August 12, 2011 Africa Review From Morocco with unlikely harmonies

 In Press

Morocco is the country that had fired his musical imagination for more than a decade: In a strikingly vivid dream, Mike Rivard felt himself swimming upwards in the air as fantastic landscapes, mountains, and tiled buildings stretched out beneath him.

Mike’s band—a rotating group of players drawn from a pool that includes keyboardist John Medeski, DJ Logic, David Bowie's guitarists or any number of Moroccan musical icons—swims in the same dreamlike atmosphere, both live and on their new double album Electric Moroccoland .

Club d'Elf in Boston grabs the elusive subtleties of North African rhythms and puts them through their edgy paces on Electric Moroccoland, the first disc of their new two-CD set. Here, the group is influenced by Morocco's rich musical heritage and Rivard's dedication to the three-stringed, camel-skinned, bass-like sintir. On the second disc, So Below, Rivard and company de- and reconstruct musical forms from funk and dub to free jazz, creating an anything-goes exploration that holds true to the spirit of trance and the affinity that connects Club D'Elf's diverse players and their varying styles.

“The crux of Moroccan music is trance,” Rivard explains. “Trance as a quality in music has always attracted me, whether it's an extended James Brown cut, or something by Fela Kuti or Steve Reich. I've always sought out music that allows you to forget where and who you are and to break free from the mind's constant chatter.”

Rivard's fascination with Moroccan, and specifically Gnawan music, began thanks to a fellow traveller in trance, the late Mark Sandman of the legendary indie rock band Morphine. One night, Sandman put on a CD by Hassan Hakmoun, a Gnawa musician extraordinaire.

Infinite possibilities

After begging to borrow the album, Rivard went home and listened to it over and over again. “I never returned it, and that was something that Mark always grumbled about,” Rivard laughs. “I played it constantly, and it became the soundtrack for my life. That's when I dedicated myself to playing sintir.”

The three-stringed deep-voiced instrument forms the foundation of ceremonies among the Gnawa, whose ancestors came as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa 500 years ago. Their music blends sounds in rituals designed to induce trance, to contact spirits, and to heal.

Rivard began learning to play the instrument on his own, practicing long hours with recordings and trying out rock riffs to see what worked. He also began taking cues from Moroccan musician friends like oud (Arabic lute) player and percussionist Brahim Fribgane, who introduced him to Moroccan émigrés in the Boston area, a community of expats who provided encouragement and inspiration for Rivard during late-night hangs in the basement of a Moroccan store.

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