Album of the Week // 03–07 August

Bab L’ Bluz — Nayda! [Real World Records]

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Yousra Mansour of Bab L’Bluz

Bab L’ Bluz is a Moroccan and French quartet reclaiming the blues for North Africa. Their ideas of unity and revolution (aligned with Morocco’s nayda youth movement) are displayed with attitude in their debut album, Nayda!. The band are part of a new wave of Moroccan artists and musicians taking cues from their local heritage, singing of freedom in the Moroccan-Arabic dialect of Darija. Bab L’ Bluz are fronted by lead vocalist and guembri player Yousra Mansour, a Moroccan woman in a field that is intensely male-dominated. She says: “I fell in love with the trance grooves of Gnawa music and took up singing Gnawa-style at home and with friends. There was resistance at first because I was female.”

Yousra grew up in El Jadida, a fortified town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. She started her musical journey playing guitar and performing songs by Lebanese diva Fairouz (influences of which can be heard in her vocal style). She was exposed to diverse musics from the likes of Janis Joplin, Oumou Sangaré and Erykah Badu. She often attended the annual Gnawa Festival (the so-called ‘largest jam session on the planet’) in nearby Essaouira.

Yousra and Brice co-founded Bab L’ Bluz while honing their skills on the guembri, exploring the possibilities of the iconic instrument as they composed in their studio in Marrakech. The resultant outpouring of creativity is showcased across the album’s ten tracks. “It was a challenge to start composing with just three-strings and one tonality, but it opened opportunities for various styles, scales and textures,” offers Brice. “It allowed us to take a new direction.”

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Nayda! album cover

The first track on the album, ‘Gnawa Beat’ kicks off with an ululating battle cry, as galloping qraqeb make way for vibing desert blues led by Bab L’ Bluz flautist Jérome. Yousra sings: “Welcome to the truth that can be told without fear,” along with her band mates’ energised backing vocals. The song is sung in classical Arabic and features looped Indian tabla and samples of the Atlantic waves on the shore of Essaouira, ‘Ila Mata’ is an aural salaam, intended as a gesture of respect and peace to brothers and sisters regardless of origin. The upbeat, darija-sung ‘El Gamra’ praises the Moon and her restorative powers, inviting the listener to party under the night sky. The tune is characterised by trance-inducing guembri and rocking chaabi, juicy harmonies and frantic hand-clapping.

The only cover version, and the second of two tracks in classical Arabic, ‘Waydelel’ was written by the late Mauritanian diva Dimi Mint Abba and her husband Khalifa Ould Eide as an expression of love for the Prophet Mohammed. On Nayda! it is renewed by a verse/chorus structure, ambient tanpura loops and one-string ribab playing from guest instrumentalist Aziz Ozouss.

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Bab L’Bluz

Yousra Mansour: awisha, guembri, vocals, percussion.

Brice Bottin: guembri, guitar, percussion, backing vocals.

Hafid Zouaoui: drums, electronics, backing vocals.

Jérome Bartholomé: percussion, flute, karkabs, backing vocals.

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