Tunisia’s Imed Alibi Crosses Borders in new “Frigya” Electronica Album

18 July, 2022
Khalil Epi and Imed Ali­bi at the Fleche d’or in Paris (cour­tesy Imed Ali­bi).

 

Migra­tion has always inspired Imed Ali­bi, and the polit­i­cal mod­els with fixed bor­ders that the Euro­pean impe­r­i­al pow­ers have imposed through their pres­ence in North Africa do not cor­re­spond well to the social and cul­tur­al real­i­ties of the region.

 

Melissa Chemam

 

One of the most excit­ing pro­duc­tions to come out of Tunisia this year thus far is the result of a two-man band and their new album, Frigya, mix­ing tra­di­tion­al per­cus­sion and elec­tron­i­ca. To put togeth­er Frigya, the Tunisian per­cus­sion­ist and event direc­tor Imed Ali­bi col­lab­o­rat­ed with com­pos­er and mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist Khalil Epi (aka Khalil Hen­tati), also of Tunisian origin.

Released on Shou­ka Records, this per­cus­sive project com­bines tra­di­tion­al North African music with elec­tron­ic sounds, in such an inno­v­a­tive way that it struck my ears at the first lis­ten. Full of ener­gy, fast-paced and cut­ting edge, the album — which remains most­ly instru­men­tal but also incor­po­rates a remix of Ara­bic vocals — spins the work of Imed Ali­bi in a fresh, youth­ful direction.

 

 

After a French tour ear­li­er this sum­mer, Imed Ali­bi returned to the south of his native Tunisia, where I was able to reach him by phone, despite the heat wave and the prob­lems of inter­net con­nec­tion that it induces in the region. “This project was born dur­ing a res­i­den­cy in Occ­i­tan music at the Silo, which I under­took in the Occ­i­tanie region,” he explains. Imed lives between Mont­pel­li­er and Tunis. “I pro­posed this col­lab­o­ra­tion with Khalil, whom I had met in Paris, at the ICI (Insti­tute of Islam­ic Cul­tures), to under­take research around African sounds. That gave way to this elec­tro-per­cus­sive duo. Then Covid struck and we had to con­tin­ue work­ing at a dis­tance. I record­ed in Tunis on my side, then we were able to meet again to record togeth­er in Lyon, in France, and the disc was released on Decem­ber 3, 2021. The goal was then to be able to per­form on stage with Frigya.” 

Imed picked up these Mediter­ranean and African per­cus­sive sounds ear­ly on in Tunisia, first in a self-taught way at the age of 12, on North African der­boukas, and then on instru­ments from the Mid­dle East. At 22, he was able to come to France to study Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture in Mont­pel­li­er, where he says he explored métis­sage or cul­tur­al fusion, rub­bing shoul­ders with Sene­galese musi­cians, Cubans and oth­ers. After set­tling in France, he then tried per­cus­sion from around the world. In 2019, he was invit­ed to return to Tunisia to direct the Musi­cal Days of Carthage, ded­i­cat­ed to sup­port­ing young tal­ent. He was lat­er appoint­ed direc­tor of the Inter­na­tion­al Fes­ti­val of Carthage.

“When I say ‘Africa’ I know it’s a very broad word,” he says. “I’m think­ing most­ly of North African per­cus­sion and Tunisia in par­tic­u­lar, which is often absent from this kind of mix of Mid­dle East­ern sounds and elec­tron­ic music. It is often Egypt that is present. But I know from expe­ri­ence that Tunisian per­cus­sion is very rich. As Khalil is also of Tunisian ori­gin, it helped us with the sound­scape; he worked in a very del­i­cate way.”

Ali­bi is far from being a neo­phyte with these son­ic mix­es. He is rather a mas­ter, hav­ing col­lab­o­rat­ed for years with the Arab rock group the Boukakes, as well as the Tunisian singer Emel Math­louthi, the late French-Alger­ian Rachid Taha, the Bel­gian singer of Egypt­ian-Eng­lish ori­gin, Nat­acha Atlas, the Bel­gian Tuareg rock group of Niger­ian ori­gin, Kel Assouf, and the Reunionese group, Ziskakan.

For his pre­vi­ous solo album, Safar, Imed worked with musi­cians Stéphane Puech and Zied Zouari, and as pro­duc­er of the British gui­tarist Justin Adams (him­self a col­lab­o­ra­tor of Robert Plant and the Malian Touaregs of Tinari­wen, and musi­cians of the jazz fusion project JuJu).

