Podcast | Katalog #1: Maurice Louca

Katalog is a podcast by Mada Masr about the process, production, and meaning behind select works from the contemporary Arab and North African music landscape. Co-produced and hosted by music journalist and writer Maha ElNabawi and musician and sound engineer Adham Zidan, the podcast offers behind-the-scenes stories of musicians, their inspiration, and their process through a dynamic sonic experience.

Each episode features a guest musician, and together we break down their tracks to give our listeners a more intimate understanding of the complex layers that make up their unique sound.

In the pilot episode of Katalog, we interview Maurice Louca, a composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist from Cairo, Egypt. Louca has co-founded various musical projects and bands, including Bikya, Alif, The Dwarfs of East Agouza, Lekhfa and Karkhana. In January 2011, he released his debut album, Garraya, followed by Salute the Parrot in November 2014. In February 2019, he released his third album, Elephantine. In this episode, Louca tells us about his artistic process, the relationship between improvisation and composition on the album, and his use of repetition. We also ask him to break apart the layers of the album’s single, The Leper — but first, we speak about the album’s point of departure, and the transition he made from his previous album to this one.

My name is Maurice Louca, I’m a musician from Cairo. I would say I started working on the album immediately after I completed Salute the Parrot. The initial inspiration was that I had started playing and composing on the guitar again. The guitar was my first instrument, but it had been years since I’d played it, or even had one in the house. So I went and bought a guitar, and then suddenly all the ideas started to come. And that’s what I wanted to be doing; I passed most of my time this way — I’m the type of person who wakes up and plays music daily, but for a while I had been playing on machines and in [digital] sessions. It had been a while since I’d sat and composed on an instrument this way.

At the time, however, I hadn’t had the idea for the album yet — it was just how I chose to spend my time. When did that start to progress into an album? Maybe after a year or so. Elephantine, for me, was about a certain journey. I was very adamant that it should reflect that. So there was this narrative — this narrative is hard for me to explain, especially conceptually or even through images, but it’s there. The thing I love most about music — particularly instrumental music without words — is that it gives you the space to imagine your own narrative.  So no, I don’t know how to explain things in a conceptual way, but I also have no interest in doing that. I would much prefer the process to be more open, I would never want to make an album about — global warming, let’s say.

From the very start, it was clear that while I was composing on the guitar, I didn’t want to make a guitar album in the traditional sense. I would leave myself to sit and dream and imagine where these songs could go, and what instruments could be played. So I would be playing something on the guitar, but in my head I’d imagine it playing out on a vibraphone or a saxophone or something of the sort. After that, when the songs progressed, the instruments started arising on their own.

I have had a loving relationship with the vibraphone for a long time. I definitely have a soft spot for melodic percussion, and I very much wanted to work with horn instruments. When the project started taking shape, I suddenly knew that this was in fact going to be an album — that is a moment that’s hard to explain. You just realize there are a number of pieces there, and that they’re coherent; they’re just coming together well. In this case, I actually felt that it was one long piece, and I still see it that way. So when I got to this point with the work, I had to stop and think about how I was going to realize this album.

I was aware there was a mode of playing that isn’t very common here, so it was clear to me that I would have to go outside of my comfort zone — that I couldn’t just depend on friends from Cairo as I had before. I had to search for musicians I didn’t know, and ask them to play on the album.

Salute the Parrot was more of an interactive process, in that I was working and would get an idea, then record, and eventually take the recordings to post production, and tweak them from there. But there was always the idea of the song, the feeling that it was the main unit. For example, I would be sitting with someone like Alan [Bishop], he would say that he plays the saxophone, so I would get an idea for him to play the sax on a track for the album, and we’d try it out.

In Elephantine, however, the whole concept was in my head until the moment I met the musicians at the studio. So their role in the project is more vital. Of course, in Parrot, everyone’s role was impactful, and some people totally changed the direction of the track, but the track was still there, and would have been regardless. But the musicians who played on Elephantine are an integral part of it; it wouldn’t exist without them. 

The only musicians on Elephantine who I knew from before were in the rhythm section: Tommaso [Cappellato] and Ozun [Usta]. And that has to do with the fact that, personally, the rhythmics is very important to me. In my productions before this, particularly the solo work, I would always start with percussion — it was very clear to me that I wanted to change my creative process in that I didn’t want to program beats, but I still had a clear vision of what kind of percussion and rhythm I wanted. They had to be very groovy, very open, and very textural. I know Tommaso and Ozun from other projects, so from the start, I had in my mind their style of play, because the two of them are very rhythmic, they think of the instrument all the time. And regarding texture, Ozun changes the skins on the drums, so he has a very particular sound. I had always imagined them as one whole, but when they split up you can really feel it, like in One More for the Gutter. That, of course, is a result of the influence of African rhythms, like those of Fela Kuti, where you feel the rhythm section is really big, but it still feels like one unit.

It’s not like in rock, where you have two drummers and that really big sound — I don’t particularly like that style. The idea is more the space created by the drums, that’s what I’m interested in. Of course you sit and imagine these things, but you have no idea how they will turn out. I was really proud of how Tommaso and Ozun’s relationship turned out from the first moment, though; I felt like I had a clear vision and that it worked out well. I think the song we began with was The Leper, and we didn’t really need to talk much about it — it was pretty clear to them.

