Saturday, October 7, 2017

Mehdi Nabti : Beyond The Trance

I just found this interesting interview of Mehdi Nabti by Ayoub Mouz via social networks. Published by an english magazine in Arabic, I put this english translation. Here the source Original interview in Arabic (Maazif magazine, London UK, sept. 2017). You can also read my review of Mehdi Nabti's album Hybridations & Transformations (2016). 

Interview with Mehdi Nabti : about the crosses between moroccan trance music (Aïssâwa) and jazz music

Mehdi Nabti is a french-canadian saxophonist, composer, autor and researcher in anthropology. In this meeting, he interacts with a moroccan musician about his compositions and their relationship with the moroccan folklore. The two interlocutors discuss the convergence of two musical styles, Aïssâwa Sufi music and jazz (which have their African roots in common), the problem of mixing musical styles, attempts at hybridization and the challenges of artistic renewal .

Maazif : You took classical music and later university studies in anthropology. Tell us about this adventure.

I was born in Paris and I lived in this city then in the Paris region. Since 2009 I live in Montreal. My family is from Kabylie, city of Bejaia, in Algeria. In France, I received a standard academic training: studies of classical guitar in conservatory from the age of 6 years, then classical saxophone and jazz from 15 years. I thank my parents for having given us a "bourgeois" education, even if we are from the working class. At the University of Paris 8, I followed a curriculum in multimedia communication (Maitrise in Sciences and Techniques) and a DEA in sociology. I then went to EHESS for my doctoral studies. I had my phd/doctorate in social anthropology in 2007 on the Sufi trance music of Aïssâwa. But when I was at the University I followed the teaching of jazzmen François Jeanneau (improvisation techniques) and Max Hedigger (jazz harmony). I deepened my knowledge with Philippe Sellam, Steve Coleman, Andy Emler and other more confidential musicians who encourage creativity and intellectual autonomy.

Maazif : After this rich and eventful journey, where is your artistic practice today ?

My artistic practice evolves with age and life. In the 1990s in France I played a lot of different music (funk, jazz, electro, house, percussion orchestras, Afro folklore, improvised music) and I created and directed from 2004 to 2008 a French-Moroccan jazz/world orchestra bringing together jazz musicians and Aissawa musicians from Fes in Morocco, Aissawaniyya. With this group, I gave masterclasses and recorded unpublished sessions (in Morocco, Spain and Paris). We have performed at various festivals in Europe, Africa and Canada. From 7 years I am in the intensive composition phase, I document my work and I regularly record albums that I sell directly to the public on digital platforms. That is my priority. I try to elaborate a contemporary improvised music which is part of the "Afro-Berber continuum", term of my invention. It is a matter of composing and improvising from techniques derived from ancient and medieval Berber and sub-Saharan traditions. I mean these elements :

  • Compound rhythms / adaptation of Sufi trance rhythms of the Maghreb (Aissawa and Hamadcha)
  • Afro-Berber and Andalusian melodic modes
  • Musical forms and structures resulting from the Maghreb Sufi trance rituals (Aissawa and Hamadcha)
  • Afro-Mediterranean non-musical techniques applied to music: geomancy, geometry
  • Musical evocation of the forgotten and unknown history of North and sub-Saharan Africa (ancient Berber mythology, historical figures, monuments, geographical spaces)

I incorporate in this Afro-Berber continuum ideas from various disciplines : philosophy, symmetry, epigraphy, but also heroic-fantasy and science fiction (especially uchronie and ideas borrowed directly to Isaac Asimov). I also write books and articles on North African culture and music. I have just published in France a book entitled « Présence arabe, berbère et nord-africaine au Québec. 55 ans de musiques plurielles (1962-2017) ».

Maazif : Between 2012 and 2016, you have released four albums, one album a year. You propose in most of your albums a hybrid production, a musical work influenced mainly by the Sufi music of the Maghreb on which you have studied and dedicated your doctoral thesis («  Les Aïssawa. Soufisme, musique et rituels de transe au Maroc »). Where do these influences manifest themselves?

