The latest album by Quebec-based composer and saxophonist Mehdi Nabti pulls from a keen interest in and detailed knowledge of music from the African continent, Europe and Asia. What he has come up with is informed by his understanding of established and novel modes, but the result is natural, easy to get and vibeful.
The stop-and-start feel of “Ayyur” is a playful poke in the ribs filled with surprising rhythms. Strong and impactful, “Esperanto” is an intense musical exploration, in deep contrast to the chill flow of the sweet tune “Antee” and “Timgad” challenges the ear with fresh modal meanderings, the pulse of bass and drums so insistent and dominant.
What ideas inspire you when you compose?
I have two ways of composing. The first method is empirical: I improvise on modes, scales, in a melodic way. An idea arrives, I like it, I keep it and try to develop it, to arrange it rhythmically and harmonically.
The second method is systematic: I first compose a rhythm, I make variations/permutations of it by writing its negative, its inverse (retrogradation) and its mirror symmetry. From the rhythmic base, I write counterchants that I apply to the bass, then to the saxophone/flute. For the chords, I write down those that come from the melody according to what I also want to hear. But in both methods an intellectual aspect necessarily intervenes upstream or downstream, because music is built.
Which musicians have influenced you the most?
Those who taught me improvised music and rhythm characteristics in my youth. The technique I use to compose rhythms is the French drummer/percussionist and composer Éric Beaudet who taught me 20 years ago. Éric recently passed away, unfortunately. He originated this method, and, long after having taught it to me, he found more or less equivalent ideas in Olivier Messiaen’s treatise. He also taught me how to phrase correctly on the saxophone on composed rhythms, and how to improvise without harmonic support, just with the rhythm.
I did a lot of concerts and shows with him. He taught me to play percussion, congas, surdo and claves. He was a mentor for me and for many musicians in the Paris region and taught me everything about rhythmic arrangement. Éric was in the process of writing a rhythmic treatise and he asked me to reread and correct it because I know his method well. I have it at home. I would like to make it public and have it published one day. I will also quote the French jazzman François Jeanneau, who taught me the basics of jazz and improvisation, arrangement and collective playing.
Otherwise, I love so many musicians with different styles. I like French popular singers (Serge Gainsbourg, Daniel Balavoine, Brassens, Gotainer, Katerine), English (Bruno Mars, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Bob Marley), classical (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy, Bartok, Messiaen). Concerning jazz, I first loved Bird, smooth jazz (Grover Washington, David Sanborn, George Benson) then John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Monk, Ayler, Mingus, Miles Davis, Errol Garner and many others of the ’60s hard bop movement like Art Blakey or Jazz Fusion like Pastorius. I also like a lot of European musicians like François Jeanneau, Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber or Africans like Manu Dibango, Fela…
My tastes in jazz stop in the ’90s with Steve Coleman/M-Base and late Miles Davis. I don’t listen to jazz anymore today. I find that today’s jazz no longer has vitality or a provocative aspect. Jazz has become terribly retromania, backward-looking with an idolatry of the past that I don’t like. So I especially like listening to French songs, disco, funk, classical, electro and North African folklore (I love the National Orchestra of Barbes), trance music Aissawa, Hamadcha, Diwan, and Berber music like Rouicha, musicians from the Atlas Mountains or southern Morocco.
Talk about the Berber and sub-Saharan influences on your music.
First of all, a little flashback. I became interested in these types of music by going to the Maghreb to study them during my thesis years between 2002 and 2008. I did a doctorate in France (EHESS Paris, 2007) on the trance music of Morocco, and I played a lot, wrote down and recorded the music in its original contexts. A video presenting the ideas from my thesis can be found at https://youtu.be/puDUu4FSMm8, published by Harmattan Paris in 2010. The title is “Les Aissawa, Sufism, Music and Trance Rituals in Morocco.”
I also created and directed a Franco-Moroccan jazz/sufi fusion music group that performed in several festivals between 2004 and 2008, giving masterclasses in music schools.
North African music can be ritual/religious (Sufi, Gnawa, diwan), popular (Soussiyya, Jilala, Jebeliyya, Ahidous, Rifaine) or classical (Melhoun, Andalusian Noubas). But they each have their own ancestral repertoire where songs, poems, melodies and improvisations are often supported by a groove that can be colossal. The music is rooted in the indigenous Afro-Berber culture (it can also be called Afro-Mediterranean) where, in my opinion, the symbolism of duality (life/death, man/woman, moon/sun, day/night etc.) is a fundamental fact. I think that this symbolism corresponds to a survival of the ancient paganism of North Africa (mystery cults of Tanit, Amun-Re, Baal, Ayyur, Mithra, etc.) whose traces are still present in both local beliefs and archaeological sites and monuments.
Thus I am trying, with the different groups I have created and directed, to elaborate a current improvised music based on musical techniques I have identified in traditional North African music by playing them on the ground in their original context. My goal is to propose a current improvised music of oral tradition that falls within what I call the Afro-Berber continuum. It is a music that is part of a tradition, a traditional North African thought. In this approach, I propose a re-actualization of musical and non-musical techniques that have been ignored because they have never been publicized in the media.
Musically, the symbolism of duality manifests itself through the combination in pairs (symmetrical, complementary or contrary) of melodic and rhythmic elements as well as organizational forms and structures.
All my compositions use this notion, which I have applied not only to melodic lines but also to rhythmic patterns, polyrhythms, tempi, forms and structures as well as to the progression of my improvisations. In addition, my compositions contain scales and rhythms that I have developed myself.
