This year of our Lord is just more than half gone, and what does American pop music have to show for it? The Fugees, a superb second effort from Porno for Pyros and the return of Patti Smith. Those are the only three standouts in my "pro" column. Under "so-so," I've chalked up the new Soundgarden, Rage and the solo debut of Busta Rhymes. And the shit list for '96 is already depressingly long. Excerpts, i.e.: A new hit album by Hootie and the Blowfish. The Stone Temple Pilots crash and burn. A new hit album by the Dave Matthews Band. Metallica goes poseur grunge. Butthole Surfers go pop. Joan Osbourne refuses to go away. A new hit album by Jimmy Buffett.
That's it. I'm going ex-pat. My choice for best album of the year so far is Shabeesation, a Moroccan trip-hop import by seven shabee (Moroccan pop) futurists who perform as Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects. Led by MC Patrick Jabbar El Shaheed (who also plays synthesizer and scores most of the band's samples, loops and sound effects), AKJE splices traditional Moroccan percussion, string instruments and vocal chants with the fat beats and driving bass lines of techno and dance-oriented hip-hop. The result sounds like a rave in a Medina Qedima (old city) Marrakesh hashish den.
Jabbar El Shaheed is a crafty sampler who paints beautiful psychedelic mosaics of ambient sound as backdrops for his group's fast-moving, deep-trance grooves. One of the sweetest ingredients in his mix is background noise from Djemaa El Fna (Marrakesh great public square) and various mahjoun parties (mahjoun is a sweet paste made with hashish butter that, according to the Shabeesation liner notes, is the creative lubricant of choice among the AKJE collective).
The eerie, exotic melodies that glide over the top of El Shaheed's collage mostly come from live acoustic instruments such as small wood flutes called aouuda, a West African string bass instrument known as a guimbri and a sort of vertical violin or kemenja used to particular effect as the centerpiece on "Nbrik."
Most of Shabeesation was recorded three years ago in Casablanca, which is remarkable not only because the album sounds like a dispatch from the postrock vanguard, circa now, but also just because the album sounds good. Moroccan recording studios are notoriously crude. Subsequently, the sound quality of Moroccan pop is notoriously poor. Yet the mix on Shabeesation puts each of the many levels of AKJE's complex sound in sharp, clear focus. Two caveats: Several rhythm tracks were recorded in Basel, Switzerland; and Rykodisc brought in notable New York producer Bill Laswell to smooth out the flow of the album before it was distributed in the U.S.
AKJE's name is literally unspeakable in the more traditional provinces of the band's home country. In the Moroccan specter world, Aisha Kandisha is an evil seductress or jinniya who walks the Earth as an alluring, naked woman with the feet of a camel. Aisha can do enough damage in her corporeal form, but she is even more dangerous in the "world of smoke," a lucid dream state achieved through leelas or religious trance ceremonies.
The rhythmic loops of AKJE's music is directly patterned after the leelas of the Gnawa, an ancient Moroccan spiritual brotherhood. The legend goes that an encounter with Aisha in the world of smoke is a test of one's soul--be ye man or woman, she'll try to burn you with the fire of her loins. The strong resist her advances, the weak succumb and she leaves them quite literally mad with desire.
Shabeesation on headphones has taken me elsewhere on several occasions. So far no world of smoke, however. And no Aisha. I fantasize her as a cross between a rave goddess and a harem girl, all silver lame and silk veils. She beckons with one hand, traces neon-green figure eights with the light stick in her other. Behind her is a tall brass hookah, a bowl of dates and an ornate divan. The air smells of incense, the music is a magic carpet. Her hips undulate. Well, what's one little kiss. . . . (Order info: Rykodisc RCD 10336)
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