Originally my motivation was to play a contemporary music that is an alternative to the North American cultural domination as well as the lascivious aesthetic coming from the Orient, the East. These various popular currents conceal the plurality of musical expressions of the Maghreb (North-Africa) which are extremely rhythmic, diversified and mixed. I was very surprised, noting and codifying folk music during my musical research in Morocco, to take up avant-garde musical techniques worthy of modern composers like Bartok or Messiaen: use of symmetry, irregular proportions, palindromes, complementary rhythms, polyrhythms, volume changes, accelerations, slowdowns, speed superimpositions, colors, tritonic substitutions, major modes played in minor modes, saturations, collages, questions / answers. These data are even more remarkable when we know that they are community music that is largely improvised, played in real time, collectively and without any scoring. By playing this type of music in its original cultural context, the notions of concentration, communication, quality of execution and cohesion between musicians make their sense. In short, a sophisticated musical vocabulary is still popular in some parts of the world but has completely disappeared from current commercial music. This still alive heritage is still absent from the institutional musical formations but knows how to make itself accessible to those who really take the trouble. To do this, you have to accept a traditional transmission of information: go out there, meet people, discuss, participate, share and spend time together in everyday life. It is towards the creative appropriation of these old unknown traditions that my approach tends.

Maazif : In recent years, there have been many attempts at "fusion" and "mixing" which often fall into "ease". What do you think of this "musical phenomenon" in light of your academic work and artistic experience?

First of all, we, the public, artists, journalists, politicians and broadcasters (festivals, etc.) all have a responsibility to deal with the situation of art and culture, which have become synonymous with commerce, industry and can not be envisaged outside. Many adopt the posture of the market by proposing what they imagine that the public wants, while defending themselves. The alienating and coercive power of the market breaks creativity and reduces the individual and the artist to the state of passive consumer and producer. It must be remembered more than ever that art and industry are two different things. Totally opposed.

Next, I think that the "facility" we are talking about here is related to the retromania phenomenon that has affected the entire world cultural sector since the early 2000s. The constant references to musical aesthetics of the past are too immediately identifiable by the listener, and even more by a music enthusiast. The dynamic of experimental creation is generally absent from the musical approaches of many musicians known as "fusion".

The overall impact of these different collages simply does not mean anything. Their symbolic, technical and aesthetic bearing is thus considerably diminished. Even though musicians can often be technically fantastic, I am tired of this approach. I always wonder why an artist seeks to put himself in such an environment nowadays where all music is accessible at home in a few clicks.

Moreover, the tendency of musicians to follow overwhelmingly the discoveries and breakthroughs of the stars of the milieu represents for me an inability to define themselves adequately by developing a methodology that emphasizes the individual character of their musical composition.

There is a consistency in approach that is shared by many musicians of our time which makes them difficult to identify. Certainly very competent, but desperately similar. I've heard amazingly accomplished musicians, but for me, most of them lack remarkable characteristics in style, interpretation approach, concept, logic, phrasing and voice, sound. I do not say that they are not good musicians, I say that there is not much difference between them. If only the musicians dig in the most unknown archives of music, in the techniques used in oral tradition traditions, in ancient epigraphs, in medieval manuscripts, etc., they would find an untapped reserve of technical resources that would separate them from the rest of the lot. I'm not talking about something very radical, maybe a personally developed technique, a conceptual approach, a way to develop ideas and phrases, a very personal sound, a juxtaposition of thoughts, and so on.

Maazif : Could we speak of a certain "relationship" between the music of the Aissawa and jazz, following the example of the rapprochement that some historians and ethnomusicologists make between the music of the Gnawa and the blues?

Jazz, both creative and individual music, aims at an ideal of self-fulfillment by focusing on collaboration, technical rigor and positive individualism. Historically, his teaching was done by oral tradition, that is, by imitation, listening and observation. I emphasize that jazz is originally a folklore of oral tradition played and elaborated by the lowest and marginalized social classes of American society. It was, say, a music of poor people. In fact, he shares some of his characteristics with music from this oral tradition in Africa, the Maghreb or elsewhere: fraternal companionship, community repertoire, improvisations and the search for trance, transcendence. Unfortunately, contemporary jazz has lost many of these original elements to become a new bourgeois classical music without flavors. That is why I tried to get closer to the folk music of the Maghreb.

