Sofyann Ben Youssef is not the kind of musician who likes having too much attention on himself. Despite being the master builder and wizard behind the sounds of some of the most exciting North African projects of recent times, you have probably never heard of him. That’s because he likes to let you concentrate on the music itself, and the abundance of messages and significances hidden in it.
Kel Assouf, Bargou 08 and ELECTRO ربوخ are three successful examples of his creative flair, all distinctly representing what contemporary Maghrebian sound is. But it’s possible that it’s with his most recent musical manifestation that Youssef fully exposes how North Africa sounds, and will sound. Ammar 808 is indeed a (North) Afro-Futuristic marvel, able to lay the foundations for a pan-Maghrebian sound and outline a potential trajectory for its future.
We reached Youssef by phone in Brussels where he currently lives. With a new album coming in the next few months, our chat inevitably happened between Kel Assouf studio sessions, but it also occurred just a few days before the release of Maghreb United (Glitterbeat Records), Ammar 808’s debut. That’s where the interview got underway; from the glaring and hidden meanings of his latest project, his music vision and how it exemplifies Maghrebian current affairs.
“In North Africa, when you don’t know the name of a person, sometimes you shout ‘Ammar’, which is also a proper name, but it’s very close to the meaning of ‘Mr No One’, a sort of unidentified person, while 808 stands for the Roland 808, and that’s because the entire album is based on it. I like recording sounds from old machines a lot, and I like to put them into other machines. The 808 is indeed an old machine – it’s from the 1980s – which is also one of the reasons why I won’t tour with it; it won’t survive the tour, so I just use it at home.”
Tradition and future, as much as analogue and digital sounds, are constantly side-by-side in Ammar 808’s music. We asked Youssef how the elements are combined and how the blend works.
“I wouldn’t call it blending, because for most of the time, each element is separate; they’re coexisting in the space of one track. My approach to this is that traditional music alone would be good enough, but with those electronic instruments I can bring an extension to traditional music; I can enhance the low and high ends. When I started a few years ago here in Brussels, the way I liked to work was bringing other elements to somehow fill an empty frequency range. Even in relation with the use of electronics, I don’t have any preconceived ideas on how it should be used. I didn’t grow up with electronic music. I grew up in Tunisia, so when you tell me that, for example, this is a kick and it is supposed to go on every bar, I don’t know what you are talking about! All I know about electronic music is what it can bring to a track and how it can make it fresh. It’s about giving a particular rhythm. That’s how Ammar 808 album ended up, like a series of sort of unexpected ideas: rhythmic and sound-wise ideas. Sometimes, I was just finding myself replacing traditional gnawa claps and beats with huge kick bass. So, the logic is to not have any preconceived ideas about the role of electronic sounds. I tried to be the closer to tradition as possible, even when I used the kicks.”
Despite Youssef being keen to respect and pay tribute to tradition, he’s also a Futurism enthusiast. He takes delight in bringing sounds forward, projecting them in the future, but still tying them with what’s going on in the present.
“First of all, I’m a big sci-fi fan. In this context, Futurism is a way to look at the present and past at the same time. I learnt a lot from what Tunisia went through in the last few years, and what I learnt is that people found themselves stuck in a future they didn’t choose because they are totally distracted by what is happening today. We had big events happening in Tunisia a few years ago; we had a sort of revolution, which I won’t entirely call revolution. I prefer to say that a lot of events happened, and people acquired a lot of freedom and positive things. However, usually those kinds of things have a funny way to distract you from the future you want. So, Futurism is a way for me to reflect on what type of future we will have if we are going to keep doing what we do today. I try to imagine music as the soundtrack of a sci-fi movie that depicts North Africa in a few hundred years. That’s the kind of idea I fantasize about, and I look for a sound that can eventually change something today. Since we are living in a particular historical moment, when we can very easily be distracted by the fact that we have all the freedom of the world to say or do whatever we want, we eventually fail to keep track of the essential things. We are no more building for the future, because we are just using what has been given to us.”
It looks like the Maghrebian and Tunisian music scenes are starting to take into consideration Youssef’s words. Musicians are becoming more and more conscious about their qualities and projects – which were previously confined to the national or regional borders – and are finally spreading their sound across the Mediterranean and beyond the Sahara.
“I think there has always been good music projects in the region and Tunisia, but they were killed before they were becoming popular. The potential has always been there, but today we finally got a movement and that movement is also about self-awareness. It’s almost like the present they gave us is no longer enough, so we’d like to use our present too, and with it build the future we want. It’s not about survival anymore, it’s about thriving now. That’s the big difference when you include Futurism in it. For me, survival is [not] good enough. I want to thrive and build a better future. You can see it in my music, because we want to find out the answers to all sort of questions. It’s not just about the music anymore.”
That’s also how and why Youssef’s idea of Futurism includes Tunisian neighbouring countries, and surges into a pan-Maghrebian Futurism.
“It’s very funny because when the project started we were all sitting at the same table and there were a Tunisian guy, next to a Moroccan and an Algerian too. We were talking to each other. What hit me was that for the very first time in my life I heard those three, four dialects being spoken at one table and I was part of it. We all know that Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria are all neighbours, so we thought that there was something wrong happening. Although we are neighbours, we never have the chance to interact with each other. And I’m not talking about interacting as artists, I mean as regular people! You never see an Algerian, a Moroccan and a Tunisian sitting together and talking, simply being friends. So, I thought that Ammar had to be really, really important.
