Maghreb Voices – Maghreb Jazz

?Jazz legends like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie introduced Arabic flavours in compositions such as ?Night in Tunisia,? ?Caravan,? and ?Nardis? . . . These are songs that are still played everywhere and are famous all over the world.?

Jan Wouter Oostenrijk

Malika Zarra was born in southern Morocco but was only a child when she emigrated to Paris with her family. Obliged to adopt French culture at school while remaining tapped into her Berber and Saharan roots at home was a strain, she says, but It’s clear that her difficulties bore fruit in her amazing musical achievements; a jazz composer and chanteuse who draws on her North African background for language, lyrics, rhythms, and melodic lines, Malika has garnered a large and avid worldwide following.

This particular kind of immigrant experience?gifted musicians of the Maghreb region migrating to Europe and North America?is one catalyst that created the burgeoning global phenomenon of Maghreb Jazz. Karim Ziad, Wajdi Cherif, and the group Monkomarok are just a few of the prominent musical acts whose careers have followed this pattern.

The Maghreb diaspora was influential enough to draw in musicians from other cultures, compelling them to devote themselves wholeheartedly to writing music in Maghreb styles. Vietnamese-born Nguyên Lê says of his album Maghreb and Friends: ?I’m deep into African music, and I’ve always found the relationship between black African styles and the North African?Algerian and Moroccan?musics, very interesting.?

The present crossover of jazz with the diverse musical genres of the Maghreb region is not a new event in jazz (or music) history. A number of American jazz masters were all clearly influenced by the sounds they heard in North Africa, modes and rhythms that inspired innovations in their compositions and improvisations, and seasoned players have been turning to this region for years for musical stimuli.

Jan Wouter Oostenrijk, the jazz guitarist who originally coined the term ?Maghreb Jazz? (even bestowing the name on his recent album), was originally introduced to Maghreb music genres by Moroccan immigrant musicians in his native Holland. For years Jan has worked with these musicians to create beautiful musical crossovers. Of his longstanding fondness for fusing seemingly disparate traditions, Jan says:

?My music is all about how to absorb another culture without losing yourself. I like the idea that when you listen to my music you forget this whole idea of the clash of civilisations between the Arab world and the West. Like jazz it also overcomes racial issues.?

A beautiful symmetry is observed when we remember that the musical rhythms and modes brought to America by black slaves were also carried to North Africa, with distinct but musically connected traditions emerging from the two continents. The most salient example is Gnawan music, a product of the mix of black African influences with the Arabic cultures of the Maghreb region. When you listen to traditional Gnawan music and then to American jazz you can sense a deep and ancient understanding between the genres, and the modern blend of the two is gumbo-delicious.

Any familiarity with the peoples of the Maghreb region might lead one to suspect that there isn’t a huge jazz following in Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco, but jazz festivals abound, and the ratio of jazz fans to fans of other genres is probably equivalent to that of North America or Europe. Jazz can be difficult, an acquired taste, but those who love it love it a lot; jazz aficionados tend to become utterly devoted to the music, and this is just as true in Casablanca as it is in New York. And Maghrebians who aren’t diehard jazz buffs still appear to get a great deal of enjoyment from crossover styles.

The Zazz Band is made up of a bunch of energetic whiz kids that can jam any session player under the table while weaving in a Gnawan rhythm and belting out a Chaabi-style lyric. The Zazz Band’s music can’t be described as jazz exactly but jazz is certainly in the stew, and the freedom and enthusiasm with which these young guys recruit other genres into their musical posse is one of the hallmarks of great jazz.

France has been one of the more prominent hosts to this worldwide phenomenon. One of the few positive repercussions of colonialism was that France, which has had a history of cultivating great jazz, was the European country to which Maghreb peoples most often migrated.

The world stage is currently witnessing a fascinating renewal of musical growth very much like what occurred in America in the early half of the 20th century when many new musical genres were born, an awakening similarly linked to the struggles of oppressed peoples. The political plights of many Maghrebians and the sorrow of exiles forced to flee beloved homelands have found an outlet in a flood of creativity that is complex, marvellous and very much worthy of our contemplation.

Check past and upcoming issues of Maghreb Voices for articles on the musicians mentioned here, and many others.

Maghreb Voices celebrates the art, culture, and struggles of the peoples of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, in northern Africa.