Interview: The Maghreban – Pieces of the Continent (August 2022)
The Maghreban. Even the name had enough air of mystery about it that you could be forgiven thinking this was the new alter ego of Hussein Sherbini or Maga Bo. The first 15 seconds of ‘Eddies’, the intro of the debut album 01DEAS released on R&S, only confirmed the impression. Not only did the sound have the unparalleled intensity and magnetism that you got immediately attracted to, but also its cultural authenticity more than lived up to the geographic moniker.
I was sold, so much so that the moment the PR agency sent me the promo link for the new album Connection, I pitched a story to my editor and worked around The Maghreban’s (born Ayman Rostom) family commitments to organise an interview over Skype. Ayman spoke from the privacy of his sedan, windows shut, wearing a white wrinkled t-shirt, and sporting a four-day stubble and me from our lounge in Berlin, balcony doors closed to block out the screams of joy emanating from the kindergarten across the park.
The son of an Egyptian father and a Saudi mother, Ayman’s childhood in 1980s Guildford was characterised by a frustrating predicament. “I was born in England, so I grew up here. But there was always conflict between the two cultures.” From the sound of things, the main issue wasn’t so much the cultural conflict as conflicting expectations. “Going to Egypt or Saudi Arabia, and not being Egyptian enough or Saudi Arabian enough. Feeling different to everyone here, but also feeling different to everyone there.”
As is often the case, the detrimental impact was not limited to Ayman’s own self-esteem. “Part of me hated the fact that I was different and wished I was the same, which is something I hear from other immigrants, just wanting to be like the indigenous people. Maybe even hating my parents a bit because they were different, because they made me different. And there’s still that conflict there, to be honest,” he admits with a faint smile.
There was one thing that cut right across the cultural boundaries, though.
“Being made to feel different by my parents somehow didn’t extend to the music. I don’t remember being upset that they were playing foreign music. I guess I kind of liked it,” he recalls, his big, brown eyes suddenly lighting up. “I remember on weekends we’d go up to London to see family. And they’d always play that music quite loud, classics, like Om Kalsoum and Abdel Halim Hafez and Mohammad Abdel Wahab. And my dad always drums,” Ayman explains, slapping the steering wheel in front of him. “And I learned to appreciate Arabic music. There’s a lot of drama in it, and there’s a lot of melancholy there as well.”
The appreciation for Arabic music was already evident in the 2013 album Grupo Zygote on tracks ‘Alexandria’, ‘Beirut Dub’, ‘Raga’, and ‘Loose’, released under Ayman’s hip-hop alias Doctor Zygote he’s been using since the late 90s. The crucial quality The Maghreban alias brought to the table was an entirely different style of music– rough and ready breakbeat house – that would soon mutate the Eastern influences. For a hip-hop producer with a soft spot for Herbie Hancock, JanGarbarek, and TubbyHayes, this stylistic shift was nothing short of seismic.
“I was living with a friend of mine – a house and techno producer and DJ for years – and he played me house music that I found interesting. A lot of it was by STL, a German artist. And Legowelt, stuff he did that was influenced by Ethiopian music, ‘Africa Space Program‘ by Nacho Patrol. Some of that music really opened my mind to what dance music could be.”
Connection picks up where 01DEAS left off by continuing to push the limits of dance music. If Ayman’s debut had an oversupply of ideas, this time around he has cut all the fat out of his production and left in only the finest cuts, which is in no small part due to an outstanding ensemble of featuring artists he’s put together: saxophonist IdrisRahman, Kenyan MC Nah Eeto, soul-singer Omar (Lye-fook), and, last but not least, Egyptian singer Abdullah Miniawy.
Just what Ayman meant by the drama and melancholy of Arabic music becomes clear on ‘Anzilli’, the most heightened moment of the album where a righteous man, alone on his deathbed, begs the Archangel Jibril to accompany him one last time. The sense of sorrow in Miniawy’s voice is so heart-piercing that it sounds as though his soul is pouring out.
This deep-seated grief lies right at the heart of the album. “The more I’m in connection with people, the more I’m aware of the loss associated with that. So, if I’m just on my own and I have no connections, I’m not in a relationship, I’m not committed, I don’t have children or anything, then I have nothing to lose,” Ayman explains. “I’m not going to be here forever, so that’s where the awareness of grief comes from.”
One hour has flown by. It’s time to wrap up the conversation. Lightening the mood a bit seems like a good idea, so I ask him what he is planning on playing in the car during the future family trips. “I listen to the stuff I’m working on quite a lot in the car, which annoys my wife, but that’s how it is,” he reckons. “My daughter, she’s two and a half. She likes her mum’s music, Kanye West and Beyoncé, but she seems to like my music as well.”
After thanking Ayman for the pleasant conversation and signing out of Skype, I open the doors. It’s quiet everywhere. The kids must have gone back inside for a snack. I check my phone for new messages. There’s none. Feeling strangely isolated, I sit down on the balcony, Ayman’s words keep playing in my mind. Without each other, this life won’t amount to much. Without overcoming our fear of saying goodbye, this life amounts to even less.
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