Interview: Ezza @ WOMAD (July 2015)

Saharan blues never sounded so rocky! This Toulouse-based group plays with spirit and energy, and for a trio their sound is big. Just after their fiery WOMAD show on The Radio 3 Charlie Gillett Stage early on Saturday evening we talked to front man Omar Adam Goumour, bass player Menad Moussaoui from Kabylie, and their drummer Stéphane Gratteau from Poitier (‘the only French Tuareg’ according to his band mates), along with their manager Francois Bloque.

First of all we wanted to find out a bit more about where the musicians come from and how they first met – and where exactly is Menad’s homeland of Kabylie?

Kabylie? It’s a province of Algeria, like Brittany in France.

Indeed, it’s a northern province in the Tell Atlas Mountains on the edge of the Mediterranean. So how, we wondered, did a French drummer, a bassist from Kabylie and a Tuareg from Niger happen to meet and form a band? Francois their manager offered in to explain.

I used to live in Toulouse and Omar came to Europe, to Toulouse in 2010 – five years ago now – and Menad and Stéphane used to live in Toulouse. In Toulouse it’s easy to get to know all the musicians.

Stéphane agrees that the scene in Toulouse creates the right conditions for flourishing musical collaborations, especially when you have superb instrumentalists and singers right on your doorstep.

Yes, we were neighbours. I’d open my window and they would be there in front of me! In our street we used to live very close, so it’s a good way to create a band when you live close to the other musicians.

We asked Omar to tell us a bit about his Tuareg way of life and how that impacts on his music.

We Tuaregs want to share music. Life is hard, but music is something we can share with others. You can go to other people. It’s our way of life to share the music and you can see its effect on stage. The culture of Tuaregs is all about sharing, and there are lots of meetings to share.

Stéphane has travelled in North Africa, and his classy drumming displays his strong grasp of North African rhythms. He enlightened us by sharing his own take of the culture and lifestyle of these travelling people.

I was surprised that wherever I went in a city there were always three or four Tuaregs from Niger, Mali, Algeria, Mauritania or Chad. There is a link between the people and it’s difficult to break this. The distances are really far there, so it’s a conscious sharing of the representation of all men. It’s very close; it’s like the stars.

Stéphane’s poetic words spurred on Ezza’s manager Francois to explain how this philosophy continues in Tuareg culture within France by describing the strong connections he sees in that immigrant community.

In France you can go to different cities or festivals and always find tribes people selling jewels. These people are very friendly and all of them they know each other.

Omar takes the opportunity to show us his beautiful silver ring. After admiring its wonderful craftsmanship we also commented on the guitar strap of intricate leatherwork he’d been wearing during Ezza’s show.

Yes, I made this ring, and the guitar strap, my sister made it! In my country the men are metalworkers, working with jewels, and the women work with leather. This is my family’s work.

At this point percussionist Stéphane steps in to explain a bit about Omar’s status in Tuareg society:

The difference is – and I think it’s the key for this band – Omar wasn’t from a family of musicians. In his family the name of the caste is ‘forgeron’, blacksmith, so first and foremost he knows about fire and metals. He’s a very good blacksmith. He’s as good a blacksmith as he is a musician!

Francois adds:

Yes, in his culture being a musician is a caste, so you can’t be a musician if you’re not born into that family. In his society he doesn’t have the right to play music.

So Omar literally plays with fire – that explains a lot! It’s extraordinary then, given the circumstances, that Omar got into playing music at all. We asked him how it came about.

I was young when I first got into music, but I didn’t start playing myself until later. When I was twelve or thirteen years old I started to listen to music like Ali Farka Touré.

So then how, we asked, does that affect the music in the group? Stéphane continues:

The fact that he’s [Omar] not coming from a musician caste means he came to music recently without any influence in his background – he came with a blank slate.

This intriguing fact led us to ask whether that meant Omar is more able to be free with traditional Tuareg music, to which Menad replied:

Yes he can take influences from a lot of different sources, and not only one from a particular teacher, so it’s more free, very open wide. He had to learn a lot. We [Menad and Stéphane] lead the band, so he learned with us how to be a musician because when you’re on the stage you play live and the arrangement has to be right – ‘the singing begins here!’, and ‘you play here!’, and oh ‘you know, here is the bridge’, and he would say, ‘what is the bridge?’ Oh, it’s a lot to learn!

But it’s not just Omar bringing something unique to the ensemble. Each member is a brilliant player, and the musical histories of each band member are quite different. Francois continues,

Stéphane came from a jazz background – well not only jazz, but also African music. Menad has his style, and all of this created something new. We could call it a new wave of Tuareg music. Maybe that’s not entirely true, but it’s kind of a new wave. You mentioned the fact that they mix different cultures, French, Tuareg and Algerian. You can find these differences in the music, so what comes out is different from a purely tribal band because everyone brings his own melodies and background. Since the beginning they wanted to differentiate their music from other bands. They didn’t want to be another band like Tinariwen.

The group explains that the arrangements are teamwork – and their hard work shows. For a listener, what makes this music so interesting are the dynamic breaks, cool intros, riffs that bubble up out of the texture, a wealth of carefully studied North African rhythms, acapella vocal sections (as all three musicians sing), simmering solos and neatly sculpted endings. But another difference we had spotted between Ezza and their counterparts is the use of loop pedal on the guitar. Omar explained to us how that came about.

Yes, I used a loop for three songs today. At the beginning bands were alike to each other, like many bands of Africa, with lots of the family – sometimes all the family playing together.

Menad helps explain;

But Omar can’t play with a brother playing rhythm guitar so he did the rhythm guitar himself and sometimes made a loop. You don’t need to bring a lot of guitarists on stage then like a lot of other bands do!

The songs were not sung in English, so we asked for a brief description of the meaning of the songs that Ezza performed today. Omar replied:

They are about education, women’s development.

Francois elaborates:

One song was about children’s education. He says that we should bring pens and paper to children instead of weapons, OK. There’s a song about women that suffer in Africa you know with forced weddings, excision [circumcision] and so on. And there are songs about peace [Omar starts to sing]. So like we said at the beginning it’s about going back to others, to be friends. It’s all about peace and love.

Stéphane was keen to express his dismay about how difficult it is for musicians to get visas to travel and spread their music.

There are also songs about the desert and melancholy. We began to write some songs with a political message because we are angry at the way the movement of music and humanity is going. To go to England, for example, is really expensive for them because they are Nigerien or Algerian.

Francois added,

One song Ezza did tonight is about the colour of money. And money has no colour – you can be black African or white. It’s a kind of political message.

We asked the group how much they had travelled and shared their message and music with others before they made their UK debut here at WOMAD 2015. Francois listed a number of concerts in Europe and Africa.

Since March 2013 – so for two years and several months – the band performed about one hundred concerts in Spain, Belgium, France, Morocco, Algeria and Congo. And this is our first date in the UK – and our second one is in Falmouth on Monday. There’s a new concert hall in Falmouth called Mono. Our friend Benjamin Woods who is a musician and lives in Truro has organised it.

Finally we asked the group about their recordings, and they graciously passed over a copy of ‘Alkher’ (meaning ‘peace’), released on Francois’ label Ma Case.

This is our second album. The first one sadly is sold out. This one only came out at the end of May. It’s really new. Not even the BBC has this album yet!

…and this excellent CD has hardly been out of the player since. The sound is original, yet still has an unmistakably traditional ‘Saharan’ flavour. The strong bond between the players is evident – a joy of sharing perhaps. We hope that Ezza, one of our highlights of WOMAD, will return to the UK soon to share their vibrant energy and message of peace.