Interview: Q&A with Ghoula – A Dance of Ancient Melodies with Electronic Beats

Words by Marco Canepari / Photo by Céline Meunier

Over a year has passed, but we’ve finally gotten to grips with Demi-Écrémé, the second standout album from Paris-based Tunisian multi-instrumentalist, producer, film music composer and DJ Ghoula, a highlight of 2023’s music releases.

The album is layered, intense, and rich in sound. It takes listeners on a journey through Tunisia, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean region, touching on the past, present, and future. Thinking that you can fully grasp the entirety of its depth and nuances in just a few listens would be a misconception. Ghoula’s music, including this latest release, requires time to truly appreciate. While it may initially appear straightforward and danceable, it contains a whole world within it.

Eager to delve into this depth, we reached out to Ghoula a few weeks ago and had the opportunity to engage in a Q&A with him, where we explored his creative process. Reflecting on Demi-Écrémé a year after its release, Ghoula shared insights on the album’s surprising success, his approach to merging traditional North African tunes with modern electronic vibes, and his perspective on cultural heritage and innovation.

It’s been just over a year since Demi-Écrémé was released. How do you feel about the album’s trajectory, and did you anticipate the overwhelmingly positive response and reviews it has received so far?

Ghoula: The journey of Demi-Écrémé has been incredibly rewarding. I hadn’t anticipated such a positive reception, particularly at the release party at Le Petit Bain in Paris. Receiving messages on social networks is one thing, but there’s nothing like feeling the reaction and energy of the audience to your music in real-time. It’s humbling to see the album resonate, especially with the younger audience. The reviews have exceeded my expectations, and the various reactions reflect the album’s ability to bridge cultural divides. Two tracks from the album were synchronised for the film ‘banlie.ue by director Wael Sghaier, produced in part by the French channel France 3.

Hindsight is always easier than foresight, but looking back, what would you have done differently on the album, and what aspects do you truly love about it?

With hindsight, I might have collaborated with more artists, but it’s never too late. On stage, I’ve involved (Rabie Labidi), a nay player who uniquely plays all the gasba and nay sounds I sampled on the album, and a dancer (Moncef Belarbi) who excels in Stambali and Gnawa dances, setting the stage alight. However, the album’s unique blend of electronic and traditional sounds is something I treasure. It captures the essence of North African musical heritage while embracing innovation.

Your approach to music has been described as a “digital homage to Tunisia’s musical heritage.” Can you talk about your sampling philosophy and how you use digital elements to both preserve and refresh traditional sounds, striking a balance between respect for heritage and the desire to innovate?

One thing I need to correct first is that I primarily work with records from North Africa, with a hint of Middle Eastern heritage. But beyond that, I think my only philosophy, if you can call it that, is not to consider musical heritage as something old or something that comes from the past at all. When I was little, I started with classical music on the piano, and it’s thanks to that that I can compose now. Music is music before or after, and if we delve into heritage, we can only learn, evolve, and acquire new sensitivities. So honestly, this balance between heritage and innovation in me is natural and spontaneous. It’s about creating a dialogue between the past and the present.

Your compositions are also known to connect different generations of music listeners. What reactions have you observed from the older generation, who may have a stronger attachment to tradition, upon hearing your music? And what about the younger people who might consider traditional sound out of fashion and boring?

The older generation often appreciates the nostalgic elements in my music, recognising the traditional roots. Surprisingly, younger listeners find the fusion exciting, breaking stereotypes associated with traditional sounds. It’s about fostering a shared musical experience across generations.

Can you recommend some emerging Tunisian artists that we should be listening to?

I’ll do even better than that; I’ll recommend artists from North Africa. Certainly, keep an eye on emerging talents like FusaiFusa (Tunisian and Italian), Must Rousnam (Algerian), and Sami Galbi (Moroccan-Swiss). They’re pushing boundaries and adding exciting dimensions to the North African music scene.

How does the Tunisian electronic music scene integrate into the broader North African context, particularly considering the equally vibrant scenes in countries like Morocco and Algeria? Could you briefly highlight a few points of intersection and some of the main differences?