“There, the goal was not so much to aim for authen­tic­i­ty,” explains Imed. “But I hear a lot of clichés in West­ern music pro­duc­tions about so-called ‘Ori­en­tal’ music, which is obvi­ous­ly a very vague term for a very pro­lif­ic and var­ied body of music. More­over, the word ‘Ori­ent’ changes its mean­ing accord­ing to whether it is used in Great Britain, France, Pak­istan, or West Africa… And musi­cal­ly, all these influ­ences can be found there for his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al rea­sons. The Ori­ent is Pales­tine, Lebanon but also myth­i­cal groups with very good mix­es based in the Unit­ed States, Cana­da, or Eng­land, like the Trans­glob­al Underground.”

The lat­ter is indeed an Eng­lish group of “elec­tro-world” music, spe­cial­ized in a fusion of West­ern, Asian and African musi­cal styles.

 

 

Alibi’s career has been nour­ished by all these cre­ative encoun­ters, from the Boubakes (whom Rachid Taha called “the wor­thy heirs of Carte de Séjour,’ his flag­ship group of the 1980s), with whom Imed Ali­bi played and toured for nine years, to Emel Math­louthi and the superb Nantes-based trip-hop/­world music group Orange Blos­som, whose hyp­not­ic songs in Ara­bic have toured the world over the last decade.

“For my first solo album, Sal­hi,” adds Imed, “in 2014, I had already col­lab­o­rat­ed with many musi­cians, includ­ing Justin, and cre­at­ed cin­e­mat­ic sounds in this genre, aug­ment­ed with per­cus­sion, and sounds from Sufi jazz, work­ing with Tunisian jazz singer Michel Trou­di and French trum­peter Michel Marre.”

 

 

For Frigya, he there­fore want­ed to put his Africa back in the spot­light. “Frigya is one of the ancient names of the con­ti­nent in Tunisia, in an ancient dialect,” he reveals, “as well as the name of one of the regions of Tunisia. All the titles men­tion a part of our her­itage and our cul­tures, like ‘Hat­taya,’ which is the name of one of our Bedouin tribes, a title that refers to the notion of tran­shu­mance, a sym­bol of migra­tions and of these exchanges of rhythms that have made our music.”

 

In fact, this title reminds me deeply of the cas­sette of Kabyle per­cus­sion that my father liked to play for us every time he drove my sis­ter and my moth­er and me out of Paris…

Imed admits that migra­tion has always inspired him, and that the polit­i­cal mod­els with fixed bor­ders that the Euro­pean impe­r­i­al pow­ers have imposed through their pres­ence in North Africa do not cor­re­spond well to the social and cul­tur­al real­i­ties of the region. For­tu­nate­ly, the cre­ation of music allows him to redis­cov­er this sense of trav­el, dis­place­ment, and mix­ing. “With my music,” he adds, “I can trav­el to many fes­ti­vals, from Berlin to Lon­don, and even per­form in clubs, which allows one to peel away the ‘world music’ label and evolve authentically.”

What are his plans now for the next few months? “Life start­ed again very late for us musi­cians,” he right­ly insists, “only in March 2022! Before that date, stand-up con­certs were not pos­si­ble dur­ing the two years of Covid, and restric­tions may be imposed again… So, we have to go slow­ly. We want more live dates for Frigya. After that, at the end of Octo­ber, I plan to launch a new project, with an Afghan musi­cian, and an Iran­ian, at the Cité de la Musique in Mar­seille. It will be a res­i­den­cy with the Afghan Ibrahim Ibrahi­mi and musi­cians dis­placed by con­flicts. Of course, the main obsta­cle for this kind of music is not hav­ing a sta­ble record com­pa­ny, nor a tour man­ag­er, so we launch project by project and then we see. The issue of visa lim­i­ta­tions is also a prob­lem: many record­ing and per­for­mance struc­tures are in Europe, but a real ‘artist’ visa has yet to be put in place to allow musi­cians to access them.”

Imed, who can go back to Mont­pel­li­er, where he lives half of the year, intends to con­tin­ue to try to bring along his musi­cians, and to make his music travel.

 


 

With the show cre­at­ed to launch the album, the two musi­cians per­formed at the Flèche d’Or in Paris in March, then at the Sucre in Lyon, in Mar­seille on June 10 and on June 21 in Tunis, for the Fête de la Musique. And they plan to con­tin­ue to bring this excit­ing project to life, notably in Bor­deaux on Octo­ber 1st, then in Lis­bon on Octo­ber 22, as part of the WOMEX (World­wide Music Expo) fes­ti­val to be held from Octo­ber 19 to 23 in the Por­tuguese capital.

 

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