For this, I use non-musical ideas that I apply to music such as geomancy (an ancient method of divination still used today by seers in the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa) in which dice prints are used to create series of numbers. These, arranged in even/odd numbers, eventually form graphs and figures of lines or dots that the diviner must decipher. This sounds esoteric and abstract, but it is very simple to manipulate and use to invent rhythms and scales.
Finally, I sometimes use traditional rhythms from North African trance rituals originally played by percussion groups that I have adapted to the drums.
What inspired the music in “Grooves a Mysteres” and how would you characterize the feeling of the album?
“Grooves a Mysteres” refers to the mystery cults of Afro-Mediterranean antiquity. This music is neither jazz, funk, fusion nor Oriental music. As I mentioned earlier, it is a current improvised music that is truly part of what I have come to call the “Afro-Berber continuum.” It thus proposes a re-actualization of North African musical and non-musical techniques. Its aesthetics and sound are the result of its time, the skills of the musicians who play it.
In my opinion, if the music changes on the surface, it does not change in depth. It remains within the Afro-Berber continuum. That’s the idea and the feeling I’m trying to convey in this album, and ultimately, in all my work.
Do you feel challenged by complex rhythms and counterpoint-type melodies?
Complexity is relative to the experience of individuals. Complex rhythms are rhythms like any other. They may be difficult to play when you learn them, but all music is difficult to play at first. When you try to learn “Jingle Bells” on the piano it is difficult at first! Crossed rhythms, compound rhythms and counterpoint are used in many traditional music styles, but the standardization and commercialization of music has gradually made them disappear for the public, even in North African countries!
What were the biggest challenges of production?
Money. You have to have money to produce your music, to record it, to pay the musicians, the studio, the technicians. Musicians need to find a way to make a living (in music or elsewhere), but also to find a way to have extra money to produce their creations. During the pandemic everything stopped, but I continued to compose, and I have 10 new compositions to record as soon as the lockdown is lifted. For now, we’re waiting!
What was the music scene like where you live before the pandemic and how are venues opening up now?
I have been in Montreal, Quebec, Canada for over 11 years. I have seen a lack of professionalism and respect towards musical artists that shocks me. In talking with musicians older than me who have been active in Montreal since the ’70s, it seems to be a characteristic of this musical context. As for me, in addition to this, I have suffered a great deal of closure from both the artistic community and the media. Impossible to have access to the media to promote my work. Only one columnist is interested in my work. Only one! I have more press coverage in the USA, Africa and Japan than in Quebec! For radio broadcasting, it’s the same thing: I am broadcast in the US as far as Japan via Turkey and Iran. But not in Quebec. No broadcasting or media coverage.
It must be understood that immigrant or ethnic minority musicians are only tolerated in Quebec. That is to say that they are only accepted, both by other musicians and by broadcasters, if these musicians confine themselves to folklore, or to well-identified popular music such as rap, slam, reggae, Latin jazz, flamenco, Oriental music, etc. If you take a different path, you don’t interest them, you are despised. Your work is ridiculed, you get insults and sneers. Moreover, if you manage to get booked for a gig, your treatment (financial, relational) will not be the same as that of other artists. This context is neither professional nor fulfilling. I addressed these questions in a book published in France by Harmattan Paris in 2017 under the title “Présence arabe, berbère et nord-africaine au Québec. 55 ans de musiques plurielles (1962-2017).” You can view a YouTube presentation here: https://youtu.be/kQFmCvWLAlg.
While the Arts Councils support artists through grants, presenters but also local musicians are particularly closed to any attempt at original individual creation, although they do support the opposite. But the facts are there. Why is this? Because, on the one hand, there is not enough work for everyone, and on the other hand, there is no audience. The public is getting older and disappearing year by year! No relief! As a result, any outsider is seen as a threat, and the same 20 musicians have been performing everywhere and working with each other, and only with each other, for 10 years! They stay between them, since their school or university years, working in isolation. Always the same ones, everywhere and all the time, in the same places. No opening…They are only interested in you if you are a star or someone recognized by the media.
How did you come to choose your band members?
According to their technical execution skills but also according to their understanding, intelligence and passion for music.
Bertil Schulrabe has been with me for two years. He is a key drummer and percussionist on the Montreal world music scene. Everybody wants to play with him because he loves music, he comes prepared and he is very nice. He is able to play anything I ask him to play instantly.
Nicolas Lafortune has been my electric bass player for 10 years. He is on all my albums. I like to play with him because he has understood the role of a bass player; that is to say that he doesn’t try to play like a guitarist. He understands the grooves, is able to play them and he is also very easy to live with.
Joy Anandasivam has been in my band for two years. He plays the electric guitar. I found him by chance while hanging out on YouTube. I like to play with him simply because I like the way he plays. I like his Indian approach.
My musicians are passionate about music, and serious in their contribution to my compositions. I feel safe with them.
How are you getting people exposed to your new music today?
Well, musicians like me need media coverage! Individual sites are not enough, so we have to get the public one by one. Without media coverage, no visibility, no sales, no listening. We are hidden under the stones.
Do you have performances scheduled?
No, everything has been cancelled, purely and simply.
What is the most rewarding part of being an artist even when most are struggling right now?
An artist will inevitably have difficulties specific to the context and the era in which he evolves because an artist is someone who has a creative vision and who proposes it to the world. He shapes his stone and places it on the Great Pyramid of Art. For me the greatest gratification is to be able to achieve my musical projects. They exist, the albums are there, despite the indifference and sometimes even the hostility of the milieu. People all over the world listen to me, buy my albums and write to me. I love what I do. I’m proud of that.
For more information visit https://mehdinabti.wixsite.com/mehdinabti.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
(c) 2021 Debbie Burke