Interview: François Cambuzat – Ifriqiyya Électrique (June 2017)

There are some intense and unique cultural expressions that are too complex to describe if you haven’t experienced them first-hand. The ritual of Sidi Marzûq performed by the Banga community and occurring every year in the Djerid Desert in southern Tunisia is one of them.

Luckily, we had the pleasure to reach by phone an exclusive music guide who helped us to understand the arcane and archaic tradition. Together with Gianna Greco, François Cambuzat has recently given life to a new significant and fascinating project called Ifriqiyya Électrique. The French musician brought his post-punk, industrial and electronic sensibility to the Sahara desert and organically blended it with endemic, trance-inducing rhythms and recitations.

The result is a “concert-road-movie”, an album titled Rûwâhîne and released by Glitterbeat Records, a forthcoming world tour and a cultural adventure that has neither an expiry date nor geographical limits.

Banga music is a very old healing ritual from the Tunisian Sahara desert. It’s not a proper show and that’s why I started to be interested in it. It’s really a community ritual during which people chase the bad spirits. When you are into the Banga you need to give your body to the spirit (or the devil). Once on stage, you have this kind of elevation like, for example, Iggy Pop. So, when I heard about the practice, I was very interested in going and studying how they were doing it. I started doing field recording and finally, I realised that we could do something together with those musicians. I went there with Gianna and all our equipment: computers, instruments, recorders…everything! We wanted to respect all the tempos and harmonies inherent to the music and that’s how Ifriqiyya Électrique came to light”.

François Cambuzat is one of the most fitting artists to set a similar project in motion. He could be described as a music explorer venturing through traditions and style. This is all mirrored by the genesis of Ifriqiyya Électrique.

Ifriqiyya Électrique’s experience started more or less five years ago. I was touring in Asia at the time and once in Mongolia, a musician friend told me about the Shamanism in Xinjiang. Xinjiang is the Westernmost region of China where the ethnic majority is not Chinese, but Uighur, who are also Muslims. When I came back to Europe, I was thinking about the fact that when I’m on stage I’m completely out of my head, even if I don’t drink and take drugs. So, I really wanted to go there and see how it worked. When I went to the Xinjiang, I was planning to do some research for myself. For sure, I wasn’t thinking about a project least of all touring with it. Yes, I wanted to shoot a movie from my experience, but that was it. However, that was the perfect period, because I had time and I also saved some money for some years to realise that trip. Unfortunately, it was impossible to come to Europe with the musicians I was in touch with. Uighurs are persecuted in their country and they are not allowed to go abroad.  

It so happened that the French Institute in Tunisia heard about my studies in Xinjiang and they offered me the possibility to do the same kind of research in Tunisia. When I came to Tunisia, I first got in touch with Stambeli music, which is a similar kind of ritual, but happening in an urban context. That was something very touristic for me and I didn’t like it. When I was about to leave, I met a local ethnomusicologist who introduced me to the Banga community. Which is completely unknown for Tunisian people too, because it’s very, very local and limited to the Djerid, the salty desert of Tunisia”.

At the core of Francois’ music research, there’s always a visual and documentary element.

The project was always meant to go together with a documentary. When we played live on stage, I like people to see and understand where the sound comes from. The concept of world music is something strange because you listen to very beautiful music, but you never know where it comes from. For this reason, as we play, using a computer I can synchronise the images with the beats and we try to bring this format to everywhere we play. We use projection a lot in our shows. Actually, that’s not only for the audience but also for us on stage: we get lost in the ritual! In addition, we shot something like 400 hours in three years and it’s impressive all the material that we have and how immersive it is”.

Despite the worldwide and all-encompassing musical experience of François, gained thanks to his research and bands (The Kim Squad, Enfance Rouge and Putan Club to name a few), Ifriqiyya Électrique has had a localised outreach until today. That’s arguably the most crucial question mark when thinking about the future of the project.

We never left the Sahara desert with this project and neither did the musicians. We are now applying for the different visas (Schengen and UK), a process which is going to be quite a fight because we only played in Tunisia. Last year and this winter the voice spread around the country and people were interested, calling us for different shows in Tunis and nearby, but we never went abroad. It’s really hard to think about what is going to happen and what will come next because we don’t really know the musicians’ reaction. They’re free men and we need to understand how they might relate to touring in Europe: you never know what’s going to happen, maybe they’ll hate it. So, we really don’t know.

For sure we’ll be working together until the end of the summer and then, together we will decide what to do, to go on or not. But yes at the moment everything’s rolling and I think that the album is fantastic. We have already some proposals for touring in China, the U.S. and in Europe too, but we haven’t decided what to do next”.

To some extent, Ifriqiyya Électrique future could be brightened by the renewed interest that the so-called world music scene has recently demonstrated for Tunisian music, for example with another band signed to Glitterbeat Records: Bargou 08.

I think it’s just a case, it has happened like that. Of course, Tunisia is full of music and festivals and people are creating a lot, but it’s happening by chance. There are so many bands coming from Tunisia and now there’s also quite an established tradition (more than 20 years) of metal music. There’s a huge metal scene in Tunis with bands touring Africa and even travelling the world. But I think it’s just because kids want to play. As a matter of fact, the level of musical instruction in Tunis is absolutely wonderful: it’s very, very high! There are many rehearsal and recording studios. Tunis is an intriguing city because it’s very developed in this: it’s at the same time Oriental and Occidental. Unfortunately, apart from Tunis, the rest of Tunisia is mainly desert”.

It’s quite clear that Ifriqiyya Électrique is such a different and extraordinary project. So much so, that it is complicated to envisage any possible collaboration. However, François is open to every solution and sound.

I’d say that I’d share the studio and stage with every project from techno to avant-rock to classical music, everything is open. Actually, the more extreme the artists are, the better it would be. The problem is our budget. For the next album, I’d love to invite different musicians from different traditions. If I really had the money I’d, of course, invite Benny Benassi or Tom Waits or even the guys from Uzeda from Catania in Italy. We are really thinking about this because we’d like to go somewhere else with the sound. We’d like to go a bit further and take some risks.

I’m convinced that the so-called world music scene needs to open itself. What I hate about world music is when you see these fancy postcards showing that the entire world is nice and beautiful. That’s clearly not true and that’s why we wanted to shoot the movie and we want to show it during our concerts. Usually, when you have these kinds of concerts and festivals, you constantly see camels in the back, people are all nice and friendly, they invite you to have couscous with them…but it’s absolutely not like that and I would like to show people a more authentic image”.

In less than a month, Ifriqiyya Électrique will tour outside of Africa, giving life to an 8-leg European Tour starting at Roskilde Festival on the 28th of June and ending at Urkult Festival in Sweden on the 3rd of August (also touching the UK with a date at Womad). Since the sound of the band and imagery behind it are not the most accessible for a European listener, we close our interview asking François Cambuzat to try to sum up the character of the band and present it.

What Glitterbeat wrote is quite right. The Ifriqiyya Électrique sound is a ritual. I don’t know if it’s really extreme, but it’s surely healing music. The problem is that when you read that, you usually think about new age and holistic things, but it’s not that at all. I think that, for the respect of the musicians and their tradition, we had to keep the primordial and original aspects of the music. It was a very long process to rearrange it and they rightly put some barriers in our work. For sure, Ifriqiyya Électrique is something rooted. To be honest, I’ve never worked before so near to the roots of a tradition. Even if it’s a bit odd, it’s really rooted”.

Photo ©: Renaud de Foville