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With Masterful Swaken, Bab L’ Bluz Defy Limits of Style and Space-Time

French-Moroccan band revamp ritualistic Gnawa music with psych-rock and blues
Bab L' Bluz's Yousra Mansour (Photo credit: Karim Chater)

Bab L’ Bluz – Swaken
Real World Records

At each step of their multi-part path, French-Moroccan quartet Bab L’ Bluz have reinvented the idiosyncrasies of transgression. Their 2020 debut, Nayda!, pointed to a yet-embryonic musical movement born in the flourishing sands of the Maghreb. With their long-awaited follow-up, Swaken, they emphasize how the region has never ceased to produce groundbreaking art, bucking the norms and expectations from the most conservative factions of Moroccan society.

The core of their transgression, however, comes first and foremost from Bab L’ Bluz being fronted by singer and electric awisha player Yousra Mansour, incarnating what is commonly seen as a traditionally male role. But what makes Swaken so exciting is the collision of styles and concepts: ritualistic Gnawa music revamped through an acute integration of Western sounds, with incisive lyrics denouncing the oppressive dynamics of patriarchy and overall exploitation.

Swaken begins where Nayda! left off: recuperating the band’s strategy of full immersion into 70’s psych-rock and blues (“Bab L’ Bluz” translates from Arabic as “gateway to the blues”) while fully reclaiming the genre’s African origins and bringing pop music’s autophagic process full-circle. This is why Swaken sounds so uncannily rooted in the past and the future simultaneously—a sort of navigational manual that transcends any type of space-time limitations: “IWAIWA FUNK” fuses electric mandole with a Western-coded backbeat, and “Karma” throws back to the Al-Andalus era—incorporating Spanish influences while also dressing them up in distortion.

An album composed both in Morocco and around the world, Swaken successfully completes this process of alchemical defiance. It comfortably asserts itself as a contemporary masterpiece in local and international terms—conceptually and effectively toying with the notion of frontiers while using them as tools of sonic transcendence. – GRADE: A

You can check out Swaken at Bandcamp and elsewhere.

Real World Records