What do you get when you combine a French-American electric guitar whiz-kid, a Moroccan singer and percussionist, a versatile rhythm section, and guest singers and players from the top ranks of World music and punk rock? Probably something like Al-Qasar, whose first full-length album Who Are We? raises the flag of Middle Eastern psychedelic rock with a decidedly political focus.
Al-Qasar, born out of the Paris neighborhood of Barbés, is Thomas Attar Bellier on electric saz, guitars, and keyboards; Jaouad El Garouge on lead vocals and all kinds of percussion, plus Guillaume Théoden on bass, Nicolas Derolin on drums and percussion, and Paul Void on the drum kit. The music they make on Who Are We? is rhythmic, danceable, and fuzzed-out to the max. Speaking for myself, this “Arabian fuzz” as the band calls it, is in stiff competition with Turkish psych as my favorite sort of “Oriental psychedelia.”
Attar Bellier has spent the past several years in California playing guitar in psychedelic/spaghetti western bands like Blaak Heat and Spindrift, and also learning the ins and outs of studio production. But it was in Paris that the band came together. “Barbès is this edgy, amazing, historically Algerian, and still ungentrified part of the city” he says Attar. “To me, it is more typical of the way Paris really is than the Eiffel Tower, or than the Louvre. Real people live there, real culture happens there.” They put out a well-received EP and did some touring, then recorded Who Are We? starting in late 2020.
There’s not a bad track among the eight on this short, intense album, but I find myself gravitating toward the second set of four. The instrumental “Sham System” is a funky groove in 10/8 (laid down by drums and bass and cowbell!) on the “verses,” which consist of a kickass circular riff on saz, and some stabbing distorted electric guitar and soaring organ on the chorus. The next, “Barbès Barbès,” is perhaps the album’s centerpiece. The mid-tempo world rock anthem is an ode and homage to the group’s home neighbourhood in Paris. Al-Qasar was able to snare the French Moroccan musician Mehdi Haddab, a pioneer of the electric oud, for this song. That instrument has a warmer, mellower sound than the saz, and Haddab pays it with rock swagger, not at all like you expect from the oud.
Things ratchet up a notch for the next song “Benzine.” Based on a stuttering Bo Diddly-type blues rock rhythm, Attar Bellier lays down virtuosic saz and guitar riffage and Jaouad growls deep guttural lyrics about the exploitation of North Africa for petroleum: “They burnt all the sand / Those damned people / Cut down all the palm trees / Since 1971.” And they kick it up even further for the closer “Mal Wa Jamal (Money and Beauty),” a driving rocker in 7/8 about the plight of sex workers, sung by Hend Elrawy, the acclaimed Egyptian singer whom the band met in Cairo. “Generations disagree / About you / But they bought you with their money / And you, who protects you? / You endure crises / And you do not have status.”
The innovative New York-based Sudanese singer Alsarah provides guest vocals on another great song, “Hobek Thawrat (Your Love Is Revolutions).” This one, after a simmering Spaghetti Western intro on saz becomes a grooving dancefloor anthem. I absolutely love the driving rock rhythm on this and the hypnotic riff shared by saz, electric guitar and bass guitar, and the repetitive chorus, a slogan from recent demonstrations in Sudan: “No negotiation, no intersection, no collaboration.”
And I haven’t even touched on the three opening tracks, two of which feature bluesy experimental electric guitar from Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, and one with declamatory, in-your-face political vocals from Jello Biafra. It’s all good. Trance beats, impassioned vocals, and swirling psychedelic sounds, Al-Qasar has all of that and more on Who Are We?