Swaken

Bab L’ Bluz

Released 10 May 2024

  1. Imazighen
  2. Wahia Wahia
  3. Zaino
  4. AmmA
  5. Bangoro
  6. IWAIWA FUNK
  7. Ya Leilo
  8. Hezalli
  9. Karma
  10. Li Maana
  11. Mouja

Liner notes

Let go. Fall in. Follow the spiral, and find your centre. Move and whirl, headbang and hair whip, into a place that is out there and deep within, an altered state where minds open, boundaries fall away and trust — in values, principles, ourselves — is rediscovered, made real.

Welcome, then, to the world of Swaken, the highly anticipated second album by French-Moroccan power quartet, Bab L’ Bluz. Recorded at Real World Studios in Wiltshire, England, written partly in Morocco — the birthplace of frontwoman Yousra Mansour — and mostly across a world tour that took them from Adelaide, Barcelona and New York to Essaouira in Morocco, Lomé in Togo and Dougga in Tunisia. Eleven tracks that spark and pulse with kinetic, pedal-to-the-metal energy.

Mansour’s melismatic voice has never sounded so forceful, or the riffage from her electric awisha lute so mighty. Her bandmates (on everything from keyboards, flutes and electric guembri to drums, backing vocals and qraqeb castanets) now interact with what might be telepathy, their playing skilled and tight.

This is ancient-to-future music, rooted as much in psychedelic blues, funk and rock as in the trancey, propulsive rhythms of northern Africa’s Maghreb: Gnawa, Amazigh, Hassani and Houara music. The popular street music known as Chaabi, in which the word ‘swaken’ means to visit another dimension, as well as the space in which two dimensions overlap.

Losing yourself to find yourself is a central tenet of Swaken, an album whose warm analogue sound nods to such ’70s rock icons as Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Nass El Ghiwane, Morocco’s very own Rolling Stones, social justice warriors who mixed western rock and folk with a trance aesthetic influenced — as is that of Bab L’ Bluz — by Gnawa lilas, the all-night healing rituals intended for sacred spirit possession.

“Constant touring means we have grown in confidence and power,” says Mansour of the band she co-founded in 2018 with French guitarist, bass guembri lute player and multi-instrumentalist Brice Bottin, who co-produced Swaken in the Wood Room at Real World Studios with the latter’s Katie May.

“We adapted our sound for festival crowds, made it heavier, rockier. We added more instruments. More courage. More fire.”

Back in 2020 Bab L’ Bluz opened the gate — to the blues, to a new way of being — with their debut album Nayda! Named for Morocco’s revolutionary youth movement of artists and musicians, whose philosophies (community, creativity, change) the band strives to embody, Nayda! won plaudits from Le Monde, Vogue Arabia and the New York Times, and clinched the 2021 Songlines Award in the Fusion category.

Bab L’ Bluz have gone on to fold electric mandole and electric ribab (the single-stringed bowed violin vital to Amazigh/Berber culture) into their message-driven wig outs. A luthier, not far from their hometown of Lyon, France fashioned the doubleneck awisha/mandole guitar (three single strings on one neck/five double strings on the other) from which Mansour now fires her lightning-bolt riffs.

“The ribab feels so mystical, and there are even less women playing ribab than the [awisha] guembri,” she says, and smiles. “And there are probably no women playing them both, electrified, at the same time.”

“We love the rock energy,” says Bottin, who also wields dub sirens and plays guitar, banjo, percussion and West Africa’s peul flute. “You plug in your instrument and you drive people crazy. Rock came from blues. Both are related to trance music. You can listen deeply, or headbang, and be completely taken over.”

Imazighen video. Directed by Alden Volley

While hundreds of thousands of people around the globe have abandoned themselves to the band’s intense, hypnotic wall of sound, success has also brought out the haters. Having worked hard and gone big, Bab L’ Bluz — which also features Ibrahim Terkemani, Mehdi Chaib and Jérôme Bartolome — have, when required, pushed back.

“We have huge crowds cheering us on,” says Mansour, one of five daughters raised by a widowed single mother, a science teacher with a strong sense of self-worth. “Some of those people are fighting the same fight. But there are still times when we are confronted with outdated attitudes; for example, after we played the Gnawa Festival in Essaouira last year, a famous Moroccan newspaper ran an online review praising the empowered female performers, and it received an avalanche of toxic comments.”

