Thursday, December 15, 2011

Worth It In 2011: #24 - Group Doueh

The track below captures most of what makes this West African group so enjoyable -- trancelike repetition of off-kilter rhythms, organ and guitar textures that nod to Western rock music, and pure exuberance. Because I'm me, I compared it to Genesis.

Group Doueh
Zayna Jumma
(Sublime Frequencies)

Um, what the heck, I'll post my entire PopMatters review, even though I'm afraid it reads like the ravings of a madman/dork (madmen aren't always so interesting, you know):

Group Doueh plays noisy and exultant music, designed to pitch listeners into throes of bewildered ecstasy. This makes sense—they’re a wedding band. Remember how bewildered and ecstatic everybody was in the first third of The Deer Hunter? Or rather, recall how ecstatic the film making was, with its leisurely voyeurism and its willingness to simply observe all the dancing and drinking in something approaching real time. That filmed observation, almost an hour-long, was itself virtuosic, itself a celebration. Yet it wasn’t real time. The Deer Hunter achieved its ecstasy by masterfully confounding viewers’ expectations of movie time. Doueh’s songs aren’t that long, actually—only one song on their new album tops six minutes—but they capture the same spirit of staggering along in search of joy, unmoored from time’s tyranny. Sometimes Group Doueh struggles for that joy, and sometimes joy seems handed to them by a happy confluence of design and fortune.

In Doueh’s case, the design is in the repetitive grooves laid down by drummer Hamdan Bamaar and a singing all-female percussion section that includes Hamdan’s mom, Halima Jakani. The fortune is in the jamming. Hamdan’s brother, El Waar, plays the keyboards and family patriarch Salmou plays electric guitar and tinidit, an amped lute. Throughout Group Doueh’s fourth album, Zayna Jumma, Salmou leads the group through a mix of traditional griot music and Hendrix-inspired acid rock, riffing and soloing over some heavy beats. You can tell why Western critics love this band from Western Sahara, and why the Sublime Frequencies label took interest. Group Doueh sound familiar yet exotic, and it’s easy to disappear into their ferocious two-chord vamps—at least, until you notice all the wild flailing shit Dad’s pulling out of his strings.

The word “ecstatic” comes up a lot around Group Doueh. Much of that ecstasy comes from the beats, which somehow hurtle from one bar to the next without speeding up. The band portrays this effect in a couple different ways. On most of the songs, drummer Hamdan either anticipates or delays parts of his beat patterns, making every bar sound uneven. Along with that, one element of the monster rhythm section—hand claps or resonant tbal drums—subdivides the beat into two or four, while another element splits the beat into thirds. This uneven two-or-four-against-three leaves you feeling off-kilter, and then the band repeats the off-kilterness. Over and over.

In effect, Group Doueh’s rhythm section normalizes their rhythms’ abnormality, resetting listeners’ sense of groove, of time and its smoothness, of normalcy itself. For ears raised on rock or disco, sinking into a straight back-beat is like sinking into a hot tub, but you can’t sink into these beats the same way. Eventually you grow accustomed to the not-sinking feeling. The band’s tempo remains the same, but life seems to speed forward. This sensation can resemble carsickness. No word on whether Salmou Bamaar’s fingers feel the same way.

Maybe interestingly, other musicians also normalize their rhythmic abnormalities, but to different effects. Norteño band Los Tigres del Norte sometimes delay the third beat of a waltz rhythm to be funny and uncanny. Electronic glitch musicians loop their glitches because it sounds cool, and probably to make important points about the disruptive effects of technology on everyday life, or something. But it’s worth noting that glitches’ normalized abnormalities may have ecstatic implications as well. Says Rob Young in the Wire article “Worship the Glitch”: “Common time… locks you into the tyranny of sequential time; the earthbound temporality that mystics and hermits meditated their way out of”. In their own ways, Group Doueh and Autechre liberate us from such tyranny.

Salmou loves his American rock, so several of these eight shred-fests resemble a really cool classic rock station. “Ishadlak Ya Khey” and “Zaya Koum” have none of that two-against-three stuff. They’re straight-up rock jams with serpentine wah riffs and strident call-and-response vocals. And the closing power ballad “Wazan Doueh” is a gorgeous appropriation of synth-rock cheese, like ‘80s Genesis or something, with El Waar channeling his inner Tony Banks into some very enthusiastic keyboard stabs. Unlike Genesis, there’s frenetic soloing, only two chords, and wild vocal ululating from the rhythm section (jokes about Phil Collins howling “Who Dunnit?” will be considered). Chances are your wedding band was not as remarkable as Group Doueh.

(Way better than The Rough Guide to African Guitar Legends.)

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