Interview: François Cambuzat – The Dance of Spirits in Ndox Electrique’s N’döep Rituals (December 2023)

Words by Marco Canepari

François Cambuzat and Gianna Greco stand out as unique artists, cultural instigators and investigators, consistently astounding and inspiring us. Our first figurative encounter with them was as Trans-Aeolian Transmission around a decade ago through a documentary they filmed in China. This documentary explored Muslim and Shamanic Uyghur music in Xinjiang, Taklamakan, and Karakoram.

Over the past 10 years, their diverse projects, including their ongoing provocative personification as Putan Club, have guided us on an introspective and expansive journey. They traverse the globe to explore obscure traditional and indigenous religions, shedding light on the musical expressions intertwined with these ancient belief systems.

During their recent expedition through Central and Northern Senegal, they were ‘possessed’ by their latest project, Ndox Electrique. This musical exploration seamlessly blends avant-rock with electronic elements, incorporating mesmerising ritualistic vocal chants and percussion from the N’doëp ceremony. Unleashed through the visionary Swiss label Les Disques Bongo Joe, the album accompanying the documentary merges indeed Western influences with Senegalese traditions, transcending cultural barriers with a bewitching allure.

Ndox Electrique, which picks up where Ifriqiyya Electrique‘s research work ended six years ago, aims to invoke spirits for healing by synthesising traditional elements with contemporary instruments, challenging conventional perspectives of world music.

A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of a phone conversation with François to delve into the project and unveil its manifested and hidden meanings.

Our chat began with a reflection on our last ‘meeting’ with François, which took place before the onset of the Covid pandemic, related to their 2018 project investigating the religious ritual of the Banga in Tunisia’s Djerid desert.

Looking beyond the Covid era, countless concerts unfolded. The last one before COVID struck was at Womad in New Zealand, facing the imminent threat of being stranded. Nevertheless, the tours persisted until recently. Last year, we embarked on an extensive tour across Canada, continuing with Ifriqiyya Electrique, albeit with a changed line-up,” François recounted.

Francois Cambuzat and Gianna Greco’s journey with Ndox Electrique began as a quest into the heart of one of Africa’s most authentic communal ritualistic expressions, a cultural exploration leading them to Senegal. Explaining the project’s origin, he said, “The genesis of this new project lies in Ifriqiyya Electrique. Each time the opportunity arose, we inquired about the roots of the music and ritual. This inquiry stemmed from the fact that in a predominantly white country—individuals from Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria identify as white—music and rituals like Gnawa in Morocco or Diwan in Algeria seemed to have origins that were out of place.

So, we delved into extensive reading. One day, we stumbled upon Omar Ndoye’s book—a Senegalese ethnomusicologist from the University of Dakar—discussing N’doëp. The book was concise, drawing parallels with Banga and various Maghreb rituals. At that point, we thought, ‘Why not give it a shot and visit sometime, whenever that might be.’ Meanwhile, due to the four films we had made, we became graduates—thanks to the French Institute’s support, providing a sort of carte blanche and modest funding. We moved to Senegal and had to stay there during the second lockdown. We were meant to stay three months and ended up staying eight.”

In Senegal, the project faced a tangible challenge – the locals’ fear of spirits and demons, hindering their initial attempts to connect with the community. The Lebou ethnic group, practitioners of N’doëp rituals, hesitated to engage in public performances, wary of the potential dangers of spiritual possession.

It was a longer stay than anticipated, marked by the challenges of the local population’s fear of the spirits and demons tied to the rituals,” François shared, his voice reflecting the weight of the cultural barriers they encountered.

So, naturally, before departing, we tried to establish as many contacts as possible. The issue, however, was with the N’doëp. Everyone in Senegal seemed to be afraid of it. People were fearful of the spirits, the demons. So, they were genuinely afraid of being influenced by listening to N’doëp’s songs. Even the Lebou people, who practice it, refrained from coming to our shows in the beginning. They, too, were afraid to attend because, even though they are Lebou, it was deemed too risky to get involved, especially in public.

This reluctance stems from societal non-acceptance and fear born out of ignorance. Despite being, in essence, a relatively mild therapeutic ritual, it is perceived as violent due to the sacrificial aspect involving blood. I didn’t find it mild at all, but it’s no worse than another. I believe the pizzica dance, from 50 years ago, might have been somewhat similar without the blood. So, it’s purely due to ignorance. When we arrived there, we had very few contacts, and those we had seemed to vanish.” François recounted.

