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Mehdi Nabti – Grooves à Mystères (2020)

Think of a contemporary artist that enhances your understanding and interpretation of music through his knowledge of different cultures, religions, historical concepts, and many seemingly unrelated topics. Quebec based sax player and composer Mehdi Nabti has been exposed to so many cultures and ideas throughout his life in which he was able to live in many different countries that influenced his style and knowledge of music. With the album Grooves à Mystères, Nabti and his fellow artists put together a style that neither can be understood nor described even with mentioning all the genres that even had a slight effect on the tracks: avant-garde jazz, ethnic, funk, fusion, oriental… The list is long, but the authentic sound that Nabti has is the style that he developed throughout the years “Afro-Berber continuum”-named by Nabti himself. After 41 years of human experience, his experience as a world citizen that lived in many countries like Canada, France, Maghreb enabled him to focus on many aspects of music. Considering of the traditional music of some cultures and religions (more accurately doctrines)from Africa and the Middle-east(such as Sufi, Gnawa, Divan), trance-dance music from the similar regions of the world, and non-musical ideas like coming up with random numerical patterns were involved in the thought process of coming up with some original rhythmic ideas that are scattered throughout the album. Besides using many polyrhythmic patterns, non-popular time signature ideas with abstract divisions, non-popular structures, and many inventiveness on the rhythmic side of the album; the melodies accompanying this rhythmic and ideal complexity are also worth to mention. With the great vision behind the music that they are creating; Nabti was also inventive while coming up with new scales, making certain melody choices, hitting the audience with the unexpected dynamic movements and phrasings. The whole soundscape that consists of these making a complete journey for the audience with beautiful chord progressions overall.

Line Up:

-Mehdi Nabti: alto sax, moroccan flute (nira), clavé -Nicolas Lafortune: electric bass -Joy Anandasivam: electric guitar -Bertil Schulrabe: drums, derbouka, triangle, sheker

Produced, composed, and arranged by Mehdi Nabti

Track List:

1. Antée (05:32)

The first piece, Antee, in Mehdi Nabti’s album “Grooves à mystères”, is the beginning of a collection of various aesthetic melodies and techniques from as he calls “the Afro-Berber continuum.” The name Antee (Antaeus) comes from the giant Libyan son of the Earth, representing a strong and steady entry to this album. This introduction of many melodic decorations and Nabti’s “musical or non-musical ” techniques are made with a structurally stationary and repetitive piece which is important for the listener to comprehend the main outlines of Nabti’s music.

The piece begins with a welcoming accompaniment and musical effect which brings a mystical sense and prepares the atmosphere for the main theme that is sung by the alto saxophone. This accompaniment is a repetitive cycle that is formed by the combination of bass and the guitar that are always in harmony with the lead, Nabti which is a technique he uses mostly in this album. Some may argue that this technique could easily restrain the piece from development, however, it is apparent that the melody, by harmonizing with the background motives, has many places to transform.

After Nabti has presented the new advanced ideas of melodic sentences, the guitar takes the lead and presents continuous and calm motives that are easier on listeners’ ears. At this point in the piece, we can define this technique as another that is used by Nabti. Its purpose is to re-introduce the main theme and musical motive with a little more development. As a result, it creates a smooth transition between different parts. Such an example that this part is, it is concluded with the ear-filling main motive.

As for the ending, it is the continuity of the theme fading silently, creating an unfinished feeling which sets the ground for the other masterly composed pieces in this album. In conclusion, Antee is an exceptionally made piece that has both the function of being the beginning of this album and a stand-alone which any listener would highly enjoy in its creative rhythmic structures and melodies.

2. Ayyur (03:41)

The second track of the album is a reference to the moon god in the Berber belief. The name of the song, which literally means “moon”, can be interpreted in many ways; but the clearest one was the relationship between the moon and “lunacy”. The track is distinctly more energetic than the first and this calculated madness manifests itself in the improvisations of Nabti with his saxophone and the thoughtful yet equally “crazy” accompaniments of the other instruments.

The steady bass rhythm by Lafortune only plays at the first three beats, omitting the last. It is simple on its own, but when combined with the improvs above it, creates a feeling of urgency and syncopation (you always expect the last beat). This is further developed by Anandasivam, whose contribution though can go unnoticed at some places still adds another layer for the listener to try to decipher. It is, in any way, not easy to comprehend at first; but the layers are separated very professionally, such that at any moment, you can hear every instrument, both on its own and with relation to other instruments. In such compositions, letting every instrument enter at different times (a sort of build-up) can increase this feeling of accumulated complexity.

