Ifriqiyya Electrique: When electric guitars meet Sufi music

Sunday 24/07/2016
Ifriqiyya Electrique during a performance in Tunis (Photo courtesy of Institut Français de Tunisie Facebook page)

Tunis - The sound of traditional tablas ascended and the muffled resonance of the bass guitar resonated in the background. Modern guitar performance intermingled with the religious chants of Sufi musicians of the renowned Sidi Marzouk Tozeur Banga created a surreal atmosphere.
This was the introductory piece of the world premiere concert/road movie of Ifriqiyya Electrique, a pro­ject that combines modern rhythm of guitars with the trance music of the Banga of Tozeur, a group of Sufi musicians.
Traditional Tunisian music has been making a comeback as pro­jects combining traditional music with modern vibes have drawn young audiences.
Banga of Tozeur is a music ritual that revolves around the venera­tion of the Sufi saints of southern Tunisia. It considers music a heal­ing process that provides a trance-like state for the listener. This attracted the interest of French guitarist François Cambuzat, who founded Ifriqiyya Electrique.
“The real spirit of the music was to heal people. I was curious to understand how people can at­tain that phase of trance. I wanted to experience something that is strictly related to music-induced trance, which the Banga of Tozeur provided,” Cambuzat said.
“The real social function of the Banga of Tozeur was healing peo­ple. It was true and real. It was au­thentic. It was about being together and being kind to each other.”
Tarek Sultan, a member of the Banga of Tozeur, emphasised that it adds a modern touch to one of the oldest forms of music that re­mained authentic in Tunisia.
Ifriqiyya Electrique aims to merge the traditional influences of Banga with the vibes brought by elec­tric and bass guitars to create the trance-like state musicians were famous for in the rituals of the Ban­ga of Tozeur. Cambuzat noted that the music, though ancient, carries modern influences that relate to young or older audiences.
“The music of Banga is very mod­ern,” Cambuzat said. “The rhythm of the music is something we can hear somewhere else. It is like a natural dub, the same rhythm. The Banga is different from the other Sufi genres. It is about the commu­nity as they act together and they do things together.
“Unlike the others, it remained based on the good of the communi­ty. Families would call them when they are not OK to have a show at their place and the whole com­munity comes together for that. It is trance music and it is a form of music therapy.”
“When I heard about the idea of the documentary and the concert, I was enthusiastic,” Sultan said. “I really liked the idea even though it was weird or strange at the begin­ning. It also required a lot of hard work as it was difficult to find the right technical balance between the instruments.”
The musicians said the experi­ence allowed them to immerse themselves in the community as well as the music to get an authen­tic sound identifying the region. The project also seeks to preserve ancestral roots by recording the dif­ferent styles of Banga.
“We spent three months in Tozeur filming and working on re­cording the music. We dedicated the first month to only recording the music. The recordings are a patrimony that needed to be pre­served,” Cambuzat said.
Bass player Gianna Greco added: “The doors were open for me and everyone was welcoming and will­ing to work hard.”
“It is nothing like any of the mu­sic we heard before. The combina­tion of the old Tunisian sounds with rock music was amazing and I would love to hear more of this,” said Emna Said, a student who at­tended the band’s concert.
In addition to the Ifriqiyya Elec­trique collaborations, Cambuzat also teamed with Tunisian pop singer Lotfi Bouchnak on a reli­gious song featuring metal and rock music that went viral on social media.
“Lotfi Bouchnak wanted to re­cord a religious song with a modern vibe and we were of the same mind about this. We were worried some people would think it is disrespect­ful to Islam. The amazing thing was that Lotfi showed it to the imam of the Zitouna mosque, who thought it was a decent song,” Cambuzat said.