The evolution of Ndox Electrique unfolded against Senegal’s rich cultural tapestry. François described how the project, initially rooted in the exploration of African musical traditions, transformed and expanded during their stay in the West African country.

We eventually hit the road, making our base Ndar, in the St. Louis region, up North. Travelling like there was no tomorrow, especially along the river and the sea, where the Lebou reside, trying to get a foot in the door. But it was no easy feat; we could hear the rituals at night, yet there was absolutely no way to get close. Roadblocks at every turn.

We asked everyone for a way in, and then, one day, a taxi driver says, ‘I know a master healer,’ and gives him a call. Turns out, this guy on the other end of the line says, ‘Yes, I dreamt of two Toubabs, two white folks coming for us.’ We all chuckled, thinking it was just some touristy thing, but darn if he didn’t know the exact day and time of our arrival in Senegal. We, being atheists, had our reservations, but some things you just can’t ignore.

So, there we were, far from Ghereo, where he insisted, ‘Come to the first ritual, there’s one tonight.’ So, we embarked on our wild eight-hour drive to reach Ghereo, from a place practically more Mauritania than Senegal to another which is truly under Dakar, beneath Dakar. We had to traverse the entire country,” François recounted, the serendipity of the encounter evident in his words.

The project’s narrative began with an immersive journey into the heart of the local community, evolving from the status of outsiders to becoming integral members of the N’doëp community. François vividly recalled this transformative experience, stating, “From that point onward, we were embraced by the N’doëp community around Ghereo, Mbour, and those villages. And, we never looked back at Saint Louis.”

The initial interactions were marked by an overwhelming sense of excitement. François described the early days, saying, “It was too good – the excitement of being able to start filming and recording everything immediately, engaging in conversations with them. We had it right away. They didn’t know; they didn’t understand why we were there. But what baffled them was whether we were merely curious or if they couldn’t grasp the connection with tradition. No, the fact that we were there to play, to learn how to play it – It seemed absurd to them, that two tubabs would come all the way from Europe and spend money just to study this, and that was that.

François explained that the genesis of the Ndox Electrique project was not initially planned as a recording or live show. “At the beginning, it wasn’t planned as an album or concerts, and there was no intention of a performance or any return. The primary goal was to film it. Gianna and I wanted to learn how to play it ourselves.” The duo’s original intent was to immerse themselves in the cultural fabric, akin to their approach in previous films and research, seeking to understand the nuanced boundary between playing traditionally and elevating oneself.

François underscored the social significance of the music, stating, “Why make music in that way that is not just entertainment, not incredibly fun? That’s what matters to us.” The notion of forming a band emerged later, as François recalled, “So, after months and months of living with them, making friends, etc., it was only then, in informal conversation, that someone suggested it could be a band. But no one really believed it, except them a bit more because, you know, all the work that comes from Europe is profit-oriented.

They pushed hard; we held back a lot until the French institute came into play. By then, we were already out, living in a residence. The money they gave us, the financial aid, it’s a two-way street, and the occupation of the residence house is only for two months, which is quite short, but it’s something. It allowed us to start.

Restarting the Ifriqiyya Electrique experience wasn’t what we were looking forward to due to various problems we encountered when bringing the project to Europe. However, creating the film served as a turning point. Because these projects always start from the documentary. We create the film, and on that film, we add electric guitars, bass, computer—everything. From that moment, it’s done for us, and we’ve learned. We know how to do it. The film serves as our travel diary, and goodnight, that’s all.

The story took an intriguing turn with the involvement of the Geneva-based label Bongo Joe Records. François explained, “After completing the film, Glitterbeat, who followed us and released the Ifriqiyya Electrique album, expressed enthusiasm, but they weren’t sure if the project would have worked in Europe. So, we approached Bongo Joe, a small, in-house label with a unique atmosphere. They handle everything from record stores to live performances. It’s a different vibe, and they were keen on the music.

As François revealed, the collaboration with the label marked a pivotal moment for the project, “Bongo Joe was convinced about the music itself, even if it never toured in Europe. We presented them with the finished film, essentially the core of the album, and they saw its potential. Their belief in the project for its musical essence was crucial.”

As the project focus shifted to live shows in Europe, François envisioned an immersive experience, emphasising, “It’s about finding spaces that appreciate the immersive nature of the visual aspect and understand its importance in connecting the audience with the cultural context“. This live aspect, projected alongside the music, aimed to offer a holistic and culturally rich experience.

