State of Mind, Interview
April 4, 2011
State of Mind, Interview
Exploring the Cosmos with Club d'Elf
by Drew Stoga
Club d'Elf, a self-described "Moroccan drenched electronic (sometimes acoustic) dubbed-out funk" collective, is nothing if not ambitious. Over the course of its thirteen year history the band has counted somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred gifted musicians from all over the world as members of the club. To create their unique, spaced out sound D'Elf mixes jazz, funk and glitchy electronica with indigenous music from the Middle East and Africa.
April 5th sees the release of perhaps their most impressive effort to date -- the double recordElectric Moroccoland/So Below, via their own newly formed Face Pelt Records. The release clocks in at a staggering total of 150 minutes and despite an 'everything and the kitchen sink' approach, it is surprisingly fluid and focused. That's saying something since we are talking about twenty five songs packed with everything from turntables to Moroccan sintirs and ouds. By the time the sampled voice of psychonaut Terence McKenna makes an appearance, it's pretty clear that were not in Kansas anymore.
At the center of the controlled madness that is Club d'Elf is bassist/leader Mike Rivard (aka Micro). A graduate of the Berklee College of Music and a long-time fixture of the Boston music scene, Micro first started the band in 1998. A casual interest in Moroccan music intensified after a number of trips to the region and after being introduced to the sintir, a three-stringed camel-skinned lute. Now Rivard switches between sintir and electric and acoustic bass with ease and considers himself "something like an ambassador" for the traditional Gnawa instrument which is rarely heard in the states.
As the title implies "Electric Moroccoland" is a trip through a few hundred years of Moroccan musical traditions as filtered through D'Elf's lens of psychedelia, breakbeats, dub and more. "So Below" digs further into the band's electronica and dark funk, though the Middle Eastern influences are never too far from the surface.
It's a wild ride. While the songs are all over the map, the band shifts so fluidly from one groove to the next listeners won't even think twice hearing, say, traditional Berber chanting juxtaposed with a deep trip-hop groove. Ultimately, Micro sees their sound as trance and as he puts it: "with trance music you have to be in it for the long haul. The real joy in this whole thing is the wealth of amazing talent on these CDs" he adds. "A diverse pool of talent from all over." That truly impressive pool of talent is a total of twenty six musicians from all over the states, the Middle East and Africa.
One of the permanent fixtures of D'Elf is Brahim Fribgane, a Moroccan-born percussionist, vocalist and oud master who is one of the release's true stars. Turntablist Mister Rourke is another regular as are drummers Erik Kerr and Dean Johnston, though it is Kerr who spends the majority of time behind the kit here. The core group is bolstered by some truly amazing guests. Some of the better known names, at least to American ears, are Dave Tronzo, DJ Logic and John Medeski, whose unmistakable mark is all over these records. Several tracks also feature the work of Mark Sandman, the late-great bassist and leader of the band Morphine. Sandman was a collaborator and close-friend of Micro's and D'Elf pays tribute to Sandman on the Morphine cover "Rope of Fire." Sandman's bass playing can be heard on the tracks "Taint Too" and "So Below" which were recorded way back in 1999, making them some of the last tracks he ever worked on.
Also prominently featured is Hassan Hakmoun, a legendary Moroccan-born musician who has a long history of mixing Gnawa music with American forms. His involvement, along with that of other Moroccan natives and master musicians such as Fribgane and Haj Belaid, lend "Electric Moroccoland" a sense of authenticity, not that Micro was worried about it. "I took the recordings with me (on a trip to Morocco) and everyone there was very receptive," he reports. "They know that it is coming from a place of respect and love of the music and not for any financial gain". This brings up an interesting question: In a time when the recording industry is crumbling, why bother releasing an album at all, let alone a double album of experimental funk/trance/Moroccan music? "Twisted logic: people aren't so much buying even single cds, so why not put out a double!" Micro explained. "It's insane, but then again everything we do is."
Club d'Elf is a band who has developed it's sound over a countless number of live gigs (do yourself a favor and catch one of their regular shows at Cambridge MA's Lizard Lounge or check out their upcoming tour), but the studio proves to be fertile ground for Micro and company. The result of the decade plus it took to complete these records is well worth the wait and hopefully it won't be long before the band's next release - though as Micro sees it: "Time works quite differently in the D'Elf cosmos."