Interview: Kel Assouf @ WOMAD Charlton Park (July 2016)

We’re backstage at WOMAD 2016 drinking mint tea with Kel Assouf, a group of musicians who describe themselves as playing ‘Stoner Rock’ from the desert. But this is not the Californian desert of Palm Desert Rock acts like Queens of the Stone Age- we’re talking about the Sahara desert. The recently formed group’s central figure is Touareg guitarist and singer Anana Harouna, once exiled from his desert homeland of Niger and now resident in Belgium.

We were fascinated to know why this group identifies itself with a genre of rock from the other side of the Atlantic and began our interview by getting Anana’s fellow band members to introduce themselves.

Toulou Kiki (also a leading actress in Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu): Hello, I am Kiki. I sing and play percussion and I am originally from Niger.

Sofyann Ben Youssef: Hi, my name is Sofyann Ben Youssef from Tunisia and I am the keyboard player and also the producer of the album.

Olivier Penu: I’m Olivier from Belgium. I play drums.  

Matt Mirol: Hello, I’m Matt Mirol and I’m the bass player with Kel Assouf.

So, let’s get the conversation started by asking the musicians to tell us a bit about their backgrounds, how they got involved in the project and how it feels to be part of Kel Assouf’s new sound.

Olivier: This is the first time actually that I’ve worked with a band like this. I really loved it from the first time I heard it. The band before was more traditional and Sofyann, the producer, wanted to make it more edgy, give it a more ‘rock’ sound. A traditional drummer was not what he wanted. I didn’t know the rhythms before I started playing in this band. I listened and started to know the contour.

It helps actually going there, to the desert, feeling the vibe. We went to Tunisia to perform, and while we were there we went to the desert. If you’re there it all makes more sense, you know? It’s a different way of life. Seeing and experiencing things for me is enriching, and I’m in the process of still learning things every time we play.

Matt: Actually it’s the same for me [as with Olivier]. I studied jazz music in Paris, and I used to play with African musicians from Senégal, but this is actually not the same rhythm and, as Olivier already told you, Sofyann as the producer asked me to bring some rock’n’roll influences. I had already played this music, so it was quite nice to be part of this project.

Sofyann: It was not exactly me that decided the music would go in a new direction. All the conversations I had with Anana changed the way things had been going for a few years before actually starting together as Kel Assouf. It was very natural to go in the direction of rock, and also to build this relationship with earth – like the ground, you know!

Kel Assouf’s recently released second album Tikounen [Igloomondo, April 2016] with its haunting spirit and hard-hitting messages is awash with themes of pollution, corruption, poverty and conflict. Who wrote the lyrics?

Sofyann: Anana mainly writes the lyrics. The name of the album is Tikounen meaning ‘surprise’, but not a pleasant surprise. It’s the kind that means astonishment. It’s basically astonishment about the violence in the world, about how people tolerate it so easily. There are too many lies, things hidden from the media – and especially what’s happening in the desert. There’s a lot of violence going on in the desert that we don’t hear about. It’s not making it into the media, and that’s what Anana is trying to express in his songs.

So it’s more like shock?

Anana: Yes. I feel a lot of sadness about what’s happening in the world right now.

I go back home sometimes. But sometimes I don’t go for a while, and then when I do I see things that happened that make me very sad. It’s a rich country with lots of natural resources, but the people are still suffering from poverty because these resources are not being used by the people who live there. There is a lot of corruption. Those things touch me a lot. I see my family and friends at home every time I go, and I am divided by feelings of joy to be back there and sadness at what is happening – misery, poverty, manipulation and lies.

Do you keep in touch with your family and friends when you’re not there, and are they able to let you know what’s going on?

Anana: Yes. Sometimes even in the middle of the desert you get an internet signal. The internet makes it easy to keep in touch. But still, the news doesn’t make it into the mainstream media.

So now let’s talk a bit about the new sound. What sort of vibe are you trying to create with the instrumentation you have in this new lineup?

Sofyann: Well, we were looking for elements that came from within the music. We were not looking particularly for elements from the Western world. So again, we were trying to get this connection with earth through big bass sounds, loud, very low, and a very dense kind of sound that is in sync with the violence that is happening in the desert. So it was a totally natural direction to take, I think, the loud sound of guitars with a rock edge. It came also because of all the stories I heard from Anana about what is going on there. It was no longer possible to do sweet, gentle music. It’s so violent there, so you cannot play sweetly, you know? All I did was transcend all those vibrations and stories, directions and music, trying to find the right image.

And how does the audience in Africa relate to the band? You say you’ve played in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. Is your new sound different from other Touareg bands?

Anana: For now the album represents a new sound. It’s as new to us as it is to them! It’s a bit like an experiment, a trip. It’s going more in the direction of Stoner Rock. This is where all the heavy riffs come from. It’s not rhythm guitar any more.

And European audiences – do they get the message? 

Sofyann: I think ‘desert rock’ is already a familiar sound, but we’re aiming to reach a wider audience. Now we’re not only aiming at world music but also rock, so we’re going to do some rock festivals. It wasn’t deliberate from the start. When we finished the album we had no idea what it was going to become. It’s something that has revealed itself since.

The group certainly seems to enjoy sharing their music. They have upcoming dates in the Netherlands, Belgium and Egypt, and the beautiful Rivierenhof open Air Amphitheatre in Antwerp, set, we were informed by Olivier, in natural beauty spot. Kel Assouf has clearly enjoyed meeting people and playing at interesting festivals like WOMAD, and also had a great experience at Gagnef Festival a small but perfectly formed event in Sweden. But amidst the touring, what else have the group do to promote their new album?

Olivier: Well after that we went to make a video clip. They brought a camel into Brussels!

What? A camel loose on the streets of the Belgian capital?

Sofyann: Yes, this was our camel video. The idea was to make a clip to the song Europa. Anana talks in this song about how he spent ten years in exile, and how he’s divided in his feelings. He wants to go back [to Niger], but he has a life in Europe, so the song is about Europe. And the question was, “How can we make the desert come to Europe? Bring a camel!” We got the camel from France. It belonged to someone who does special events. The camel’s name was Suhail, and he’s a Toureg camel. We dressed him in Toureg style and then we brought him to the city centre. Anana was doing circuits riding on him – it was fun!

But the stunt had a serious message. People were crowding round, saying ‘What’s going on?” The question is, would a person from the desert have elicited the same response?

Sofyann: The thing that made this remarkable to us was that this camel represented a foreigner, somebody who is not from around there coming to the city. Everybody was just looking at him and smiling, taking pictures and saying ‘hello’. The sad thing is, when an immigrant, a foreigner, comes to the same city he won’t be treated like that. So the whole clip was a huge experience for us. We saw things in a different light, things we wouldn’t have seen in our own city without doing this.

And that seems to be the essence of Kel Assouf – a challenge to the status quo on both a musical and a social level.

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