloss of the mirage city. Erotic Chiftetelli is an aural pitstop that caresses and revives via oud, guitars and sensual feminine whispers. Even speed caravans need to take a break.
Buoyed by percussionists Arnaud Dieterlen, Rocky Singh and Raban Khalfa (usually heard backing Algerian chanteuse Souad Massi) the Udi Hrant tune Parov Yegar Siroon Var begins measured and thoughtful then revs off into space; the same percussion trio are there on Idemo Dalje, a track that features a traditional Bulgarian melody courtesy of young Serbian synthesiser prodigy, Viorel Tajkuna. Hotel Zyannides **** is a traditional melody from Algeria's hawzi style, developed in collaboration with musicians in northwest Algeria's Tlemcen province. "In a hotel," says Haddab, "that pretended to be four star."
Renowned Breton vocalist Erik Marchand takes on all-time oud classic Daddy Lolo by Armenian oud rock icon Chick Ganimian ("A definite musical relative of Dick Dale"); a once-heard never forgotten tune that given the Speed Caravan treatment, hurtles into a head-banging party. Algira, Rabah and Deymed from MBS turn up again on Aissa Wah, a wah-wah laden paean to Sufi trance. Remixes of both tracks add final touches to the album: celebrated British producer Sidestepper gives us a visionary Daddy Lolo. Malian innovator Mo DJ works his magic on Aissa Wah.
Kalashnik Love is, then, some album; one born of rage, and rock, and love.
"The oud comes from the desert, where water is precious." Haddab's voice softens. "It looks like a water bowl. It's shaped like a teardrop. There is no instrument for me that is better." He flashes a grin. "Soft or loud," he says.
- Funky, frenetic fusion of traditional Arabic styles with western rock riffola and electro beats (Justin & Juldeh's) set was preceded by Speed Caravan's funky, frenetic fusion of traditional Arabic styles with western rock riffola and electro beats, led by frontman Mehdi Haddab on the electric oud and best realised in their turbo-charged cover of the Chemical Brothers' Galvanize, which highlighted the Moroccan roots of its sampled hookline. The Scotsman (Scotland)
- A Fantastic Collision ...a fantastic collision of global sounds and styles. Virtuoso Mehdi Haddab takes an all-out rock direction with a North African twist. Killing An Arab / Speed Caravan - Number 4 in JungleDrums top 5 Downloads www.jungledrumsonline.com
- A Unique Sound Pushing the oud - the fretless lute at the heart of the majority of traditional Arabic music - into a rock instrument, Speed Caravan has created a unique sound. The Algerian-French trio create music that draws upon The Cure and The Chemical Brothers alongside Algerian rai and other Arabic influences in a fantastic collision of global sounds and styles. Virtuoso Mehdi Haddab takes an all-out rock direction with a North African twist. Jungle Drums (UK)
- An Enjoyable Cross-cultural Treat. There is a sharp mind at work in Speed Caravan, and it belongs to master oud player Mehdi Haddab....The young Paris-based Arab musician has an unflinching gaze trained at the way Western pop music appropriates and commodifies Middle Eastern musical tradition. The oud is a pear-shaped, Arabic lute-cum-fretless banjo style instrument and one of the main voices in the music key in Persian culture for the last five thousand years...this is an enjoyable cross-cultural treat. BBC Online (UK)
- Highly Original The Cure and the Chemical Brothers meet the Arabic oud of Mehdi Haddab in Speed Caravan, a Paris-based quartet of Arabic lute, bass, percussion, vocal and electronics. The group's guests on this album include Rachid Taha, who performs The Cure's controversial 'Killing an Arab. This is no fragrant Arabesque album but grungy, amplified, mongrel fusion. But other tracks - 'Kalashnik Love' and 'Erotic Chifitetelli' - take their inspiration from the Armenian-Turkish oud master Udi Hrant and display Haddad's dexterous instrumental technique. All in all, it's a highly original mix of drum-heavy grooves, oriental colour and irreverent fun. Evening Standard (UK)
- Quite Phenomenal Real World have hit a winner with this debut album from French-Algerian outfit Speed Caravan...While buoyed up by percussion, bass guitar and some deftly placed electronica, the quartet's main selling point is the electric oud (lute) of Mehdi Haddab, formerly of experimental duo DuOud. An admirer of traditional oud players such as post-war sensation Udi Hrant, as well as rock behemoths including The Rolling Stones and (on occasion) Megadeth, Haddab has fused history and technical brilliance with rage and energy, and created something quite phenomenal. Songlines (UK)
- Persuasive ...French group Speed Caravan's use of the Arabic lute in a hard rocking, quasi-heavy metal context isn't quite unique. It raises thoughts of French outfit DuOuD, hardly surprising when you realise founder member Mehdi Haddab's role as half of that dynamic duo...rhythmically this CD is persuasive, with oud ever-present as both acoustic colour and fuzzed-up metal monster. Limelight (UK)
- A band at its best when balancing North African and western styles ...Mehdi Haddab is a virtuoso of the ancient classical Arabic lute, the oud - and is determined to show that this is an instrument that can match the guitar for its range and versatility. As a member of the experimental DuOud, Haddab has already proved that the oud can cover anything from soul to electronica, and now comes a furious display of all-out oud rock. Backed by bass, percussion, electronics and guitar, he sets out to match the furious rai-rock fusion work of Rachid Taha, with Taha himself joining in on vocals for the stomping treatment of the Cure's Killing An Arab. This is a band at its best when balancing North African and western styles while allowing Haddab's taut and attacking oud solos to dominate proceedings... Guardian (UK)