April 19, 2011 The Wire NH Surrender to the sound: Club d’Elf

 In Press

Mike Rivard's interest in Moroccan music developed in stages. As a young musician, a friend played him a cassette by Mahmoud Guinia, a master of Morocco's Gnawa music. Rivard, bassist and bandleader of Club d'Elf, was intrigued by the three-string bass at the music's center, a camel-skin lute known as the sintir.

In the early 1990s, jazz bassist Bill Laswell produced an album of Gnawa music called “Night Spirit Masters,” boosting Rivard's interest. His fascination cemented when Morphine bassist Mark Sandman played him a CD by Moroccan musician Hassan Hakmoun called “Gift of the Gnawa.”

“For me, that was one of those light bulb moments where it all just kind of clicked and I realized, 'I have to get one of these instruments, I have to learn how to play it and incorporate it into my music.' Something in it resonated with me,” Rivard said.

Hakmoun is among the many guest performers on Club d'Elf's new double album, “Electric Moroccoland/So Below.” Rivard will bring one of his rotating ensembles to The Stone Church in Newmarket for a CD release show on Saturday, April 23.

The band in Newmarket will also include long-time d'Elf member Brahim Fribgane, a native of Casablanca who helped Rivard understand Moroccan rhythms. Unlike Western music, the chaabi rhythms of Morocco place the accents on the upbeat, creating syncopations unfamiliar to most American performers.

“I think Brahim has a pretty unique ability to explain the Moroccan concepts to Western musicians,” Rivard said. “He's kind of the bridge between the worlds.”

With Fribgane's help, Rivard has built a band that drapes elements of dub, funk, jazz, rock and hip-hop over a foundation of Moroccan trance. The new album offers a psychedelic stew of music with ingredients from around the world, featuring guest appearances by John Medeski, DJ Logic, former David Bowie guitarist Reeves Gabrels, and even the late Mark Sandman, among many others.

In Morocco, Rivard explained, Gnawa music and the sintir, specifically, are believed to provide a gateway into alternate realms of consciousness, transporting the players and listeners to a world of spiritual discovery.

“It's about summoning spirits and different energies, and for me that's been an interesting journey, because I wasn't brought up in that culture. But, when I play this instrument and play it for long periods of time, I definitely feel that there's an inner journey taking place,” Rivard said. “The ideal is to take yourself out of the picture and connect with something larger, whether you call it God or Allah or whatever.”

Rivard formed Club d'Elf in Cambridge in 1998. He had been performing with Sandman's early band the Hypnosonics, a minimalist funk outfit, since the late '80s. But, when Sandman turned his primary allegiance to Morphine, the Hypnosonics became less active, much to Rivard's frustration.

“(Sandman) was one of the inspirations for starting the group, because I kept hounding him to do more Hypnosonics gigs and he just got kind of tired of me bugging him and said, 'You gotta start your own band,'” Rivard said.

Fribgane joined Club d'Elf in 1999, adding the oud, dumbek and other Moroccan instruments to the group's arsenal. Rivard, Fribgane and drummer Erik Kerr formed the band's early core. They often played music in the basement of a Moroccan store in Cambridge owned by a friend of Fribgane.

“That was sort of the hub of the Moroccan scene at that point, and we'd have late-night hangs in the basement,” Rivard said. “It was basically kind of a casual place where all the Moroccan ex-pats in the area would gather and drink tea and play some music. And that really began my education.”

Rivard traveled to Morocco for the first time last year. He had recently moved to Somerville, Mass., which has a sister city in Morocco. He joined a grant-funded delegation that included Somerville's mayor and a couple of dozen teachers, health care workers and others on a trip to the southwestern city of Tiznit.

“I think I got the best part of the deal, because I just hung out with musicians,” he said. “For me, it was really kind of a transformative experience to go there and experience the culture and the people and the food and the sights and sounds and smells. It was a real validation for what I was doing.”

On “Electric Moroccoland” the influence of Gnawa music reaches new extremes. Many of the songs feature Arabic singing by native Moroccans, including a unique cover of Cream's “Sunshine of your Love.” A range of Moroccan and American instruments enter the swirl, adding new textures to rhythms anchored by Rivard's sintir.

On “So Below,” the North African components are somewhat less pronounced. It begins with the throbbing funk of “Gettin' Squinty,” infusing touches of Rivard's early influences, like electric Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead. Jazz, dub and funk pervade each tune, ranging in pace from fast, danceable jams to slow, hypnotic grooves.

Both discs pay open homage to Sandman, who died of a heart attack in 1999. Sandman sometimes performed with Club d'Elf in the band's early days, and Rivard played double bass on several Morphine tracks. “Mark was like an older brother to me,” Rivard said. “He was always a real mentor to me.”

“Electric Moroccoland” includes a tune dedicated to him called “Sand” and concludes with a reworking of Morphine's “Rope on Fire.” The title track of “So Below,” as well as the closing track “Taint Too,” feature parts by Sandman recorded before his death.

While the range of styles on the two discs is diverse, the 25 total songs adhere to a sacred principle of trance in Morocco. The music is intended to help listeners abandon their sense of self and surrender to the sound.

“Gradually, if things are working, you forget where you are, who you are, time kind of disappears,” Rivard said. “It allows you to enter into this stream of eternity or timelessness, and what you do there is open to the individual.”

Club d'Elf shares that energy with live audiences. Starting with the rhythm of a recorded song, the band improvises sonic embellishments, embarking on open jams that feature everything from hard rock to free jazz to hip-hop.

“Each show is a process of deconstructing and reconstructing these components, so we'll rarely do a song the same way,” Rivard said. “The melodies, the songs, are sort of signposts along the way where everybody gets their bearing and we coalesce, and then the goal is to go places that we've never gone before.”

In addition to Rivard and Fribgane, the live band at The Stone Church will feature Newmarket's own David Tronzo, an inventive guitarist known for playing slide with everything from plastic cups to mallets. Rivard first met Tronzo during a gig at the Knitting Factory in New York in 1997 and was immediately blown away by his playing.

“I had heard of Tronzo, and he was kind of a mythic character at that time. He played with the Lounge Lizards and all the downtown people in New York.”

Tronzo later moved to New Hampshire and took a teaching job at Berklee College of Music. He played with Club d'Elf for the first time in 2003 and has been a part-time member of the band ever since.

“Newmarket is a very lucky place to have the likes of him there. Most people don't even know he's there,” Rivard said.

When he's not touring with Club d'Elf, Rivard can often be found playing in the orchestras of Boston musicals like “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and, recently, “Mary Poppins.” He also performs in a couple of other bands that play music from India, Bulgaria, Brazil, Italy and elsewhere.

Over the years, Club d'Elf has included members of various faiths, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and atheists. In a post 9-11 world plagued by religious and ethnic tensions, Rivard sees the group as evidence that people of disparate backgrounds can live in harmony.

“Maybe it's just because we're musicians and we're simpleminded folks, but it seemed to us that if somehow we can manage to live together and respect each other's differences, then maybe bringing this music into the world would help in some way.”

The 18-plus CD release show begins with opening act Skyfoot at 9 p.m. on April 23 at The Stone Church, 5 Granite St., Newmarket, 603-659-0878, www.thestonechurch.com. Tickets are $8 in advance or $10 at the door.

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