The electronic music scenes across North Africa share a rich tapestry of influences, blending traditional and modern sounds. There’s a sense of cross-pollination in rhythms and styles. While each country maintains its unique flavour, the common thread lies in a collective celebration of our cultural diversity. And there have been quite a few new electronic festivals that have emerged in recent years. Local artists have increasingly more venues to perform at, and it’s incredibly pleasing.

Given that your music is deeply rooted in Tunisian and North African heritage, what insights do you hope international listeners who are perhaps not accustomed to those sounds gain from your work?

I hope international listeners will discover the beauty and diversity of Tunisian and North African sounds through my music. It’s an invitation to delve into a rich cultural tapestry, fostering understanding and appreciation for the nuances that make our heritage unique. I intentionally included a brief language lesson in Tunisian dialect at the beginning of my album Demi-Écrémé because I believe to fully immerse someone in a culture, you should start with the language.

How has your move to Paris influenced your sound and perspective on music, and from a musical standpoint, what do you appreciate and dislike about the city?

Moving to Paris has provided a dynamic backdrop for my musical exploration. The city’s energy is infectious, and its diverse artistic scene has influenced my sonic palette. However, the pace can be intense. I appreciate the cultural melting pot but sometimes miss the more relaxed atmosphere of Tunisia.

They say your first love never fades. What was the first record you sampled, and could you share the backstory of that choice?

The first record I sampled was Cheikh El Afrit‘s track ‘Lay Guella.’ He was a Judeo-Tunisian singer from the 1930s. It held a special place in my heart, and sampling it became a homage to the nostalgia and emotions associated with that particular track. This song inspired the first track ‘Ya ness’ of my debut album Hlib el Ghoula. It’s important to mention that Cheikh El Afrit performed for both Jewish and Muslim weddings and circumcision celebrations, and he even had pieces that glorified the Prophet Muhammad. This shows that people used to live together despite their different beliefs. This is also what our musical heritage teaches us, peace…

During your searches in markets for music, what has been the most surprising find?

Music is everywhere today thanks to the internet, but even before the digital age, music travelled as well, and that’s what surprises me the most. For example, I found a record by a Kabyle singer Djamel Allam in Beirut, another Tunisian record by Mohamed Jarrari in Rabat, Morocco (which seems improbable). Also, when I was in Washington DC during the One Beat residency in 2012, I found a vinyl 45 record by the Tunisian singer Naama in a record store. Unfortunately, at the time, I wasn’t interested in records.

Sampling is often seen as a homage in the musical world. Is there a specific artist or track from the North African region that you found to be particularly influential or inspiring?

I’d rather talk about a style than a specific artist. What influences me the most are the pieces that follow no musical rules, learned by ear from ancestors. These pieces are sung during various activities such as drawing water from the well, harvesting olives, praying for rain, as lullabies, or with stories, etc.

While we go beyond Tunisian and North African music and traditions, what other musical passions do you have? Are there any musicians or bands, albums, or styles you are particularly fond of?

I’m also a DJ, and my mixing style is very personal: I start with Stambali, then move to Gnawa, and from there, I venture into Latin America to play tracks with the same African rhythmic origins. Then, I return to West and East Africa before circling back to Peru via London. I see my DJ sets as a joyous journey. This DJ work complements my search for old vinyl records because with vinyl, I explore heritage, and DJing lets me discover the present.

We’ve heard you’ll soon be performing in Marseille at Babel Music XP, then in Paris in May. Could you give us a sneak peek into other projects and dates you have in the pipeline?

Certainly, in the coming months, I have exciting projects lined up, including a tour featuring a film concert of Wael Sghaier‘s movie Banlie.ue in several French cities, as well as Bratislava, Athens, Brussels, and Stockholm. In May, I’ll be performing my live set Demi Écrémé at Import-Export in Munich. Additionally, I’ll be playing the live set of Demi Écrémé in Athens and Bratislava.

We like to end our interviews with a tricky question. How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it before?

Describing my music is like capturing the essence of a vibrant marketplace where ancient melodies dance with electronic beats. It’s a sonic journey through time, a bridge connecting tradition and innovation. Imagine the rich tapestry of North African heritage woven into an electronic soundscape that invites exploration and introspection.


Photo ©: Céline Meunier