In terms of drumming, you never know when the snare is going to hit, showing a very dynamic playing by Schulrabe (reminding us of 70’s jazz fusion drumming). It doesn’t get in the way of the saxophone nor shies away from creatively responding to different licks by Nabti, using the whole potential of the drum kit. The whole song, from this perspective, feels like different solos all stacked on top of each other, and perhaps, the band could’ve played more with this idea, which again ties to our interpretation of the title. The song ends just like how it started, “a cyclical time” in Mehdi’s words.

3. Eon (05:58)

Mehdi Nabti’s “Eon” displays a theme on the combination of dualism and its repetition. It is a symbolization of Éon, god of eternity, with a deep understanding of what it represents and reflecting this in a musical sense by combining different rhythmic structures and melodic elements that lead to discovery for one’s self. It is apparent that in his piece, Nabti focused on a more rhythmically stationary structure which makes a special place in his album “Grooves à mystères.”

The piece starts by introducing the rhythmic structure and, more importantly, the dualistic accompaniment in the background. The combination of two musical motives and their determinant repetition, as well as the merging characteristics of the guitar and bass, creates an assembling atmosphere for the melody in the saxophone and the piece in general. This does a marvelous work for various melodic ideas to flourish and adapt. As these main outlines are introduced to the listener with a couple of repetitions from the accompaniment and the lead, the piece starts its development and discovery into the mystery. This development is formed by the combination of various musical sentences with the firstly introduced motives which are still present for the listener at the smoothly continuing accompaniment.

As the piece continues, the developed melodic decorations face rest with the guitar solo which brings new motives that are much tranquil and eloquent, leading the listener to explore the mysterious nature again. This part also relieves the listener’s ears for the reintroduction of the main melodic sentences and its recovery for ending. After this reintroduction, the piece fades into a slowly arising silence by mirroring the beginning. As can be seen, listening and trying to understand “Eon”, its theme, melodic decorations were absolute greatness. A piece with such rich development both in a musical and contextual sense makes a special place among Nabti’s works.

4. Esperanto (04:24)

The fourth song takes its name from the constructed/artificial language, created by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof. It is a mix of French, English, Spanish, German and Slavic. This makes the language sound familiar to many people from different nations, and like the language, you can also pick something familiar in the track itself too, whether it be some of the licks or the emotions. It is comprised of two dynamically very different sections, even though the melodies stay the same, which are separated by a short pause in between. The first section is definitely the more energetic one with a close leaning towards free form jazz with no specific time keeping it all together. So this job is up to the improvisers, mainly the saxophone and the drums. What binds this whole section together is the very short lick that is repeated throughout the improv, each time ending with a different emotion. Since it is very hard to keep free jazz interesting to a wide variety of audiences, the band could’ve made this short lick more singable and even catchy. In the second section, the drums start without missing a beat (literally). This section dives more into the Eastern influences of Nabti. Using Eastern makams instead of Western scales, Nabti and his band can offer us solo improvisations on a whole new language of music. This section is dominated by Anandasivam’s guitar work, a role that Nabti usually embraces himself with his saxophone for most of the album. The solo itself feels more contained compared to the first section since there is a very clear groove keeping the instruments in rhythm. With the addition of the saxophone, the sections are somewhat tied together: a repeating motif in the album.

5. Mithra (05:54)

The name of the song, Mithra, is an ancient god from Zoroastrianism which symbolizes agreements, vows, and testaments. Like the Afro Barbar feeling in the name of the song, the great melody and harmony are following traces of this atmosphere. Mithra, also, makes a clear agreement upon different structures, even before the song starts, subtly establishing the dualism on the song.

Technically, Mithra starts with complex polyrhythm layers. Bass assumes to anchor the melody and harmony with its groovy lick. The drums head off a 3-beat which is compatible and The melody, which will be repeated along the track, starts off along the same polyrhythmic pattern, however, it is much more simple, easy-to-follow, but most importantly, much catchier. Chord progressions are natural, in-time, and kind of orientalist.

As Nebti stated, regarding the album, “we are not in Orient …it does not change in depth. It remains in the Afro-Berber continuum.” Nebti, searching for dualism structures in his music, introduces this melodic structure with its orientalist atmosphere. With the purpose of fulfilling his goal, the song smoothly transitions to jazz improvisations which the piece be switching back and forth between the two structures quite nicely, again, adding to the dualistic structure.

