This year, I’ve often been exploring sounds that go well beyond my ‘usual’ preferences. Even Spotify’s “Wrapped” has told me so. Having participated in WOMEX (the World Music Expo) in Portugal this past October has certainly contributed to broadening my horizons, too.
Thankfully, there is a plethora of amazing acts in Australia, following their own creative path, that are still waiting to be discovered by wider audiences.
Today, let me tell you about one of them, fusing ancient North-Western African rhythms with contemporary electronic vibes.
PART 130 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE
World music never used to be my go-to genre. But I do appreciate great talent when I hear one. Especially when that talent skilfully blends tradition with modernity.
And that is the case of Julian Belbachir [pronounced Bell-Ba-Sheer].
‘Julz’, as he’s known to friends and peers, is a N’goni player (African harpist), drummer, percussionist, producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist.
He was born in Sydney to Moroccan and Australian parents, and his adventure with music started when he took up drumming at just 5 (!) years old. As a child, he was already taken under the wing of master drummers and griots [West African historians, storytellers, poets and musicians].
Raised in the Surry Hills & Redfern areas of Sydney in the late 1980s at a time when those suburbs were densely populated by communities with a strong cultural identity, he grew up surrounded by Aboriginal, African, Caribbean or Pacific Islander influences.
It was living there and forging lifetime friendships during those formative years that shaped his connection to music and inspired his musical sensibilities to create a unique sound.
His journey of discovery later continued with a pursuit to master the craft of African percussion-playing and instrument-making. Belbachir travelled extensively through West Africa, visiting Guinea, Senegal and Morocco and studying with some of Africa’s most respected masters.
Having gathered all those experiences, he began uniting the worlds of traditional African instruments with modern-day production techniques, drawing inspiration from genres such as reggae, dub, electronica, jazz, drum & bass, dub and Gnawa.
Hence, today, he’s a highly-regarded artist, best known as the jubilant percussionist in the massive grassroots Indigenous dub band OKA. The group fuses Indigenous culture, Yidaki (didgeridoo) and electronic production, over which Belbachir plays drums and N’goni.
The artist has spent countless hours in many of Australia’s and Canada’s best recording studios producing albums and tracks for some notable collaborations.
Due to his long-life dedication to studying and playing traditional folkloric music of North and West Africa, he’s a sought-after creative collaborator. To date, he has teamed up with a few Australian acts making waves overseas, like Tash Sultana, Empire Of The Sun and Pnau, as well as Canadian acts Tribe Called Red and Leonard Sumner, outside his home turf.
He has also performed in over 30 countries, including at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival and the UK’s famous ‘Glasto’. In Australia, he’s appeared at one of the most prominent events, Byron Bay Bluesfest.
I absolutely love it when artists marry different musical styles in original ways, educating audiences about their heritage through a contemporary lens at the same time. So listening to the muso’s debut album, Babdoukkala [pronounced BAB DOU KA-LA], was a pleasant surprise. No wonder – the record received a 5-star review in the Songlines magazine’s June/July 2022 issue. (I just have no idea how I could have missed its original release in May 2022.)
Belbachir had been working on the record, produced with long-term collaborator Alex Richardson, for six years. He invited a line-up of world-class artists to form part of it.
Babdoukkala includes Grammy Award-nominated vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Lamine Sonko (Senegal), keyboard maestro Ollie McGill (The Cat Empire), Afro-Latin guitar pioneer Moussa Diakite (Mali), Sufi Music Ambassador Emad Dabbly (Morocco), violin virtuoso Quetzal Guerrero, Q VLN (USA) and Guinean vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Malin Sylla.
The album comprises nine original compositions featuring traditional instruments, the Kamele N’goni and Guembre, combined with modern production and contemporary musical styles. It’s a beautiful tribute to the African masters the musician has studied with in Australia and Africa.
Moreover, the record’s mission is to bring culturally rich music to a contemporary audience. Through Babdoukkala, Belbachir endeavours to create and present a body of work that reflects his identity as an Australian with African roots.
“My music pulls from a few different styles of traditional music, like Gnawa, Mandinka, Wassalon, Dounsou, Takamba and the desert blues. It’s also influenced by dub, reggae, funk, jazz, drum’n’bass. It’s like future-desert-blues-dub”, he says. “A good part of my music is instrumental to give focus to the traditional instruments, but I also had the opportunity to collaborate with some amazing singers on this record.”
A few tracks from the album deserve particular attention.
The title track, “Babdoukkala”, is a special composition named after a special place. ‘Babdoukkala’ is a very old door or gate in Essaouira, Morocco. It is an entrance to the Medina (old city/marketplace). Hence, the song is an instrumental journey with many layers, much like being inside a Moroccan marketplace. This is what the artist has shared about it:
“While (…) in Morocco, I spent a lot of time playing music and collaborating with some amazing musicians. It was every evening when the sun was going down, I would meet my friends and other musicians at ‘Babdoukkala’, often to socialise before going to a “lila” [a traditional healing ceremony based around music]. After some time, and returning to Australia to my house in Sydney, I had some friends come to visit me from Morocco, and quickly my house became the ‘Babdoukkala’ of Australia”.
Another track, “Home Lands”, is accompanied by what you could call a beautiful, epic film clip, shot by Callum Stewart and directed by Toby Finlayson. The song is a response to the constant trials and tribulations that Guinea and neighbouring African nations continuously have to deal with.
The B section talks about all the different parts of society that are essential to creating structures and security for the entire population, and how they are indispensable for a stable life. The song’s bridge “Tulaman” is a good omen that the featuring singer, Malin Sylla, sing-prays to and asks for help and blessings to create strength and stability for his Father’s land.
The creative process behind the song opening the whole record, “Musik Nomadz”, is worth highlighting as well. It’s an incredible blend of reggae beats with Gnawa music, which gives it a spiritual groove.
It all began one evening when Belbachir had finished up a gig with OKA at Glastonbury. He wandered into the crowd and found himself positioned between four stages, each emanating its own sounds.
“I was feeling pretty overwhelmed by the huge crowds and found myself in between all these stages. And, in that moment, I heard a very unique fusion of different styles,” says the artist.
There’s another interesting element to “Musik Nomadz”. Recently, it was remixed by Belbachir and the seminal dub/dance pioneers Zion Train. The new version is an upbeat track, giving a dance floor perspective to the ancient, hypnotic music. It’s a perfect banger, ready for the Southern Hemisphere’s summer vibes.
But no matter where you are in the world and what season your time zone is entering, add Babdoukkala to your music library. It will surely change your perception of traditional African rhythms.
And that’s still not necessarily something you would expect from an Australian artist.
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