Lifting the veil from Brussels' latest pop-synth enigma
Picture this: a blade runner sent overseas is looking for replicants in Tunis, Tunisia. The manhunt ends in a sweltering basement club where a Roland TR-808 drum machine is pumping over gnawa trance music. The floor is packed with Pan-like creatures – part man, part goat. The target crawls through the crowd, before vanishing without a trace. Outside, street protests demanding the alien government step down are getting grim. This might be one of the scenes AMMAR 808 envisioned when producing his debut album, Maghreb United. Who knows? Let’s find out.
Interview & text by Hannes Rooms
Photos shot by Stine Sampers in Brussels
About half a year ago at a Subba show, a friend suggested we check out AMMAR 808 and his drum-heavy sound. I wasn’t familiar with his music back, then but soon after the concept album Maghreb United dropped, introducing me and other music lovers to his carefully sculptured universe. Fast forward five months, and we met Sofyann Ben Youssef, the man behind AMMAR 808, for a coffee the day after his gig at Le Guess Who. ‘Promoters sometimes have difficulty placing us, since we’re a bit in between concert and club, but playing festivals like Le Guess Who is the best. You easily see if an audience doesn’t know what to expect, but it’s a pleasure to see everything unravel and feel they’re totally into it by the end. I like a good challenge.’
As a creator, slowing down is the moment when all the projects happen in your head
Sofyann Ben Youssef was born and raised in Tunis before moving to Vienna and ultimately settling in Brussels 12 years ago. ‘I like the pace of life here,’ he says. ‘There’re a lot of opportunities but at the same time it remains kind of chilled out. You’re not feeling pressured in general; you can slow down if you want to and as a creator slowing down is the moment when all the projects happen in your head. It gives more depth to my work. There are cities where you run and cities where you build.’
Maghreb United is a collaborative effort built together with singers Sofiane Saidi, Cheb Hassen Tej and Mehdi Nassouli from the Maghreb countries Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco respectively. So is the album a symbolic collab questioning the artificial (post-)colonial borders of northern Africa? ‘Above all, the album is a relationship between the four of us,’ Ben Youssef explains. ‘We felt connected, as a clan. It was not the starting point but you can add a political layer on to it. When you do something as a musician on an international stage, like showing your culture, and share it with other people, it becomes a political statement automatically. The enemy in the Maghreb world is ignorance.’ He recalls a conversation with an agitated stranger who challenged his and other post-revolution music and skeptically wondered if this was the so-called future. ‘When music lasts, it must be valuable to people. Time will tell. But it has to be meaningful, it has to bring me, apart from satisfaction, meaning. That transcends time, even when you don’t know what it is, you can sense it.’
Afrofuturism is a well-known and longstanding cultural and philosophical movement, and we were familiar with Sophia Al Maria’s Gulf Futurism but Sofyann coined the term North African Futurism in a conversation with his girlfriend about shaping his next project. It had to be about something he was passionate about – which includes sci-fi and technology. So he imagined different timelines for the Maghreb. What if Tunisia hadn’t been colonised by the French, for example? What if this or that didn’t happen? He was inspired by the idea and then looked for a sound that embodied the proposition. ‘The electronic part was only adjusting to the traditional and not the other way around: translating folkloric rhythms to drum machines from inside out.’
Music has to bring me, apart from satisfaction, meaning
Interestingly enough, AMMAR 808’s next project might explore Nigerian- or Indian-inspired futurism. ‘I believe it’s good to start with what you know best and then expand to other places,’ Ben Youssef says. He acknowledges cultural appropriation lurks around the corner but is convinced suppressing the ego is key. ‘You have to be careful. Start from scratch, become a student again, spend time in the culture, learn to play the instruments. Take it slowly. Even if I’m not supposed to play it on stage or to manipulate it, I can grasp the significance from an inside perspective, understand why this person is playing this music.’
‘I’m careful even with my own music from Tunisia. I don’t know everything about it, but there’s a familiarity. Indian music, on the opposite side, first felt mysterious. But when I studied and learned to play sitar and tabla, I understood what they did, what it is Indian people find interesting about their own music. It takes a lot of effort to go to another country without understanding the language or culture. You just gotta do the work.’
13 Dec – STUK, Leuven
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