Fortunately, most festivals and venues have been receptive, and I would always like to be able to do what we did with Ifriqqyia Electrique and with the shamans in Xinjiang—to project it. Usually, we have always managed this, except for all the festivals. But venues and theatres are always happy about this because it’s true that it’s a great thing; the bigger the screen, the more incredibly beautiful it is to immerse oneself in it.

This came from the fact that since we were kids going to world music concerts, it has always been frustrating to see something and then, in the end, tell yourself that you will never know anything about it—where the music comes from, what village, who are the people, who are their friends, or the environment they live in. Because at least for me, when I was little, it was a desire to travel every time. So, you know, it’s the beauty of working with a computer.

As a result, we asked François to describe the milieu where they were filming and recording and what it was like to immerse themselves once again in such a profound experience after Ifriqqyia Electrique. He explained, “Well, it’s extreme poverty, severe poverty. But, it’s a very human and familiar environment, more than familiar—it’s highly clan-based, being very open because all the neighbours in the neighbourhoods or towns are together. This is a bit the usual thing for all these types of rituals because the social role of all this is very important. Hence, it naturally goes hand in hand with societies where people still talk, and somewhere people are still in contact with their neighbours.

After our Ifriqqyia Electrique experience, to get in touch with this ritual wasn’t a shock anymore; it was a joy to fall back into it, like for stambèlì, banga, gnawa. It was the happiness of being able to put our hands back into the dough, more than anything else. It was close to Maghreb rituals, but at this point, it was the differences that were charming. Now, returning to the music, it was about understanding the pulse, the rhythm, which was entirely different from Europe. Initially, they laughed like crazy when they saw us tapping our feet, saying we were mad, it’s not here, it’s there. All of this was part of the joy of doing things. The greatest joy isn’t performing on stage in Europe or even in Senegal; it was truly there, in that period of exploration and making mistakes. That’s what interests us, and that’s why we consider ourselves privileged. We have so many other projects going on that we don’t need one more project to make a bit more money. We care very little about that, so we’re free to say no, to let everything collapse if there’s a problem or anything else.

François, delving into the intricacies of the N’doëp community, uncovered a fascinating interplay of elements within its predominantly Muslim and patriarchal structure. His exploration highlighted a captivating contrast, emphasising the feminine undertones that permeate the spiritual dynamics of the N’doëp rituals. “We are in a predominantly Muslim society, in a country where polygamy is permitted. It’s a highly patriarchal society, also in the realm of healing—the healers are always men. More often than not, the person who truly holds a significant role is the ‘ndoëpkat,’ the one skilled in healing within their laboratory. This individual takes you and operates outside the N’doëp scene, either preparing you or finishing the work done for the ritual. On the other hand, the assistants, especially those delivering messages, are predominantly women. So, yes, it’s indeed very feminine, especially in the spiritual context. There are male spirits, but the overwhelming majority are female.

He delved into the syncretism observed in the practices, stating, “It’s not a departure from Islamism because, according to them, being devout Muslims, they strive to respect Islam. However, it’s evident that what they practice is significantly outside the bounds of Islam. Yet, this syncretism is embraced by people who are accustomed to living with this blend without any issues.

Reflecting on the future of Ndox Electrique, François mentioned, “That depends on the collective; it’s no longer in our hands. It’s something we repeat every day—that the future, like Ifriqqyia Electrique, depends on them. If the collective is strong, if the team that takes the stage can change and always trying to honour commitments. We find ourselves in the middle between agencies and the collective, so once an agency signs a contract, I don’t want us not to go. I don’t want to put anyone in a tough spot, so it depends on them.

Right now, everyone is ecstatic about being the full 12, proud that we made it. But, let’s be clear, we’re not the Rolling Stones, and the cash flow might be lower from there. We always try, as they usually oversee things, control the agency budget, and manage expenses. For instance, when Guess Who? pays you so much, in the end, you go home with 150 Euros. It’s great that they understand this, not us. Therefore, the future will always depend on them. If not, in terms of the music business, it’s about making another album and playing as much as possible, selling all the records. I feel responsible there; a label invests money in something like this, and I’m honored, but on the other hand, you have to feel responsible, having your name on a piece of cardboard or plastic. Who cares?