A shrug. “Which only makes me more determined to express everything I feel. I will not censor myself.”

For the most part, Mansour writes and sings in Darija, her Moroccan-Arabic dialect, and the preferred language of the Nayda movement (‘nayda’ means ‘up’ in Darija). On Swaken she confronts such contentious topics as Moroccan inheritance laws, gender wage disparities and rising cases of suicide and depression while calling for unity, tolerance and kindness in an increasingly fragile world.

"Some of those people are fighting the same fight. But there are still times when we are confronted with outdated attitudes... which only makes me more determined to express everything I feel. I will not censor myself." Yousra Mansour

Arrangements co-written with Bottin revel in deftly applied distortion and reverb, and sparkle with quarter-tones found in North and West African and some Middle Eastern scales.  “This discovery opened another gate to musical opportunities,” says Bottin.

Swaken opens with ‘Imazighen’, a rollicking celebration of the richness of ethnic diversity. The song’s refrain (‘We (North African natives) are all true Amazighs‘) is sung in Tamazight, the language of the Amazigh Berbers, Mansour’s ancestors. “In the past the Amazigh people were discouraged from speaking their language, and were derided by many [classical] Arabic-speakers,” she says.  “Today this is changing. The language is taught in schools, and young people are reclaiming and celebrating their Amazigh roots.”

Variously inspired by Gnawa music, the lamenting Aita folksong of the west-central Moroccan countryside and the Ahwach collective performance tradition of southern Morocco, ‘Wahia Wahia’ is a rallying cry for solidarity; a diorama in which drums crash, effects echo, voices weave and portals open. ‘Zaino’ reimagines the poetic Hassani love songs of southern Morocco/Mauritania via pentatonic melodies, a sinewy Ethiopian flavour and that fierce all-stops-out rock. “It’s about the fight for women’s freedom of expression,” says Mansour, “as well as a love letter to beauty and kindness.”

Music from north-east Morocco and influences from Tunisia and Algeria feed ‘AmmA’ [sic], a track infused with flutes, percussion and looping chords, and where Mansour’s passionate ululations underscore a warrior vibe that recalls the traditional Maori haka war dance. “Awaken, women/Rise, women/I am not half a man/That time is over,” she declaims, railing against the oppression found in archaic systems. “Everyone, repeat after us…”

A reversed peul flute intro, and ‘Bangoro’ gathers pace until it morphs into an electro-yelping, ’70s riffing, psychedelic blues-rock excursion that veers into West Africa; ‘IWAIWA FUNK’ is played on electric mandole, sung in the higher-pitched vocal style found in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains, and themed to remind us that life is short, resentment is futile and dance – whirling, hair-whipping dance – is a conduit to the soul.

‘Ya Leilo’ is a fragrant mix of Gnawa and Hassani music, Mauritanian rock, loping Tuareg rhythms and the percussive Houara music from Taroudant in south western Morocco. ‘Hezalli’, Swaken‘s only non-original tune, is a sublime traditional Jewish Yemenite song written by Mutahhar Ali Al-Eriyani: “I used to sing this song a long time ago,” says Mansour, who plays electric mandole throughout. “I thought about the difficulties Yemen is facing, and the culture that the tribes from Yemen maybe brought to Morocco.”

The heavyweight ‘Karma’ is a song about what goes around, comes around, its Arabo-Andalusian influences piqued by the numerous gigs that Bab L’ Bluz have played in Spain, its healing powers hinted at by esoteric [Moroccan Sufi] Aissawa vibes, its import emphasised by Mansour’s cracking, amped-out voice: “Katie [May] used a big overdrive on this,” she says. “These are big words that I’m singing.”

‘Li Maana’ is a fighting song, fuelled by ribab/awisha, that advocates for a better, more tolerant society – in Morocco, the Maghreb, the world – while namechecking strong female figures including Aicha Kendicha, a fabled prostitute who resisted colonisation by killing Portuguese colonists and over centuries has been subsumed, a scary djinniya (female djinn), into Moroccan folklore, and Dihya al-Kahina, an Amazigh/Berber princess-warrior who led indigenous resistance to early Muslim conquests of the Maghreb.

