Fusing sounds across the Sahara

Top L: Barbapappa; Top C: Fnaire, R: Rita Ray Bottom L: Ahmed Soultan; Bottom C: Sauti SolImage copyright

In her regular column about African music, DJ Rita Ray looks at some of the best recent music releases from Morocco – and why some North African musicians are seeking inspiration further south.

Ahmed Soultan, a pioneer of Morocco’s urban music scene, says that one of the most popular bands at the moment is Fnaire with their new single Chayeb.

Media captionChayeb by Fnaire

“They have just released a new video [of it]… and they’ve got a million views already and they are being played in the all the radio stations,” he told me.

The trio from Marrakech “took a popular old song, took the chorus and reproduced it in a contemporary way”.

It is a blend of rap and traditional Moroccan chaabi music with a strong message about enforced marriage and child brides.

Soultan himself has created a sound that brings together African rhythms and instruments like the darbuka drum and the guembri, the North African version of the ngoni lute of West Africa, which is played by the Gnawa people of the Maghreb.

The name he has given to the sound came from the legendary US musician George Clinton of Funkadelic and Parliament fame – two funk bands who were big in the 1970s.

“Five years ago I was in the studio with him and he started to say: ‘I like this track I am going to work with you on it,'” Soultan explains.

“He said: ‘I can hear Africa and there is something else.’ And I said: ‘Yeah it’s North Africa.’

“He said: ‘Oh so it’s like Afro-Arabian – Afrobian.’ I said: ‘Please Uncle George give me this word. Can I take Afrobian to describe this music?'”

Soultan has since distilled the fusion and his new album Music Has No Boundaries boasts a track called Afrobian.

Media captionAfrobian by Ahmed Soultan

“I recorded this track with living legend Femi Kuti, son of Fela Kuti, [trombonist] Fred Wesley and [saxophonist] Pee Wee Ellis from the JBs, James Brown’s band, and a young master Gnawa musician called Medina Souri… I decided to call it Afrobian and Femi loved it,” he says.

Soultan is intent on forging new links with his peers across the continent and his collaboration with Femi Kuti is one of his many musical dialogues.

But he is not the only one – there seems to be a movement of young North African musicians including Djmawi Africa and El Foukr R’Assembly from Algeria who are looking to make an impact south of the Sahara through live performances and collaborations.

Then there are the YouTube sensations Barbapappa , a parody covers band from Morocco who are enjoying huge success with their versions of African hits including Shekini by Nigerian duo P-Square.

Media captionHek Lili Nifi by Barbapappa

“They did a parody of Shekini called Hek Lili Nifi – “Touch My Nose” – and they used several accents of Morocco to cover the track but it was a parody just for Morocco, North Africa and it was a big hit,” Soultan says.

He says the Moroccan flavoured take of the popular Afrobeats song went viral, getting millions of views and became even more popular than the original.

P-Square heard about it and went on to perform with Barbapappa and as a result increased their fan base in North Africa.

“But in terms of a product Barbapappa didn’t release the track to be popular in Nigeria – they did it to be famous here in Morocco and it was a success. It was great,” Soultan says.

For Soultan, rhythm is what connects Africa north and south of the Sahara.

“When you go to a wedding in Morocco or Nigeria you will hear the same rhythms.”

His aim is to reboot that link and be part of building the new African pop music already under way across the continent.

“Afrobeats is already popular. You have guys like 2Face, Davido, Wizkid, who are doing good Afropop music and they inspire me to do what I am doing… It’s about building our own music base, scene, industry and looking to ourselves.

“There are enough of us to do it and make it sustainable. After we build this African pop we will have the respect of the world’s music industry by proving that we do ‘good’ music too.”

And which architects of the new Afropop music is he finding particularly inspirational just now?

“A popular band called Sauti Sol from Kenya just released an album called Live and Die in Afrika and I really like the title track because it reminds me of a U2 track produced by Africans for Africans and with no compromise,” Soultan says.

Media captionLive and Die in Afrika by Sauti Sol

Listen closely and in the rhythms and instruments featured, you will hear the Afrobian flava in the track – not surprising given the Arabic legacy found in the musical heritage of the Swahili coast.

The connection between the north and the south of the continent works both ways.

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