Tunisian percussionist Imed Alibi moved to France in 2001 to study translation. Then he joined a band. In the 17 years since, he has transposed his penchant for language, rhythm, and adaptation into an expansive musical dialogue spanning India, Bulgaria, Brazil, and beyond.
Alibi’s ever-growing rhythmic arsenal has been fed by globe-trotting collaborations with artists like Algerian legend Rachid Taha, Egyptian-British singer Natacha Atlas, flamenco pop stars Gipsy Kings, and Réunionese maloya band Ziskakan. “I have a good relationship with a lot of percussionists in different parts of the world,” he told Inside Arabia.
His latest experiment is called Frigya, which means “Africa” in an ancient Tunisian dialect. After releasing an acoustic record called “Salhi” earlier this year, he sought something more “contemporary and electronic.” At a musical residency in the south of France, he brought on board Khalil Hentati, a Tunisian electronica wizard, Burkinabé singer Kandy Guira, and 73-year-old French trumpetist Michel Marre.
Guira, who Alibi first heard singing backup for Grammy Award-winning Malian diva Oumou Sangaré in a YouTube video, has a clear, confident voice. Marre, who is well-known in the jazz world, comes from a 55-year career ranging from work with the American saxophonist Archie Shepp to an orchestra in Kyrgyzstan to a documentary about Rajasthani music.
Crafting this lineup was, as Alibi put it, “a risk.” There was no guarantee that bringing together a free jazz elder, a “young, crazy and electronic” experimentalist, a guy “somewhere in the middle” (Alibi), and a Mandé pop singer would produce good results. Luckily, it did.
Risk, Alibi says, is vital to bring any kind of vitality to music. In his view, not many musicians take risks. Most are not so willing to step outside of the well-trodden paths or experiment, with full knowledge that they might fail. Stepping outside comfort zones makes unexpected connections and gives music life.
Alibi began playing music at the age of 15, but only went professional after moving to France. As a “melting pot society,” his new home offered a fertile field for experimentation. He joined Les Boukakes, an energetic band that fused rock with North African gnawa and raï music. Their name, a combination of two French ethnic slurs lobbed at the band members, speaks to the defiance in creating art that rejects divisive prejudice and finds power in dialogue. Musicians seem to be some of the best at bridging the boundaries that divide.
With Les Boukakes, Alibi’s global music connections grew. His 2014 album “Safar” (meaning “travel”) emerged from that network. It is a dense piece of work, heavy with intense textures, strings, rock guitars, electronics, and, of course, a lot of drums. It sounds like the soundtrack to a sprawling, somewhat overwrought North African epic. The cinematic first track, “Pour Quelques Dinars De Plus,” references the Sergio Leone Western film “For a Few Dollars More.”
On “Safar,” there are cameos from Brazilian percussionist Zé Luis Nascimento, Indian singer Shreekumar Vakkiyil, Tunisian singer and frequent collaborator Emel Mathlouthi, and Justin Adams, a British guitarist who has worked with Robert Plant (Adams also produced the album).
This kind of expansive, globally-minded musical exchange is not a simple transaction. Globalism has created a world where lifeless commodities can be shuttled across borders with relative ease. Globalism has also brought countless cultures into contact. But for something like music to be exchanged meaningfully, people first need to engage as people.
“I think in music, 50 percent of the work is human,” Alibi told Inside Arabia. One must be “open-minded and be able to work on something new without fear, without any psychological obstacle . . . . It’s all about adaptation.” Listening well is key, especially when the musicians share no common spoken language.
Sometimes, musical fusion ends up with parallel threads rather than a woven fabric, with two genres handing the spotlight back and forth instead of blending into one. Alibi said that real dialogue is hard, especially when some of the musicians come from a rigorous tradition and have not been “obliged to do something completely different.” Trying to force them to do so will make their playing unnatural, he explained. “If you have a Tunisian bendir player, he will play one rhythm, and you should adapt yourself to him, not the opposite. It’s complicated.”
In the Frigya project, every artist is an experimenter, so the band is “based on something harmonious from the beginning.”
At the recent Visa For Music (VFM) festival in Rabat, Morocco, Inside Arabia experienced Frigya’s sound live. For the moment, one can only really experience their sound live. They have yet to release any recorded music, save a few short YouTube teasers, but they plan on releasing an album in 2019.
Gatherings of artists and music industry professionals like VFM, are very important for developing ideas like Frigya, taking risks and getting feedback: “pre-production,” Alibi called it. The project is still “very new, very fresh.”
In performance, the four musicians make a mighty, dramatic sound. Alibi sits behind a battery of acoustic drums: drumset, North African darbuka and bendir, East Asian cymbals, and West African calabash. His rhythms meld fluidly with the heavy, enveloping swirl of Hentati’s electronic drums and synthesizers, at once industrial and organic. Glimpses of old recordings of Arabic singers and instruments peek through. The sound is dark, exploratory, atmospheric, and insistently danceable.
Marre’s muted cornet (a compact, truncated trumpet) echoes through the brooding texture, looped and mutated by Hentati. Guira floats on top, her vibrant, deliciously sandy alto splashing bright color into the blend.
If there is such a music that could be called “Arab-futurism,” this could be an example. It reworks an Arab musical identity, so often kept in the past, into a vision that reflects a contemporary reality.
Cultural innovation inevitably faces push-back from preservationists. Much breath has been spent, for example, arguing about the state of gnawa, an age-old, trance-inducing Moroccan music rooted in spiritual ceremonies. Gnawa has experienced an explosion of popularity in the past decades, with endless fusion projects, like the gnawa reggae band Hoba Hoba Spirit and Randy Weston’s gnawa jazz. Traditionalists bemoan the loss of a “pure” gnawa, stripped of its spiritual context and boiled down to a less nutritional concentrate.
On the other hand, as Alibi and others have pointed out, fusion has become “a way to export gnawa music . . . . Of course you will see traditional puritans saying this is not the real way to play . . . . But [it gives], maybe to an audience in the Western world, for example, a sample of gnawa music. Then, people who become really interested in the traditional one will come and see a real lila [spiritual ceremony].”
The tug-of-war between innovation and tradition is “everywhere,” Alibi said, even in such a simple novelty as Indian tabla players who play standing up, rather than sitting. “I think we will never end with this kind of question. It’s very important that these guys keep the tradition. We need to have real puritans. But I’m not a puritan.”
Alibi disrupts rigid tradition, but he does so with deep respect. He hates “cliché.” Some people come to a profound tradition from the outside, reduce it to a recognizable cliché and sprinkle it into their music, without “really doing research on the music and the people,” Alibi said. “It’s sad. It’s really a part of neo-colonialism sometimes.”
The artists in Frigya don’t peddle in cliché. Their sound is rooted, but new, charting a new path. It has kin in other bands that collide electronic futurism with acoustic traditions, but this quartet has something special.
Alibi doesn’t have any illusions about Frigya’s experimental sound: “I’m not pessimistic, but I don’t think we have a large audience for this music. I think we have a particular audience—some few people if you compare it to the millions of views of someone playing guitar in his bathroom. But I like my work and that’s the most important thing . . . . If you try to imitate the others, you will fail, I think. Try to do what you want to do in a good way, and you will see, it’s enough.”