Album of the Day: AMMAR 808, “Maghreb United”

The first few seconds of AMMAR 808’s Maghreb United are filled by a looped sample of a crackling, distorted voice that sounds like a dispatch from an emergency alert system. Eventually, it’s subsumed by the fast-paced cadence of the drums, the deep, thumping bass, and Sofiane Saidi’s strong but calm vocals. Album opener “Degdega” seems to be designed to make your heart beat faster, translating the feeling of unease into sound. It’s a fitting introduction to a record full of intense energy—hard to define, but immediately palpable thanks to electronic mastermind Sofyann Ben Youssef’s expertly concocted beats.

Maghreb United sounds urgent because it is meant to be. Ben Youssef uses a TR-808 to reimagine the many traditional rhythms and instruments of the Maghreb—an area that spans most of Northern Africa, from Mauritania to Libya—through a sci-fi lens in order to warn the region’s dwellers about an impending bleak future, and to spur them into action. By putting instruments like the gasba flute, the zokra bagpipe, and the guembri guitar through the filters of the iconic 808 and bending these sounds into surprising and often unrecognizable forms, Ben Youssef joins the ranks of artists shedding a light on North African futurism by taking a critical and nuanced look at past traditions and remaking them into something that can serve as a window to the region’s unique heritage for the citizens of a distant future.

Maghreb United is a wild, intriguing listen; Ben Youssef uses harsh electronic beats as a canvas to constantly criss-cross styles and sounds that don’t typically occupy the same space. Desert blues rhythms coexist with hard rave beats, Algerian raï, targ music from the Bargou valley in Tunisia, and Moroccan gnawa, creating a sound that’s as raucous as it is alluring and illuminating. The standout track “Layli” is a testament as to how all these influences work together. Beginning with a distorted guitar riff, it quickly evolves into an upbeat banger, with hand percussion and distant chiptune blips accompanying renowned Moroccan guembri player and singer Mehdi Nassouli’s game of call and response with the backing choir. After a dizzying break, the track turns into a gabber-influenced banger with an undeniably youthful energy. These juxtapositions between toughness and playfulness run throughout the record with a track like “Ichki Lel Bey” featuring chiptune breaks, and another like “Boganga and Sandia” featuring a beautiful guembri melody looped and layered on top of a resounding bass. Using North African futurism as an outstanding tool, Ben Youssef digs into the Maghreb’s past and present to show the harmony within the differences, and the surprising ways the region can launch traditional Maghrebi culture into the future.

-Amaya Garcia

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