At the same time, I realised that despite [the fact that] we have many things in common, we are different too. The good thing is that we were looking at those differences and we were accepting them. That’s also how I feel about unity; unity has a lot of meanings when people are different and they kind of stand together.”
The genesis of Ammar 808 followed a similar process: a work of cultural exchange in progress.
“When Bargou 08 tour was cancelled and we stopped with that project, I had already [made] plans to go to Tunis and work on a few tracks. So, I went there and started recording with a Tunisian guy. Then, I had already made plans to work together with Sofiane Saidi;I had already collaborated with him and Mazalda when we released a track called ‘El Ndjoum’ and the vibe was really nice. For this reason, we decided to work together once again. I already had some ideas about what we were going to do at that time. Then, while I was in Tunis, I met Mehdi Nassouli. He’s a friend of mine and we meet everywhere, in all sorts of places. He came to me saying, ‘I’d love to work with you!’ So, I thought, that’s destiny happening; they both came to me at the same time, looking forward to working together. So that’s how then the team came together.
We started recording in Tunis and then I brought everything home and worked on it. Then, I shared the material with the other guys. It was a pretty hybrid way of working; I was asking them for stuff and they were sending them over using internet, but I always wanted to keep a certain direction for the album. So, for example, when Medhi gave me different options, I chose from them the most fitting, while other tracks are the result of the times I sat down with Sofiane. We started trying stuff and then once the vocals were there, I took them home to work on them. In this way, it ended up being the album you listen to today and that was the usual way I work. I produce alone: I take the raw material and I start fiddling around.”
His ‘fiddling around’ has helped him to become a sought-after producer with an almost uncountable number of his own projects, collaborations and participations. We wondered if and how the musicians interact with each other.
“They’re all part of my life – they influence each other and are influenced by each other – so the influences go both ways. I might say that being a music producer, you really need to discern and have a clear sight on what is coming from where. By the way, at times it’s also good to let things go and not think about the influences going around. So, what helps me in this process is shift continuously between two states of mind. One is the influence, and I call the second one ‘innocence’. When I’m in the innocence state, I discover stuff and I’m excited about them. While when I’m in the influence state, I make arrangement to create sounds and make a point with them. To separate these two phases of work helps me to keep things in place; it’s a mechanism.”
Also, on a more personal level, Youssef’s everyday relationship with music enjoys the same wide-ranging approach mirrored by what his stereo plays.
“Recently, I’m listening to compilation of jungle music from the 90s. That’s because a few years ago, I saw an MC performing live during a festival. It was the classic stuff like drum’ n’ bass and jungle, but it was such an amazing performance! Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the guy, but since then I’m checking a lot of stuff related to d’ n ‘b and jungle. Then, I’m also listening to stoner rock, and constantly to Jon Hassell and ambient music from the 70s, sometimes also to Brian Eno. Finally, I’m listening to a lot to Carnatic music.”
Next to being a musical ‘prophet’ in his own land, Sofyann Ben Youssef has also become one of the protagonists of Brussels’ global music scene. Kel Assouf is an example, but the way he interacts with other Belgian projects is also indicative of his open-minded approach to music.
“Working in Tunisia has a different meaning – the scene there has different places and needs – so I wouldn’t even compare the Belgian to the Tunisian scene, also because of the purposes of the things I do there and in Belgium are different, too. Belgium is the perfect place if you want to create; it’s really easy compared to other cities. A lot of underground projects are coming to light in Brussels at the moment and Belgium exports a lot of music. World music is one of them. There are many artists that I like, for example Black Flower and Aka Moon. The pace of the everyday life, for example, is perfect; it’s not pushy, so you can take your time.
As said, Tunisia is different because it’s really up to us musicians there. The music scene is a collective effort and we need to make it if we want to bring the scene somewhere. There are a lot of artist who are doing it and we [are] finally acquiring some self-awareness, which is a really good sign!”
Self-awareness is a crucial concept when talking with Youssef, and it is also what Ammar 808 stands for. We close our interview with the Tunisian musician, composer and producer delving into that idea, and uprooting its relationship with music.
“Ammar 808 is music that you would dance to, and it’s also where things are going in the Maghreb. To be more accurate, it’s where we would like things would go, because things are not going really well there, but music can definitely help. I think the problem is all about self-awareness; the image that you have of yourself is the image that you usually get from other people. In the Maghreb, you don’t usually have the luxury of looking at yourself in the mirror saying, ‘This is who I am and I’m beautiful.’ This is not happening because we have sic preconceived ideas of what beautiful is or is expected to be. That’s why we need to work on it, breaking those preconceptions. We need to take a moment and say, ‘Ok, this is where we come from and where we would like to go.’ It seems like an easy question, but when you are in a country where you struggle to survive on an everyday basis, those questions become luxury. The only moment when people can reflect in their subconscious on that is when they listen to music and dance to it; when they gather around and feel that inexplicable happiness in which they identify without questioning it.”
Known for its astonishing desertic landscapes and its rich cultural history, the Maghreb is a vast region in North Africa that was once ruled by Berber dynasties under one reign. Nowadays, this land is divided between Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania and Western Sahara, but nevertheless, their differences are strongly…