Yes, it’s great that West Saharan desert rockers Group Doueh are touring their intoxicating blend of psychedelic rock, soul, and Saharawi trance across selective parts of Europe and North America (including slots at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival and the Animal Collective-curated ATP festival). This will allow audiences outside of their native Dakhla the still-rare chance to take in this sun-dried sonic storm in the flesh. But, for many of us, hip though we may be to these events, the only possible way of encountering the visceral thrill of Doueh outside of some tantalizing online videos will be via their recordings, brought to us with increasing regularity by “extra-geography” label Sublime Frequencies.
Zayna Jumma is the fourth installment in this fascinating story, and it provides brief but vital sustenance for those craving a Doueh fix. Like the recently released Beatte Harab, the music for the album was recorded by Sublime Frequencies’ Hisham Mayet in Dakhla last year. Despite changes in spelling, the lineup is more or less the same as on the last album: Salmou “Doueh” Bamaar on guitar and tinidit (which everyone outside the Doueh/SF camp seems to call “tidinit”); his wife Halima Jakani on the harp-like ardin, tbal drum, and vocals; sons Hamdan and El Waar on drums and keyboards; Tricha on vocals and tea glasses (yes, glasses used for tea, here percussed against a metal tea tray); and Lamnaya on tbal and vocals. But where Beatte Harab focused on more traditional Mauritanian-influenced acoustic numbers, Zayna Jumma showcases a return to the blend of Saharawi drone and Hendrix-inspired rock documented in many of the tracks on the first two Doueh compilations released by SF.
The album thrills immediately, kicking off with the multi-voiced title track. The tbals and Hamdan’s kit drums (a new addition) keep the beat heavy, steady, and focused, while the call-and-response vocals add emotion and soul, their mesmeric tension embellished by the tinidit’s frills and trills. “Ishhadlak Ya Khey” swirls in on a bed of organ but quickly becomes dominated by Doueh’s amazing wah-wah guitar, which delivers the combination of riffs and circles of sound that have become his trademark sound. His guitar dissolves boundaries between voice and instrument, seeming to speak in all kinds of tongues as the song unfurls. This is even more noticable on “Zaya Koum,” where the guitar effectively takes the role of lead vocal. Of course, Hendrix is often mentioned in conjunction with Doueh’s pyrotechnics, but there’s also a lineage here that includes Frank Zappa, Eddie Hazel, and Steve Vai. In an era where vocals are increasingly (if annoyingly) Auto-Tuned into extra-human instruments, Group Doueh’s sonics could be said to fit right in to contemporary debates about music and machines.
“Met-Ha” arrives as if from a great distance, a call to worship at the altar of Doueh that works its way toward the listener via uncannily dislocated voices, handclaps, and the subterranean murmurings of a slow-moving bass guitar that could have wandered in from a doom or stoner metal recording. The group reaches its greatest moment of trance-endentalism on “Jaguar Doueh,” a mind-skewing concoction of repetitive grooves, talking guitar, and stoned soul vocals. My only gripe is that it’s too short; with bliss this finely tuned, you really want the kind of duration essayed on Treeg Salaam’s 20-minute “Tazit Kalifa.” That said, the five minutes of guitar freakery that make up “Ana Lakweri” go a long way to filling this gap, and the album’s longest track, closer “Wazan Doueh,” is an absolute stormer. An instrumental with the beautiful simplicity and instant affect of great pop, this track consists of an extensively repeated musical figure that rises and falls as an elegantly uncomplicated melodic wave, as cyclically repetitive yet as potentially unpredictable as the sea. Or the desert.
For all the wah-wah-ing wonder of Zayna Jumma, the music on offer here has much in common with that on Beatte Harab. The first two Doueh albums that SF released were compiled from recordings made in the 80s and 90s and kept in Doueh’s personal cassette archives. This meant that, the sonic innovation of the group’s style notwithstanding, some of the most pertinent effects for the listener were tape hiss, fading, and the hit-and-miss result of randomly placed microphones. Part of the fascination in listening to those recordings lay in not always knowing where the psychedelic warping was really emanating from, whether Doueh’s guitar or the deficiencies of the recording equipment. There is no such confusion on the 2010 recordings, whose clarity gives a much stronger impression of what the group are doing with their instruments.
Does this clarity add to or detract from Group Doueh’s sonic appeal? Listeners must decide for themselves, but it does raise interesting questions about the group’s place in the world music network. It’s often been said of Sublime Frequencies that the label avoids the polish of so-called “world music” labels, the implication being that it delivers a more “real” experience of the musics of others than the tidied-up, polished fare on offer elsewhere. But I think both approaches (and SF clearly trades in both approaches) focus on a common quest for authenticity. It’s just that the sacred silence that is typically employed in the production of “corporate world music” suggests that musicians can be better shown off when background noise is rendered inaudible, when the essence of their music is removed from context (even as explanatory liner notes, press releases, and concert programs furiously work to recontextualize) and the spotlight shone on its unique elements. The noise and confusion and fog that accompanies the kind of field recordings SF has tended to deliver, meanwhile, assert authenticity in the refusal to remove the background. The paradox is that that refusal can act as a kind of shield, a denial of an intimate connection between performers and listeners.
So, for all that I loved about the hiss of Treeg Salaam, what I cherished about Beatte Harab was the ability to make a different kind of connection. Shorn of the patina of age and mediation that kept the group at a fascinating distance on the earlier recordings, the third record (especially, to get fetishistic for a second, as experienced via the thick slab of heavyweight vinyl that SF initially released it on) allowed a losing of the self via listening. Zayna Jumma has a similar clarity, allowing listeners to immerse themselves, for a spell, in the special magic that Group Doueh have made their own.