There’s something strange and remarkable about Maurice Louca’s latest album, Elephantine. Released earlier this year on Sub Rosa in Europe and Northern Spy in the United States, it’s an emotionally rich and textured album that sounds nothing like what he’s put out before. It’s refreshing, smooth and full of ideas. It’s challenging, but also pleasant to listen to.
The album comes as the result of a fascinating approach. Oversaturated by the electronic machines he used on the critically-acclaimed albums Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot) and Lekhfa (Invisibility), Louca threw it all away and started over, following his intuition as he came up with a whole new sound.
“Very, very little conceptualizing comes to my work. I mostly react to what I do; I surprise myself,” Louca says. “As much as listeners might get surprised by things, I think I get surprised first. My method of working is always to try and be kind of out in the woods and not really in my element, and get kind of inspired that way and then react.”
Elephantine sounds nothing like Louca’s previous work. The dance floor-friendly electronic beats and psychedelic mizmar samples of certifiable anthems like Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan and Teskar Tebki (Drunk, You Weep Like a Kid) have given way to plaintive guitar strums, crystalline vibraphone chords, and stormy saxophone improvisations. His previous albums were rooted in the shaabi intensity and late-night energy of Cairo, but Elephantine looks further south: The title references Elephantine Island, the tusk-shaped stretch of land in Aswan that traditionally marked the line between ancient Egypt and Nubia. It’s a nod to the free-flowing intersection of ideas and influences that make up the album: Elephantine draws from free-jazz and cosmic jazz as well as the complex rhythms and repetition of African and Yemeni music. It all comes together beautifully on the nearly nine-minute opening track, The Leper, in which melodies swish and sway in many directions at once before finally gathering under a lightweight, syncopated groove.
It’s almost startling the ways that Louca, 36, has evolved as a musician over the years. He always seems one step ahead of himself, releasing something that any fan could love, only to vault forward in another new and surprising way.
“Every time I do a record, especially solo stuff, I always try to do something different from how I usually work,” he says, “just so I can have that element of trying to discover what’s really coming out of me.”
Louca got his start in the mid-2000s as a member of the Cairo band Bikya, conjuring suspenseful synthesizer riffs over tense beats alongside Mahmoud Refat and Mahmoud Waly. Later, he harnessed distortion and texture to create the mercurial electronic music of his debut 2011 album Garraya. Garraya’s more experimental moments could’ve fit in snugly alongside the atmospheric, glitch-based works of North American and European artists like Tim Hecker and Fennesz, but the track Half Tooth also suggested a move towards a kind of kaleidoscopic shaabi music.
Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot), Louca’s critically-acclaimed second album from 2014, built on the ideas of “Half Tooth” with his own psychedelic take on shaabi music and mahraganat. Released on Nawa Recordings, the album’s moody atmospheres and robotized mahraganat voices combined with powerful rhythms and provocative ideas. The dark, addictive dance groove of the title track alludes to imminent dangers and paradigm shifts, making it a perfect addition to the soundtrack for Leyla Bouzid’s powerful 2015 Tunisian punk drama À peine j’ouvre les yeux (As I Open My Eyes).
Some fans may be disappointed to find that Elephantine sounds nothing like Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan, but the new album has its own charms, with brighter colors, slower tempos, and more challenging shifts in tone and mood. The title track, Elephantine, sounds like a felucca floating on a gentle wind — the vibraphone, strings, bass and woodwinds coming in and out at a languid pace. By contrast, there’s the provocative One More for the Gutter, which incorporates radical contrasts in tone and style. The piece opens with a twanging guitar lick, reminiscent of Tuareg “desert blues” artists like Tinariwen and Bombino. Someone begins taking off on a wild saxophone solo, and then a series of massive, pummeling chords throw everything off balance, sending instruments scattering.
“Going into it, what I’m conscious of is the setup — how I am going to work on this record, the situation or the conditions that will allow the record to come out,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to make the record like the Parrot one, because I wouldn’t have been able to go through the same process. I was bored with the process of sampling and machines and all the post-production. I just wanted to play live music more and write for a band. That’s what really inspired me.”
Even though Louca’s eclectic, genre-busting approach on Elephantine harks back in some ways to the classic recordings of jazz pioneers like Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Archie Shepp, who broke radically from the jazz establishment in the 1960s — throwing out rules of improvisation and composition to embrace spirituality, African music and the cosmos as sources of artistic inspiration — he is careful to point out that he’s not a traditionally trained jazz guy. Obviously, he comes from a much different context.
“The fact that I just put out a jazz record is so absurd to me, because I never considered myself a jazz guy anyway,” Louca says. “For the longest time I just didn’t get the music very much. Most of what we’ve got here [in Cairo] is the very watered-down, standard, hotel kind of jazz stuff. I always find it hard to break into bebop. It’s the kind of free and cosmic jazz, these kind of hybrids of jazz, that I love so much.”
Still, it’s clear that these artists helped Louca rewrite his own rules. The initial impetus for Elephantine came to him around the time he was putting the finishing touches on Salute the Parrot. Putting away his keyboards and samplers, he started writing songs on the guitar, one of the original instruments that got him into music. “I was a bit tired of machines, so I was just playing guitar, trying to write on the guitar, and then all these ideas started coming out,” he recalls.
Louca couldn’t dive into a new album right away: He was busy touring in support of Salute the Parrot and was also involved in other projects, working with Maryam Saleh and Tamer Abu Ghazalah on their 2017 collaborative album Lekhfa and playing with the psychedelic rock/free-jazz bands Karkhana and The Dwarfs of East Agouza. A couple of years went by, but Louca kept writing new material, and gradually the tracks of Elephantine came into focus.
“There was a direction, a kind of flow,” he says. “I realized that this is an album. From then on it was just a question of whether I would be able to do it or not.”
Louca wanted to include a horn section and vibraphone, instruments that are hard to find in Cairo. His manager Sarah El Miniawy stepped in to help recruit musicians and arrange funding through the Swedish music support platform Musikverket. Longtime collaborators Tommaso Cappellato (who played drums on Salute the Parrot) and Ozun Usta (the drummer in Karkhana) also pitched in, playing drums and suggesting other members for an ensemble. Once everybody was on board, the group met in Stockholm, Sweden, where they put most of the album together during a week of rehearsals and recording sessions in August 2017.
The musicians on Elephantine include vibraphone player Pasquale Mirra, bassist Elsa Bergman, saxophonist/bass flutist Piero Bittolo, saxophonist Anna Högberg, tuba player Rasmus Kjærgård Lund, clarinetist Isak Hedtjärn, violinist Ayman Asfour and oud player Natik Awayez. Longtime collaborator Nadah El Shazly also makes an appearance, singing in the atmospheric folk ballad The Palm of a Ghost. Louca had made demos on the computer to show the other musicians. They didn’t have much time, but everything fell into place — and they ended up with a moving sound all their own.
“The energy between us was amazing. We got along so well,” Louca says. “Going into something like this is a bit intimidating because I never worked in a way where all the music is in my head. I mean, I had demos, and it’s mostly composed music. But still, you don’t know what it sounds like. You don’t know if these ideas are going to work out or not, and everything worked out.”