The Tunisian musician and producer presents a gritty, street-level take on North African sounds and vintage electronics with his latest project
Sofyann Ben Youssef: Maghreb sound unmasked
“I like to think of what I’m doing as a kind of reverse Orientalism,” says Tunisian musician and producer Sofyann Ben Youssef. “I didn’t want to just take traditional music and add a regular kick drum to it ... that’s been done so many times before – what I wanted to do was the exact opposite of that.”
With a name combining an Arabic word that roughly translates as “creator” and one of the most important pieces of hardware in the history of electronic music,
Ben Youssef’s latest project, Ammar 808, offers an innovative and adrenalin-charged take on global fusion.
Reaching out across North Africa, the newly released album under the Ammar 808 banner, Maghreb United blends Tunisian Targ song, Moroccan gnawa, and Algerian rai with crunching beats and an exhilaratingly rough-hewn punk attitude.
Ben Youssef explains the motivations for his work. “In North Africa, we are three [culturally rich] countries that are so close together, but the music from each place is actually very different and does not cross over much,” he says. “With Ammar 808, I wanted to find a way to bring all of that together into one thing that was relevant to the present day.”
The cornerstone of this idea was the Roland TR-808 – an enduringly popular 1980s drum machine that sits not only at the heart of golden-era hip-hop and Detroit techno, but that also underpinned international pop hits such as Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer and Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).
This versatility proved vital to Ben Youssef’s approach.
Determined to avoid the traps many world/electronic projects have fallen into, he forced the often brittle-sounding 808 to fit into the dynamic polyrhythmic traditions he was drawing upon – not the other way around. “Instead of having the machine imposing itself on the music, I wanted to impose the music on the machine,” he says.
Maghreb United sets out its intentions from the start, opening with Degdega, a stripped-back and corroded percussion workout featuring the Algerian singer Sofiane Saidi. Later come the woozy gasba flutes, eight-bit sound effects and pitched-up glam rock shuffle of Ichi lel Bey, with the Tunisian vocalist Cheb Hassen Tej.
Of all 10 tracks, however, the real gem is Layli, a rasping tangle of handclaps, lurching beats and smeary bass, overlaid with discordant lutes and a tear-out performance by the Moroccan singer Mehdi Nassouli.
Despite its polyglot influences and intricate arrangements, one aspect of this album stands particularly proud – the distorted and overdriven nature of the production. Wreathed in dust and grit, it is far from cosy Buddha Bar world music. In fact, it’s much closer to the kind of stuff you’re likely to encounter thundering from wedding party sound systems and car stereos on the streets of Tunis, Rabat and Algiers.
“That was totally premeditated,” Ben Youssef admits. “For example, in a lot of popular north African music, there is this weird-sounding delay or echo – you hear it everywhere … I really wanted to capture that and put it into the vocal tracks. Every bit of that, all the inspiration came from the music I heard in the field, from the places it was being played, the quality of the speakers that were being used and the [compression] of the tracks themselves. I wanted the listener to be able to feel that, because it gets you closer to the music of this region as a real lived experience.
“An album of music from the Maghreb doesn’t have to sound clean – in fact, it really shouldn’t sound clean. As soon as you start to overproduce it, it just becomes like alternative therapy music and that’s not what it’s about at all.”
This grimy and experimental sound is a subtle departure from his work as Moog synth player for Belgium’s Tuareg rock group Kel ssouf and the folk-rock project Bargou 08. It’s also the perfect time to explore such an aesthetic.
In recent years, artists such as the Syrian singer Omar Souleyman and Egypt’s Islam Chipsy have managed to take tape hiss, digital fuzz and no-holds-barred exuberance to a point of unprecedented international popularity for music from the Mena region.
That sense of honesty and rawness is important to Ben Youssef. “Music is about life,” he says. “As an artist, you are there to inspire and to make something – it could be an image, or a piece of music – that reflects the truth. You shouldn’t try to make something beautiful or clean out of something that isn’t. If what you are depicting is ugly, dirty, or messed up, then show it as it is.”
Speaking to Ben Youssef, it is easy to pick up on the quiet idealism behind his uncompromising compositions.
Maghreb United is an album that is, at once, firmly in touch with its roots and equally focused on the potential for North African and Middle Eastern artists to create for themselves a new identity and place in the world.
“The changes in 2011, in Tunisia and the Arab world in general … they made many of us feel different about what we can contribute and how important it is that we do contribute to a global culture,” he says. “All the choices about how the album was going to be made, what the music was going to sound like, what it was going to say, what it was going to be called, the kind of people that were going to listen to it ... they were all made in a very conscious way.”
As a result, Maghreb United is a thoroughly modern baby, conceived by Ben Youssef in Europe and in the Maghreb, nurtured by digital communications, and then delivered to his audience through a process of remote working with collaborators. What’s more, this combination of the traditional and contemporary is not just clear to the ear, it is also visible.
“We have one video coming out soon,” Ben Youssef says. “In it there are elements of futurism, ancient history and different imagined versions of the past... I feel that Africa has a big role to play in the world now. We are at a point where we have the ability to look at the things we have done – at the past, at our history – all in a way that will allow us to shape what is to come. Maybe this won’t alter our own lives very much immediately, but what we do now will matter to our kids and to following generations.
“In the Maghreb, and the world in general, we are all constantly distracted by so many different things that we’ve ended up getting drawn into a life that is just about surviving, when we should really be thriving and looking to the stars. I just think that if the present isn’t good enough, we should always be able to dream up a future that is – and then try to make it a reality.”
Amar 808: Maghreb United was released earlier this week and is available now to purchase through Glitterbeat Records.