Furthermore, all of the improvisations are also varying in style and technique. The first part of the improvisations, an alto sax, includes melodic aspects from bop jazz (longer, irregular phrasing, emphasis on instrumental technique), and an approach to collective improvisation. On the other hand, the second improvisation part is, to start with, clearly accented on individual improvisation. The melody is much more unhurried and calm. Also, the improvising instrument has changed to electric guitar. With the first improvisation with alto sax, this reminds the listener of different jazz eras with completely different and specific styles, but both sounding just nice.

6. Prométhée (03:28)

The title of the track is a reference to Prometheus, the titan that gave the human race fire (a symbol of civilization) and as a result, was punished by Zeus. The whole groove of the song is a reference to the title because it is literally on fire 🙂 Technically, it is a 9/8 groove but with the changing subdivisions that last two bars, which makes it much harder to understand the time signature at first. But achieving this is actually harder on the musicians’ part: to make this rhythm, no matter how complex it is, still groove like a 4/4.

It features one of Nabti’s more lyrical solos on the album: flowing seamlessly through the odd time, almost talking (like in a musical narration) to the listener, maybe recounting the story of Prometheus, all the while still pushing the groove forward, especially when the rhythm section is this tight.

The rhythm section itself, if you are careful, actually changes for different parts of the track while still staying on 9/8. As the listener gets used to headbanging with the additional beat, Schulrabe finds more freedom on the kit and experiments with different combinations (especially loved the cymbal work). Even though it is the shortest track on the album, it still includes many little details here and there that brings the song to life.

The song’s structure is very similar to “Esperanto”, the fourth track: the first section is a long improv by Nabti while the second section is another long improv by Anandasivam. And it once again ends with Nabti’s saxophone coming back to tie the whole track together.

7. So Maki Sum Se Rodila (07:21)

The 7th track “So Maki Sum Se Rodila”(in English, “I Was Born With Plights), has particular importance for the album, not just because it is the longest piece; also because it is the sole song that wasn’t composed by the album, rather it was arranged uniquely by Nabti himself and converted to something unexpected from a medieval Macedonian folk. This idea of turning an old folk song into an improvisational jazz piece is the first and foremost indicator of creativity and open-mindedness of Nabti for he is not only ambitious of creating new pieces on his own, but he also wanted to embrace the past that made up today’s music and world. As we start off, we are immediately introduced to an odd time rhythm of 7 with a heavy groove of bass/drums and ambient background chords. The eastern-influenced phrasings of sax go back in between harmonic minor, maj7 arpeggios, and the basic traditional melody of the folk itself. The whole melancholic mood of the olf folk was captured with the use of makams and dynamic tenderness of the bass guitar in the first part of the song. You can definitely enjoy the piece without knowing the actual one, but it may seem a little confusing. The song goes back and forth between the silent bass solo parts and the main half-improvised melody with a groove in the background. This turns definitely affects the flow of the song-making you question if the journey of the song is over, or not. Although the experiment’s result is controversial, one must appreciate the percussive layers behind the groove and the sweet scales used by Nebti with his alto sax during the funky parts of the track.

8. Timgad (04:34)

Timgad is a Roman ancient city in Maghrib which, in some time, was a place for Roman veterans. The etymology of the word is fitting with the purpose of the town too, meaning peak and summit. Likely, Nabti’s last song in his album based on the Afro-Berber continuum is the peak of his diligent work in new rhythmic and melodic approaches and dualism.

The song starts with a catchy lick in bass guitar. Just after a few seconds, Nabti establishes the firm dualism -like in the other songs- with a melody on Nira, the Moroccan flute. Followingly, the drum starts off the rhythm, creating a whole complex polyrhythmic structure. This structure is refined, full of technique, and not easy-to-resolve, however, it is catchy, joyful, and constantly reestablishes the Afro-Berber atmosphere, which is the ultimate goal of the artist.

While the bass guitar and drum continues to execute the rhythmic structure, Nabti -with the Moroccan flute- is the main focus. Starting off with melodic patterns including traditional chord progressions which are drawing interest to the piece but also calm and restful. Also, the soft and unhurried melodic dynamics of the instrument, the Moroccan flute, adds to this calm atmosphere.

Nabti continues sometimes with rearranged melodic patterns accompanied by the polyrhythmic structure. Although, the most important element of his pieces in the album, the improvisation, starts to show up after some time, in the middle and the latter part of the track. Although the improvisations are more compressed between melodic structures and shorter -comparing Nabti’s other songs in the album-, the improvisations on the Moroccan flute are very interesting. Some interesting chord progressions are used reminding the Hedjaz tradition in Eastern music. In the latter parts, although there is some subtle attempt at collective improvisation with drums and the Moroccan flute the main focus still remains on Nabti until the end of the song.

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