‘Mouja’ (‘Wave after wave’), the album’s AC/DC-style closer, uses a guitar/guembri riff and hard-hitting Darija lyrics to confront the overwhelm that so many of us experience daily, what with negative events and existential threats assaulting our senses, and harmful lifestyles — forced and/or chosen — compounding problems further. “We are living and consuming as if we’re running out of time, and have lost sight of who we are, of what matters,” says Mansour. “We need to appreciate the life we are living now.”

Music helps.

Music that makes you forget to remember, that takes you over, sends you under, into a place of clarity and connection. A place that shakes us up, to bring us peace.

This is Swaken. Let’s meet each other there.

Words by Jane Cornwell

Credits

Album produced by: Nayda Prod, Yousra Mansour and Brice Bottin
Mix: Katie May and Brice Bottin
Mastering: Tim Oliver
Studio: Real World Studios

Songs written and composed by Yousra Mansour and Brice Bottin
‘Hizalli’ is a traditional Yemenite song written by Mutahhar Ali Al-Eryani
Published by Real World Works Ltd
All arrangements by Brice Bottin and Yousra Mansour.

Yousra Mansour: Lead vocal, electric awisha, electric mandol, electric guembri, qraqeb, electric ribab, bendir, tbal, taarija
Brice Bottin: Electric guembri, guitar, banjo, peul flûte, keyboards, qraqeb, bendir, cowbell, bongos, taarija, dub siren, gong, backing vocals
Ibrahim Terkemani: Drums, qraqeb, bendir, backing vocals
Jérôme Bartolome: Qraqeb, cowbell, backing vocals
with Mehdi Chaib: Ney, Kawala, Zorna

Listen

Reviews

  • Fiery and exultant. Bab L' Bluz's sound, which fuses traditional Moroccan folk music with a strong, rhythmic drive - that of the Amazigh, Gnawa, Hassani and Houara peoples - to psych-blues, rock and funk in songs that address local socio-political issues. Swaken is heavier than their 2020 debut …. it's also more varied, as standouts 'AmmA', whose whirling intensity Jaz Coleman might well applaud, the sweetly twangling, gently hypnotic 'Hezalli' and punchy desert-blues of 'Li Maana' attest. 7/10 UNCUT
  • Their second LP, then, arrives with greater expectations, but a gig-tested muscularity to blow the cobwebs off that four-year gap, with the rock of Led Zeppelin rather than the roll of more familiar Saharan bands. Crucially, though, the band use traditional lutes, flutes and percussion - awisha, ribab, quembri, grageb, ney - giving their music a different texture to groups with similar dynamics. There's a trance-like swing to AmmA, no-nonsense boogie on Zaino, and if apocalyptic freak-outs (à la I Am The Resurrection) are your thing, Mouja will definitely not disappoint. **** MOJO

Further Listening

  • Nayda!

    Bab L’ Bluz

    Released 05 June 2020

    Moroccan-French power quartet, Bab L’ Bluz, reclaim the blues for North Africa. Fronted by an African-Moroccan woman in a traditionally male role, Bab L’ Bluz are devoted to a revolution in attitude which dovetails with Morocco’s ‘nayda’ youth movement – a new wave of artists and musicians taking their cues from local heritage, singing words of freedom in the Moroccan-Arabic dialect of darija.
  • Musow Danse

    Les Amazones d’Afrique

    Released 16 February 2024

    Like a bow pulled back with a fist and a sharp-angled elbow, the supergroup Les Amazones d'Afrique take aim at gender inequality and, fortified by an ancient-to-future soundscape co-crafted with producer Jacknife Lee, shoot their flaming arrows. Six glorious voices, six mighty queens — Alvie Bitemo, Dobet Gnahoré, Kandy Guira, Mamani Keïta, Nneka, Fafa Ruffino — declaim in a range of languages of the freedom and joy that comes with speaking out, and of the power of unity and ally-ship. Female warriordom has never sounded so fierce — or so danceable.

Further reading

The Unfolding: Bristol Light Festival

Bristol Light Festival is returns from Friday 2nd - Sunday 11th February, 2024.

Mari Kalkun nominated for 3 Estonian Music Awards

The award nominations are in recognition of her album Stories of Stonia, released Summer 2023.

A Tribute to Ernesto ‘Teto’ Ocampo (1969-2023)

Sidestepper's Richard Blair remembers his late bandmate Teto.

10 years of resistance: Les Amazones d’Afrique’s fight continues on Musow Danse

Righteous anger has never felt so warm and convincing. Or so goddam danceable.