All together again
On March 11th 2004, the Madrid train bombings killed 191 passengers and injured over 1,500 others. Although some politicians rushed to blame ETA, it quickly became clear that the attacks were the result of Islamic terrorism. There were many responses to the tragedy: a million people joined in vigils, the Partido Popular was ousted from government, and a Moroccan musician living in Barcelona gathered his friends and formed a band.
“The attitude of people, here in Catalunya and elsewhere in Spain, changed towards us as Moroccans, and it became an attitude of fear,” said Mohammed Soulimane, founder of the Orquestra Àrab de Barcelona. “I saw that this was the point to find other ways to communicate Islam: gastronomy, music, and culture in general were things that could truly break with the political confrontation.”
The group, which fuses traditional Arabic instrumentation and vocal techniques with other elements into ethereal songs about immigration and politics, includes two Catalan members and one Greek. “If we were just made up of Moroccans, people would see us differently. They have to see that we’re involved with society here, that we’re not purely exotic. We have to break down those barriers.”
The music is predominantly Arabic, but the influence of their European bandmates is also felt, whether in flamenco rhythms or in Catalan lyrics; one track on their debut album Báraka (2006) uses a poem by Catalan poet Jacint Verdaguer.
“We’ve been very warmly welcomed,” said Soulimane. “Perhaps at first I was a bit nervous about the Catalan audiences not understanding us, since 90 percent of our lyrics are in Arabic and the sentiments are very Arabic, so it’s foreign to people here; we weren’t certain we’d connect. But so far people have been delighted with us—whenever we play here, 80 percent of the audience is Catalan, and we’ve been able to visit several countries.”
The Orquestra Àrab is one of several groups that have helped to redefine the Barcelona music scene in recent years, fusing elements of Spanish and Catalan music (such as cajón drumming) with styles and instruments from elsewhere. Fuelled by waves of immigration from all over Africa, Europe and South America, mestizaje acts such as Ojos de Brujo and the edgy, energetic 08001 are among the city’s biggest musical exports, while the Orquestra Àrab was granted a year-long residency at l’Auditori, which started in September.
While Soulimane is glad for this level of attention (the group also received support from the Generalitat to record their album), he is also lightly sceptical of it. “I think we’re a good product for them, and a very political one—when we play in Madrid, we’re still the Orquestra Àrab de Barcelona. This reflects that it’s a city of integration, a very cosmopolitan place, and that’s a good thing for them.”
What is it that’s making fusion music, particularly that with an Arabic flavour, popular? Aziz Khodari, a Moroccan percussionist and singer with smiling eyes and the careful speech of a teacher, offers one theory. “If you’re here in Catalunya and you’re looking for Catalan music, you’re not going to find it,” he said. “What is it? Sardanes, and rumba catalana, that’s about it. It hasn’t managed to become international. European culture has become weakened. You have to bring in something from the old cultures, from Africa, from Asia. People are looking for a mix.”
Khodari, who performs with groups including the Orquestra Àrab, 08001, Mashalá!, Nass Marrakesh, and Tarab, claimed he focuses on fusion because “that’s what sells best at the moment”, but quickly conceded that there are also more profound reasons for his choices. “From each group you learn something totally different; if you’re not learning then you’re screwed. I bring my own, Arabic culture to my work, but I’m always learning from others. So if I’m working with someone who plays flamenco, I have to learn about flamenco too. That’s what fusion is about: everybody brings their own culture.”
He commented that working with 08001 can be challenging: “There are 16 of us, and no more than two or three people from any one country—we’re from Hawaii, from Holland, there’s a Gypsy singer, an English band member… it’s a project with a lot of future, but it takes a lot of cash to move all those people around. I don’t know how it happens! But it does work, and it’s worth it. It’s an important process in my life—playing with them makes me feel younger, and more alive.”
Khodari said that he’s dubious when people claim altruistic motives for performing music. “What are you going to do, change the world? People play these concerts against poverty, but do they change anything? Not a bit.”
Still, he’s particularly proud of one of his groups, Mashalá!, for its ability to challenge expectations. The catchy, optimistic sound of Mashalá! is the indirect result of Canadian singer Ellen Gould Ventura’s search for her Sephardic Jewish cultural roots, which brought her to Spain. Before, she had been performing jazz. “I was doing well, I mean I’ve got rhythm, but something was always lacking.”
After arriving here she started exploring Sephardic music and, she said, it was like coming home. Mashalá! also includes members from Venezuela, Italy and Chile, but attention understandably often centres on her Jewish heritage and Khodari’s Islamic faith. “We’re asked a lot, ‘How can a Jew and a Muslim be on the same stage together?’ she said. “Our reaction is, ‘How can you ask that question?’ We work together because we genuinely enjoy each other’s work. People don’t see how close the cultures are: they’re very much intertwined. We’re all from the same root. It’s like we have the same father but different mothers.”
Although Mashalá!’s lyrics and melodies are usually from Jewish texts, they blend these with motifs from all over the world. “We’ll use traditional songs but then we might add some jazz, or a little riff from South America, because they’re references to who we are as a family. We have a song where I start singing in Hebrew, a religious song, and Aziz comes in singing a counter-melody in Arabic. Gradually the two songs move together, and that’s how we show our two cultures.”
Gould Ventura points out that the fact that Mashalá!’s music is a development of Sephardic music rather than ‘pure’ helps to keep the tradition alive. “The attitude here towards the Jewish past is almost tourism. Instead of looking at where we are as a culture, they don’t look beyond the stones. They don’t see that there’s humanity there still. People see it as another world that has nothing to do with their culture. We’re trying to extend the tradition.”
Khodari agreed with her. “In Mashalá! we make fusion of Jewish and Arabic music, and we don’t enter into politics,” he said. “We live in peace, as brothers. At the end of our concerts, you see five people holding hands and embracing. Even though they’re all different religions they can mix and there’s no problem. And if we can do that in music, why not in life?”
Báraka (2006), Orquestra Àrab de Barcelona—Temps Record
Atornada (2006), Mashalá!—Polyphony
Vorágine (2007), 08001—Workinprogress Records