In preparation for our new program, "Borderless Sounds: The New North Africa," we spoke with Christophe Hancox, a passionate and knowledgeable follower of Berber metal and other North African genres. Hancox runs the consistently fascinating Black Spring blog from his home in Birmingham, England, posting everything from a bootleg of obscure black metal from Morocco to the gorgeous '70s psychedelic compilation, Acid Tamazgha (Tamazgha is the name of the Berber homeland, stretching from the Canary Islands to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt). In addition to tracking down elusive music from North Africa, Christophe produces his own martial/dark ambient music under the pseudonym, Exile and the Kingdom.
Jesse Brent: How would you describe the current metal scene in North Africa? Is there a community of bands that are in contact with one another? Is there a large North African audience for this music?
Christophe Hancox: There is limited contact between scenes in different countries. A notable exception was Myrath from Tunisia playing a show in Constantine last year. Within Algeria, fans and bands stay in touch across the country through various social media. There are several dedicated and vibrant metal fan communities that follow developments internationally and support the local scene. The situation in Morocco is slightly different. It is a more "open" country than Algeria, so some big international bands have played there, such as Kreator. But the scene is perhaps more mainstream and less close-knit. There is a fairly large and growing audience in North Africa for metal and they are mostly well-educated young people.
Many of the metal groups in North Africa have a very strong emphasis on Amazigh/Berber identity. Why do you think there is this connection between a declaration of identity and metal?
I think this is especially important in Algeria where the Amazigh identity and language is more suppressed than in Morocco. Algeria still follows an Arab nationalist line which is, however, fiercely contested in the Berber region of Kabylie. The FLN [National Liberation Front, the party that has ruled Algeria since it gained independence in 1962] has always stressed a homogenous Algerian-Arab identity, although cracks began to appear almost as soon as independence from France was achieved. From the point of view of the young Algerian metal musicians, Arab influence is seen as another form of cultural imperialism, akin to how the early Norwegian black metal scene viewed Judeo-Christian influence in Europe.
Who are some of the newer metal groups that you think are particularly interesting? Could you comment on these bands and what they are doing compared to earlier groups?
The earliest recordings of Barbaros were primitive with an awkward synthesized guitar sound, due to lack of equipment and, perhaps, the need to record covertly. Their most recent album, Godoff, shows just how far they have come. It is fair to say they are the leading black metal group in North Africa. Sadly, there hasn’t been a lot of development in Algeria in the last couple of years. I particularly liked Taddart and Ajris. I hope to hear more from them both someday. Although based in France, the Berber folk metal band Andaz Uzzal has recorded their first album. I haven’t heard it yet, but it is a promising development. On the punk side, I find Demokhratia a really exciting band. Everything they have done is great and I can’t wait to hear more.
Why do you think the Berber metal movement began during the Décennie Noire [Algerian civil war]?
Although art is considered to be a product of leisure, it often emerges out of great strife. It is a way of expressing emotions that are beyond words, whether love or anger and frustration. Metal is an extreme form of expression fitting to extreme circumstances. When death, destruction and hate are all around you, it is fitting to sing of death, destruction and hate. To play and listen to extreme metal can also be very cathartic, like for the young Libyan rebels playing death metal at the height of the civil war there.
Who were some of the original North African metal groups? Can you give a history of the genre's formation?
The first hard rock band I know of from North Africa was T34 from Algeria in the '80s, but the first true metal band was Neanderthalia. They formed in 1993 and went on to play some concerts and record an album during the '90s. They played some fairly good doomy thrash metal, as their live recordings attest. Neanderthalia evolved to become Litham, a death metal band with strong Arab-Berber folk elements. Redouane "Reda" Aouameur played in both these bands, amongst others, and currently leads death metalers Lelahell. He is certainly a pivotal figure in the history of North African metal. Another major development was the black metal Dark Arts circle of bands. The Kult ov Satanåchiîa were the first in the late '90s, followed by Barbaros. The best of the early Algerian black metal bands were probably Nihil and Tenebrum. In Morocco, Intoleranz and Gog Forkan both produced some great black metal, too. Unfortunately, I have no idea what any of these guys are doing now.
Have any North African metal musicians been targeted by Islamists?
As for as I know there have not been attacks from Islamist militants. I think this is due to the fact that their aren’t any high profile targets in metal. Rachid Baba Ahmed, Cheb Hasni and Lounès Matoub were all highly influential figures in Algerian society. Hence they became targets for the Islamists and the government. I have, however, seen Arabic news articles about metalheads being arrested in Algeria. The stories are very sensationalist in tone and focus on alleged "satanic activities" and antisocial behavior. The way they dress and the music they listen to clearly causes fear and suspicion among the conservative establishment.
