The Tunisian percussionist talks to Jane Cornwell prior to his WOMAD appearance
Epic. Joyful. Hopeful. Fearless. In Safar, the Tunisian percussion maestro Imed Alibi has crafted a debut album with visceral punch and cross-cultural reach, where Berber and Sufi rhythms vie and blend with everything from violins and voices to dub bass-lines and digital beats.
“I wanted to use rhythms that took you somewhere,” says Alibi. He has worked with the likes of Algerian rocker Rachid Taha, French global beats crew Watcha Clan and Tunisian protest singer Emel Mathlouthi, who lends her sweet, fierce vocals to the song ‘Maknassy’ – which also features guitar from co-producer Justin Adams. “I wanted to fuse rock and electro with traditional instruments in a cinematic way,” Alibi adds. “To explore a free exchange of languages and expressions between musicians of different backgrounds and experiences.”
‘Maknassy’ is named after Alibi’s birthplace, a small town in Tunisia. He grew up listening to the singers Oum Kalthoum and Fairuz and playing darbuka with popular bands and at weddings before moving to the capital, Tunis, to study English Literature at university. He discovered Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Khaled and made music on the side. In 2001, he moved to France.
Alibi was in Montpellier when he came to the notice of Les Boukakes, an outfit who mixed rock, rai and Gnawa with electronica; two albums, eight years and dates in 35 countries later he found himself in demand as a percussionist. Gigs with other like minds including longtime fan Robert Plant followed.
“With Emel [Mathlouthi] we worked on the same goal: how to bring the traditional rhythms of our backgrounds to Western rock and electro but without clichés,” he says. “Over the years I have met many musicians who share an openness to ideas and different styles –something I have had since I was a child.”
Alongside Alibi, four other artists make up the core of Safar: Iraqi violinist, Zied Zouari; Brazilian percussionist Zé Luis Nascimento; French keyboard player, Stéphane Puech; and Pascal ‘Pasco’ Teillet, the bassist in French/Maghrebi crew Speed Caravan. “I like Pasco’s groove and knowledge of Arabic music, and the fact he often plays bass like the oud,” says Alibi. The other artists on the album – on ney (flute), accordion, qanun, guitar, trumpet – came together as friends with a love of fusion and a willingness to explore similarities and differences. “Arabic and Western music have degrees in common; we adapted,” he says. “We live in a world in which differences – ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic – are held up as obstacles to humanity, instead of being the links between its various parts. When you play music, you can’t feel these distinctions; there’s also a Sufi-spiritual aspect to the way we play that feels like meditation.” That takes you away? “Yes,” says Imed Alibi with a smile. “Far away.”