« Darum ist das innerste Formgesetz des Essay die Ketzerei. »
Theodor W. Adorno.
Fusing the rhythms and invocations of the ancient Saharan Banga ritual with an electrical storm of contemporary sonics, Ifriqiyya Electrique’s second album both rattles and awakens.
In Tunisian, Banga means "huge volume” and one cannot think of a more apt description of Laylet el Booree than that. Maximalist & relentless. Blood, sweat & trance.
In the West, music performances and audiences are widely cut from the same cloth. There is a secure dividing line between the stage and the hall, the audience and the performer. But profoundly different experiences can be found on the southern side of the Mediterranean Sea, deep in the Tunisian desert, where Ifriqiyya Electrique was born and has performed the most. At first, these performances were not “concerts,” because what brought musicians Gianna Greco and François R. to that part of the world in the first place, was to investigate how other people and cultures experienced what they themselves had felt for years when they were onstage: pure elevation. Their first "appearance" ended up being in Nefta, in the city of Sidi Marzug. It was terrifying: after all these months of studying, filming, recording and bonding, could Ifriqiyya Electrique actually participate in the legendary Banga ritual? The first ten minutes were in fact distressing, the Banga adepts from the town initially shocked. But eventually the locals recognized a shared music of the spirit and everything rocked together: people sang, danced, went into trances, were healed and the entity that eventually became to be known as Ifriqiyya Electrique passed an unwritten test of acceptance. Remember: Ifriqiyya’s music was never composed for a Western audience in the first place. It was brought to life in real time, on the same streets in which the Banga has been practiced uninterrupted for centuries. Within the ritual there is no leader nor primadonna. It is a collective improvisation. Sufism. A ritualized, social bond where no one stands above anyone else.
In the oases of Southern Tunisia, those frequented by the caravan traders of past centuries, black slaves worked in houses and in the fields, where they planted crops and dug irrigation channels. A native of Sub-Saharan Africa purchased in Timbuktu by the Beni Ali family, Sidi Marzug (the black saint) was a slave whose first owner was Sidi Bou Ali (the white saint), a celebrated Sufi mystic who had made his home in Nefta during the 13th century. The popular image of Sidi Marzug is that of a powerful saint who had at his disposal a diwan (assembly) of rûwâhînes (spirits), who were his servants and allies. The black communities of Tozeur, Nefta and Metlaoui commemorate him with a ritual called the Banga, which is less of an exorcism than an "adorcism": intended to placate and calm the spirit who possesses - and who will always possess - the initiate who participates in the Banga. The modern day sanctuary (zawya) which holds the body (thabût) of the black saint is in the suburbs of the city of Nefta, to the far west of the Djerid oasis. In the Djerid desert region, the ritual of the Banga of Sidi Marzuq is an extremely popular ceremony, which takes place both in the marabout, but more commonly in private houses and in the city streets. The songs and dances are passed down in this way to the younger generations, and the songs are still sung in ajami, the original language of the Hausa who in the past were forcibly brought to the area as slaves.
Raw footage from the Banga.
Several years ago, Gianna Greco and François R. ventured to the Djerid desert to confront this ritual head on. The musical duo’s background is in the underground post-punk scene of continental Europe, as members of Putan Club and as collaborators with the legendary Lydia Lunch. But they are also voracious travellers and seekers of global sonics at least partially hidden from the western gaze (Trans-Aeolian Transmission). Previous trips to the Xinjiang, Uyghur region of China and the Dersim Kurdish Alevi region of Turkey had in part prepared them for the deep musical immersion they would undertake in Djerid. In 2017, Ifriqiyya Electrique released their debut album “Rûwâhîne", an album which deftly brought together the hypnotic chants, and metallic hand percussion of traditional Banga music with industrial electronics and sheer rock volume. Three members of the Banga community - Yahia Chouchen, Tarek Sultan and Youssef Ghazal – joined forces with Gianna and Francois not only on this acclaimed album, but also onstage throughout the eighteen months of European touring that followed the record’s release (tour stops included: Womad, Womex, Sziget, Vieilles Charrues & FMM Sines). It quickly became clear that the Banga had not been merely retooled for western consumption, but rather through the deep commitment of the five Ifriqiyya Electrique musicians – it had been transformed into something new and unexpected. Ifriqiyya Electrique cryptically call it a “post-industrial ritual". The title of the second album Laylet el Booree translates as the “night of the madness”. It refers to the last part of the annual gathering of the adorcist ritual from the Banga of Tozeur – it is the night when the spirits actually take possession of the bodies. Like the ritual itself, the album is wild, frantic, and never caresses the listener’s expectations. But it’s purpose is also to heal, with sweat, spirituality, electricity and trance being central to the almost overwhelming sensory experience. With the band now joined by new member Fatma Chebbi (on vocals and tchektchekas hand percussion) one senses that the musical conversation is even deeper this time around. In fact, it doesn’t feel like a speculative conversation at all, but rather something fully formed and undeniable. A timeless ritual in itself.