How would you compare North African metal to Scandinavian and American metal?
With the odd exception (such as Myrath), most bands are what we would think of in the West as "local bands," i.e., passionate amateur musicians lacking the big money studios/producers/equipment–similar to bands in less wealthy Asian and South American countries. Bands in North Africa look to leading Scandinavian and American bands and try to emulate their sound and image. The most interesting bands, however, are more informed by their own surroundings, experiences and history.
How strong is Lounès Matoub's influence on contemporary Algerian music?
Matoub was a real rebel beyond just a protest singer. He is a hero and martyr to the Kabyle people--more of a Che Guervara than a Bob Dylan. In his art he spoke out without restraint and said the things that were not just frowned upon, but which would lead to death, standing for freedom against the oppressive ideologies of religion and government, who were fighting for dominance over Algerian society. He remains a huge inspiration for those who stand for freedom of expression, especially those who express themselves in a confrontational forms like metal. Musically, he was one of many Kabyle folk singers, albeit a very brilliant one. Traces of this musical heritage can be found in the music of some Algerian metal bands such as Taddart, Ajris and Andaz Uzzal.
How big was the North African psychedelic movement? Can you give a brief overview of it and how it stood out from other psychedelic music in other parts of the world?
I wouldn’t say it was very big, but there was certainly a very big folk revival in both Morocco and Algeria in the '70s, as in many other parts of the world. The Kabyle moderne style combined traditional Kabyle folk music with psychedelic, progressive, disco-funk sounds. The sound is distinctive–very mellow and melancholic. Idir’s music is a very good example of this. Les Abranis should be seen in this context, too, but their sound was more guitar-rock and groove-driven. In Morocco, there was a big Gnawa and chaabi revival around big groups like Nass El Ghiwane, Lemchaheb and Jil Jilala. Their musical influences come from religious trance music, rather than Western psychedelia. They are called the “Moroccan Rolling Stones” or “Moroccan Beatles” because of the huge social and cultural impact that they had, performing in front of huge crowds. Abdou El Omari, although much less famous, combined these traditional forms with jazzy electric organ, creating a very psychedelic sound. The great Algerian duo of Rachid et Fethi produced a number of amazing sitar-laden Turkish-style psychedelic pop classics during the mid-'70s. Rachid would become most famous as a pop-raï producer, leading him to be assassinated by the GIA [Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, an Islamist organization that was one of the main anti-government factions during the Décennie Noire] in the '90s. He had been educated in America and was a part of a new Algerian middle class that had emerged at that time. Hopefully their early work will be reissued eventually and finally receive the attention it deserves. Morocco produced two of the best psychedelic rock groups to come out of the region, Les Frères Megri and Golden Hands, who had a far more Western sound. They are probably North Africa’s oldest rock and roll band, releasing some great garage rock singles in the '60s, along with Bob Jalil.
Can you also talk a little bit about modern chaabi--how it transitioned from folk to popular music?
The story begins with Cheikh El Hadj M'Hamed El Anka, who grew up in the Casbah of Algiers, although his family was originally from Kabylie. He began recording music in the 1920s and quickly rose to become the most popular artist in Algerian music. After WWII, he began teaching chaabi at the Academy of Algiers where he trained many future stars such as Amar El Achab. Next, we have Dahmane El Harrachi, a Chaoui Berber who introduced Western instrumentation (he was a banjo player) and a distinctive deep bluesy style. During the '60s, a number of chaabi artists produced more pop-oriented records, sometimes sung in French, most notably Mohamed Mazouni. The first Les Abranis album still shows the influence of Algerian chaabi and it continued to be the primary form of Algerian popular music throughout the 1970s.
How did you come up with the idea for Exile and the Kingdom and how did you record it? What were your influences for the album?
I’ve never been to Algeria. Everything I know comes from books, music, old photographs and family history. I wanted to process this all in my mind and create something from it. It is a very subjective work--simply, how I experience these inherited memories as a sort of dream/nightmare. I’ve picked certain episodes from the war to interpret in sound. All the sounds come from samples that have been processed in different ways and layered. Martial/dark ambient is a genre known for dealing with difficult and unpleasant subject matter. It suits both the violent and dreamlike atmosphere I felt. I’m interested in figures that fall outside of the polarizing narratives of war (“French” vs. “Arab”), such as Camus and Taos Amrouche, as well as Messali Hadj and Hocine Aït Ahmed.