Concerning improvisation in jazz and Aissawa, we can find some common points. The first common point is the rhythmic improvisation of percussion instruments. The Aïssâwa are called "embroidery" (zwaq) on a "mother" rhythm (achiyya). The second common point is the melodic improvisation that the singers perform during the 'mowals' (uncapped improvisation a cappela). Finally, the players of oboe (reta) improvise also, between two codified melodies, instrumental melodies on the grooves of percussion. This is called simera. If the player of reta plays alone without any accompaniment, this is called ramadan. In all cases, these are improvisations codified in a given aesthetic. This can come close to the original jazz like dixieland or swing, but certainly not free jazz.

Maazif : How then can you evoke the "universal" character of these musics strongly marked by improvisational techniques in the face of an overwhelming musical, instrumental and technological technicality?

The universal character is found in improvisation and in the collective playing, because all the traditional musics practice them and put them in scene. These are fundamental characteristics that allow music to be renewed. At the philosophical level, the universal character of these musics comes from their creative, evolutionary, adaptive aspect. These are musics that evolve, which are alive. And they must remain so and not become nostalgic and retro-vintage music. This fashion is a scourge for creativity and encloses music in a fantasy museum. Creativity comes from within, it does not obey any rules other than those of her innermost desire and feelings. To be creative is not to play something because it is fashionable, because you are told that this is the way to succeed and make money, but to trust and to go to the end of his own expression. It also means not shutting oneself up in a style that one would make one's own once and for all. On the contrary, he is constantly listening to his intimate evolutions, his metamorphoses, and trying to account for them in his music. That's why I do not believe that there are styles inherently more creative than others, folklore and traditional music can be creative. It is the musicians who simply have to give themselves the means to express what they have deep within themselves. Being oneself is an increasingly difficult challenge in our normative societies that insidiously push you to conform to the tastes of others, to align yourself with the law of the greatest number, simply to have the chance to survive. In this context, it is a struggle of every moment to retain its creativity and to persist in being oneself. Moreover, all music has its own technical difficulties to perform, but the audience does not have to know it, it does not matter. The Artist's work is to convince him and not to seduce him.

Maazif : And to finish, do you conceive of a certain musical "coexistence/reconciliation" between the so-called traditional music and the so-called modern techniques?

Music does not exist independently of the people who make it. The coexistence of music must therefore be approached from the point of view of social ties, human relations between people and generational transmission. Music is linked to our singularities as human beings, to our philosophical, aesthetic, political choices. The answer to this question seems broadly cultural. Artists who can collaborate spontaneously, whether they be "traditional" or "modern" musicians, must have in common that they were born at about the same time in the same country, sharing common ideas about the state of society and music and, above all, having similar cultural references rooted in their experiences. They must share a common vision of the world. No matter in which musical aesthetics each one expresses himself, the aim will be to make a music that most faithfully reflects their tastes, their desires, their anger, their traditions, their collective history. This is how the meeting of music takes place. In this context we mean both the individual expression of the musicians but also the whole cultural environment in which they live, which nourishes them, influences them and serves as a substratum for their art. And each music is the product of a given milieu, of a cultural space, at a precise moment in history. On the other hand, some artists possess a double or even a triple culture which allows them to collaborate with artists from different regions of the world because they possess influences and common references although they are not of the same generation . All this common culture will enable them to collaborate in the creation of a new music, to relate their respective languages ​​in order to find common territories where the exchange could take place. There are many musicians everywhere who create music at the crossroads of these different worlds, epochs, influences. Unfortunately the majority of the media of all stripes, but also the festivals, became the places of the submission to the show-business, the popular song and the offers pastiste. But it is in the margins, slowly and surely, that the sound of today and tomorrow is create.

Saburo K, Saitama, Japan.

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