AMMAR 808 – Maghreb United

Genre: World
Released: June 2018
Reviewed by: Benedict Roff-Marsh

The album is set to play from Tk #9 so I recommend resetting to Tk #1

The cover is immediately evocative as well as a pretty good representation of what you expect inside.

AMMAR 808 is:

Deep TR-808 bass meets pan-Maghreb beats, timeless voices and futurist visions. AMMAR 808 is Sofyann Ben Youssef, the sonic mastermind behind the Tunisian sensation: Bargou 08.

What you hear are what appear to be reasonably traditional recordings of folk songs that are popped in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and treated to the addition of drum machine elements largely courtesy of the classic Roland TR-808 sound set famous from Marvin Gaye “Sexual Healing”. As well as being the cornerstone drum source for Rap & House music mostly because the Kick drum has a long booming sound. Incidentally in this case, not unlike some of the larger North African drums.

Most other tracks famous for drum machines and commonly ascribed to the TR-808 like Phil Collins “In The Air Tonight”, Blondie “Heart of Glass”, Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” are all the earlier CR-78 which had no ability to program user patterns.

Drum machine history lesson aside, what you are no doubt hearing is a pretty direct clash of Arabic style music with modern electronic drum beats over the top. I do say over the top because the drums are leading the mix. This is the Modern thing. I do find that in many cases this diminishes the subtly of the core material and in effect makes it an 808 record with some Middle Eastern chanty stuff going on behind. A kind of Raï.

The stated aim was to honor & bring these traditional songs into the future and I think in some ways it does this as kids will be more likely to hear them as they listen to the 808 workouts. The downside is that these song traditions rely on a lot of finesse in the performance that an overdriven drum machine is not part of.

Not to say that this can’t or shouldn’t be done, but that it is hard to appreciate the enduring humanity that these old songs seek to share with the people (not only today but tomorrow) when the star of the show is the DAW beats. That said repeated listening does help more subtle parts to be heard as familiarity with the musical language grows.

I will leave it to you to decide, I like that there is quite a “jiggy jump” in the tracks after fusing the two elements. But once I have settled with that, there is not as much ability to hear the message of the real song. Also, I find the drum machine parts repetitive. (Bear in mind I can make my own drum machine beats at will so I don’t need to wait for someone else to do it for me.)

Coming back a week later I can hear the more subtle details a lot clearer so familiarity does indeed help here. That also means this record is a grower which is exactly what good record should be.

The other difficulty I have is very much my own but one any World musician should consider at some point. I don’t speak a word of Arabic – or whatever language this is. Nor do I really know much about the culture that this comes from in any more granular form than school history lessons and nightly news. World music is about introduction & exploration so finding ways to bridge to wider audiences is part of the composer’s job. The 808 beats do that in part. Some parts in English (as a universal language) can help heaps too.

Which brings me to my comparisons. I have to start with the lovely Ofra Haza “Shaday” album because it fuses Traditional songs with modern Pop forms (including drum machines). Sheila Chandra’s “Roots & Wings” became the poster child of the purer approach to fusion after her former band Monsoon and their hit “Ever So Lonely”. Enigma updated that for the 90’s House thing with “Sadeness” but the second record is broader in its sampling of other cultures.