Bab L’Bluz: “I got a guitar and the journey started.”

Bab L’Bluz @ Rock Am Bach, 2019

Bab L’Bluz is part of the exciting new cultural movement that is making its way across Morocco. Their unique sound brings together the traditional music of Gnawa, funk, trance and rock, distilled with youthful energy and electric instrumentation.  The lyrics focus on current issues in politics, race and religion, but you’ll also find beautifully crafted love songs and celebrations of having a good time. The band meets WHAT A TUNE to talk about their music, the future and more.

“It’s been a quite an intense year for us…” Brice Bottin tells me over a video call from Lyon, France. Yousra Mansour, the other founding member of the Franco-Moroccan band Bab L’Bluz, joins him.

“We had lots of work even if we couldn’t go on stage, so we can’t complain about last year […] the only thing that was really hard for me was I couldn’t go and see my family in Morocco.” Yousra adds.

This past year has been busy for the band, despite not being able to go on tour. Their debut album Nayda! (meaning “to party” and “to rise up”) was released in Summer 2020 on Real World Records. It attracted critical acclaim worldwide, most recently winning Best Fusion at the Songlines Music Awards 2021.

Yousra is the lead singer and when I meet her and Brice for the interview last month, she has replaced her fabulous onstage look of green lipstick and glittering tops for a more casual outfit of black t-shirt with her curly black hair tied up. Meanwhile, Brice, who plays guembri (similar to a 3 stringed lute), guitar, percussion and does backing vocals, wears a baseball cap and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. The full quartet includes drummer Hafid Zouaoui and the flautist Jérôme Bartolome.

The Tunisian poet Anis Shoshan, known as the poet of peace, inspired Bab L’Bluz’s first single Ila Mata.  The song is a plea for understanding and unity during troubled times. Undulating riffs played on the guembri accompany the hypnotic vocals sung in Classical Arabic, “Until when will ignorance rule? How long will the injustice last?” Yousra sings in the refrain.

Brice explains “it’s an important song for us, it’s one of the first ones that we wrote. It went well with the current complicated times that we are living in.”

Yousra joins in throwing her hands up animatedly. “People are going against each other for nothing. Sometimes you see conflicts and you say why? It’s not that important!”

The opening song on the album, Gnawa Beat, is also sharply critical and it condemns corruption, “Those who have eaten the harvest are many…” with the repeated line in the chorus “There’s nothing you can do about it”.

With the exception of Waydelel, the duo wrote and co-produced all of the songs on the album. Mauritanian artists Khalifa Ould Eide and Dimi Mint Abba originally wrote Waydelel, the song wishes peace upon the souls of the deceased and praises the prophet Mohammed. The choice to cover the song was a spontaneous decision. Brice tells me: “We were jamming a new track and the day before we were listening to that song, I just thought hey why don’t you try singing Waydelel on that and we thought that sounded great so we decided to arrange the original track to make a funky Waydelel version.”

For Brice, music is a doorway to other musical cultures “we grew up with the internet so we’ve been influenced by a lot of music from around the world like hip hop, rock, from Africa, South America, everything that has groove and is beautiful has influenced me a lot.” He muses stroking his beard.

Yousra cites her Dad as her first source of inspiration, “I remember him playing guitar, and that I really loved touching the guitar. But I really started playing guitar after his death, I felt a connection with him […] through music. I started just singing, and after a few years I really wanted to have an instrument, I got a guitar and the journey started.”

However, as a woman making music growing up in Morocco, Yousra’s musical journey hasn’t always been easy, especially when it came to live performances:

“…It was not good for a woman to go to bars, to go to places where we can sell alcohol, you know? Because it’s a society that, I don’t like to say religious because religion has nothing to do with this behaviour, it’s just a patriarchal society that allows men to do whatever they are ok with, but it’s not the same thing for women. My choice to do music as a job was seen very badly, I had lots of insults. Like sometimes as women singers, we can be confused with whores.”

They cite a diverse range of music that they listen to from RnB, such as Mahalia Burkmar to the desert blues of Ali Farka Touré, “there’s so much to discover on Tiny Desk NPR (a popular music station); I love to watch the live shows.” Yousra adds.

But she assures me, that those experiences are behind her since starting the band:

“We’ve had no bad feedback, only support and encouragement from the lovely people around us.” Even the Moroccan masters of Gnawa music have given their seal of approval, including Hamid El Kasri, who performed with Jacob Collier at the BBC Proms.  Yousra tells me excitedly “a friend sent us a video of him watching our live, saying yes they’re good, but I didn’t have a chance to talk to him.”

Their second single El Gamra is a celebratory song praising the Moon and bursting with energy building to an ecstatic trance in the final chorus. They describe the song as a “Rock Chaâbi”, and the pop art inspired music video was released last month. “We made the video a few months ago and we hoped that the situation would be better when we released the song to make people dance and love each other […] But the situation is not better, malheureusment (trans: unfortunately)” Brice remarks drily.

Outside of music, Brice tells me he started painting during lockdown “For me, it’s like making a track, it’s a bit the same process […] You can see the colours in the instrument with the scales and with painting you have colours too. “

It’s a similarly wholesome activity for Yousra as well, “I meditate every day for animals in Morocco because we find them hurt […] in the street suffering from accidents. I’m in Facebook pages with friends so we really try to help animals as much as possible. That’s what I love to do the most.”

She also stopped smoking and has been following fitness videos. I’m more of a Lilly Sabri kind of girl, but Yousra prefers Pamela Reif “she’s amazing, she’s got everything all categories, all levels and I practice with her, not the highest level, but like mid level.”

Yousra and Brice are optimistic but cautious about the uncertain future ahead. Touring is top of the list, but as for when, that’s still a question mark. “We haven’t played for a real audience since October” Yousra laments, Brice interjects “We played last week… but not really for a big audience” “For like ten people… or less!” Yousra grins “But it’s better than nothing.” Brice concludes.

“But we hope to come to England soon” He adds. “We’ve never been.” I hope so too!

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