When asked about similarities with their previous projects, François ruled out parallels with China, but hinted at explorations in Reunion and Madagascar. He stated, “In China, our experiences involved shamans, and it’s quite different. The shaman is the conduit; only one person is in a trance—the shaman. It’s the shaman who journeys to heaven or hell to communicate with the departed person. It’s also not similar to the Kurdish tradition, where it’s more of a personal elevation, and there’s no spirit possession. However, as I mentioned before, there are undeniable similarities with North Africa. During this winter, out of curiosity, we explored the practices in Reunion and Madagascar. There, again, it’s close, with a spirit possessing you. I think this aspect is unique to Africa. As soon as you move towards Turkey, it’s not the same, but who knows, we’re not experts. Yes, there are many traditions. Indeed, you never know if such practices might still exist in the Lower Salento.

As the conversation unfolded, François delved into the diverse cultural projects they are engaged in or planning ahead. He remarked, “There’s an endless list, and time is lacking. By the way, what we saw in the Indian Ocean this winter is interesting. We’ve witnessed many rituals, but there it’s becoming more and more fashionable, so it’s better to leave it alone because the rituals remain truly intimate, and doing nothing is better. But what’s interesting in Reunion is that they also consider doing what they call black magic, casting spells on people and making them die… Yes, making them die, and we’re thinking in these months with Gianna that it would be politically nice to try to make them all die with music. It’s a kind of liberation through music, in the sense… to see where democracy has failed, where we are all in deep trouble, but to make them all die from Bill Gates to Emmanuel Macron with spells. We don’t risk anything, only losing time, and it would be nice to use ancient things for this. This is a project that interests us…”

Apart from that, every year, we strive to return to Central Asia as the entire Falak life in the Pamir, in the Tajikistan mountains, greatly intrigues us. There’s a rich culture surrounding departures, be it for a journey or the departure of death. This has been a focus for nearly nine years, even though reaching the Pamir is challenging. Hence, we’re always in a bit of limbo about it. As for now, that’s all in the field that I hesitate to call ethnomusicology, as neither of us is a scholar in the subject. Still, it does lead us into the realm of world music inadvertently. It seems like a mandatory route, unfortunately, as it’s the only outlet, the only realization of these research endeavours. That’s the challenge, but yes. It also depends on what they want, you know. For instance, the film we made with the Alevi in Turkey, nobody had the desire to circulate it, and that’s perfectly fine. Because they are Alevi, part of a minority. It doesn’t matter for them; they are content as they are. They understand what the West is, but they don’t yearn for it, and that’s okay“.

As we returned to navigating the labyrinth of Ndox Electrique, we asked François to reflects on its very essence. “Wow, it’s difficult. If someone knows nothing about this, it’s a bit like doing good to oneself with extreme violence. Because again, it always comes down to this thing, the why behind doing all of this. Everything starts from there,” he muses. The project, at its core, is an exploration of doing good with extreme violence, a paradox that defines its existence.

Another difficult task we asked him was to highlight a specific moment from the Senegalese period, as we hinted that their artistic life can be described as ‘geographical periods,’ François shares, “I think all of them can be highlights, but if I have to pick one from our Senegalese period… Gianna was filming and recording from the audience’s side—not really an audience; that’s why I don’t like it… Let’s say from the participants’ side. And I was in the midst of the Sabbath, amidst the griots. I remember that, and it was beautiful because even if I wasn’t in a trance, or maybe I was, spending hours and hours and hours, with my ears surrounded by enormous volume, it was beautiful, it did me good. They really didn’t know it, but it did me good because I was immersed, truly physically immersed in the sound. It was a marvel. So, for me, these long moments, because after all, the rest is very touristy—people’s homes, landscapes, etc., not that important. Instead, the vibration of the air amid the percussion, wow! That’s truly physical. That, yes, is physical; I couldn’t escape, I had no escape because otherwise, it meant leaving the ritual. So, that was beautiful!

As we approach the conclusion of the interview, we express our heartfelt appreciation to François for sharing his in-depth insights. To our surprise, he reciprocates with gratitude for the exploration of these reflections, “I thank you because you made me think, and that’s the fun part for me, but it’s difficult because then one thinks about a lot of things, doesn’t know where to look. And I decided never to look back, never, never look because it takes away my sleep; I can’t sleep. So, I always have to move forward, forward, forward, but you also have to do this a bit.

And I’m glad to know that someone is interested, that someone has watched the film. I tried to watch the documentary with the eyes of a viewer who knew nothing about the project, and I think the film manages to convey this energy, this force behind the project. Because it’s a very unique thing,” he shares, encapsulating the essence of an extraordinary journey of inner and outer discovery.




You can watch Ndox Electrique's road movie HERE
You can listen to and get your copy of T​ë​dd ak Mame Coumba Lamba ak Mame Coumba Mbang, 
Ndox Electrique's album out now via Bongo Joe Records, HERE