For me, there’s always this moment where you have an idea or a composition and you feel that, okay, something exciting has happened that we can build a song around. In The Leper, it was this transition, this particular riff [he plays the riff in the studio] — for me the whole track was built off of this; that was the seed of the idea.

I didn’t know yet where the idea could go, but I knew there was something attractive about that riff, in that it could be played polyrhythmically in many different ways, meaning that every time it’s repeated, it changes — and even in my work prior to Elephantine, repetition has always been a present factor. It’s something that ties this work with my previous work. When that transition I mentioned came about, suddenly the track surprised me — it went into a totally different mood, one I couldn’t have imagined. It’s kind of charged — it’s a bit darker than the previous mood. It’s pretty much the same riff, but it has a very different focal point and it gives off a very different feeling, so it naturally became another section. And that’s when the ideas for the bass solo emerged, because this is the point where the horn instruments come together in a swarm, like something is definitely about to happen.

We climax and climax with that section, then we go back to the previous section but at a much higher point. And here the whole band joins together — all the elements become one. From here nothing can stop you — you keep going and going until the baritone sax leaves the unit, and takes you into Laika, the second part of the piece.

Of course all these things happened through a very organic process — I didn’t have this vision from the start, they progressed with the composition, but the starting point was just what I described, in all its simplicity: You have this riff that’s like a loop, and you keep building things upon it, but suddenly it goes somewhere freaky, and happy, but also a bit strange. And that’s something that had me feeling like okay, this is a track.

I was very insistent on wanting the album to be heard as one long piece, but I knew that it wasn’t really possible because no production company would approve of that. Even before speaking with production companies, I knew I would have to think of it as a group of separate pieces at a certain point. But they were never really separate songs to begin with — I would sit and play Elephantine on the guitar all at once, one after the other like one long piece. But of course then I would play this line [he plays the line at 12:25] and I would hear it as horn instruments, not as guitar. It wasn’t like Parrot where I had Sharraq Rah Tegharrab (It Will Set) and Al Mallahat (Salt Pans) and I would sit and think about which track I should put ahead of the other so the album can be complete, for instance. When the piece was composed as a whole, it was clear which parts were improvised and which parts were composed, and which parts were in between — where you’d give a musician a certain note to play that we can then improvise on within a certain scale, or when you wouldn’t give them a melody, just a reference. But the spaces for improvisation were written into the composition, and that played a big role in how the piece turned out.

 The best example of improvisation on the album was One More for the Gutter — we would split the band in two: On the one hand I would play the main theme and Tommaso and Piero Bittolo, who plays the baritone sax on the album but played the alto sax on this track, would come in — the only direction I gave them was to react to the riff. The second part of the band, meanwhile, comes in with those two chords [at 12:44], which kind of shake the ground beneath you a bit. The idea was that we were not to react to them, but it becomes out of your control when you have five musicians making such violent interference, so you sort of find yourself in this tug of war.

When entering any project, especially “solo” projects — which I know is a weird word for my work, but you get it — I really try to put myself in unfamiliar situations where I don’t really know what I’m doing, where I will be surprised. And it’s the same thing with emotions. I really struggle to express music through emotions like happiness or sadness; I feel music works on a different level of consciousness in the mind. People tell me ‘your music is sad’, or dreamy, or weird, but all these things for me, I feel…even when explaining other people’s music, are a bit limiting.

I always have a curiosity though, when people come and explain to me what the music made them feel — it’s always an interesting moment and sometimes I get really surprised. Especially way back when — during those angry days, I think — people would see my music as depressive and I would think no, it’s playful and fun. 

For me there is an obvious relationship between Elephantine and Parrot, but I know I can’t expect everyone to feel it. I know people might think they are really disparate, or wonder why I did that, or didn’t continue in the same direction. And that’s normal. But in general I like to give my audience the benefit of the doubt. I always feel they are with me, even if they might not be…that we can just experiment together and things will work, somehow.

It was clear to me that I didn’t want to make another album like Salute the Parrot. If I had to wake up and work that way again, I wouldn’t have been inspired from the start. Always, with each project, I try to change something in the process, to keep myself somewhat outside of my comfort zone, and to get myself to feel excited enough to sit and write. 

In this album, or piece, I wanted as much as possible to keep the post production very limited. It was important to me to try and capture the moment there, rather than spend hours in post production. It was the opposite of my approach in Parrot, where I would record and then later think about what to do with the recordings in post production.

So yeah, we would play until we got the take we wanted. We recorded in three or four days, so every day we’d record a new part of the piece, and even if we took a good take we could still take an extra one, just in case. I’m increasingly starting to like it better when time is limited; I feel that it’s better for the feeling and the focus than spending two weeks in the studio, for instance. I didn’t feel I was crunched for time — you do one improvisational album, you learn a lot of things the hard way. There’s no space, you just live with all these things and then value them afterward. What you thought was a discordant note, for instance, suddenly — when you listen to it later — feels like an inherent part of the idea, and that makes you less harsh with yourself.

This was the album that I did the least editing on — even though there was some, I mean there were moments where we’d merge two takes together and all that, but it was much more minimal than usual. I’m pretty dependent on editing in general, because it’s what I’m used to, especially because I usually work with machines, so I’m a product of the culture where I have the time and space to edit and change what I want. But in this album, the idea was to change the process — in the end, there was no click, because everything was recorded live. I believe that if you have good drummers they keep time, and you don’t need to work with a click — but in the end they keep human time, so if you’re obsessed with everything playing with total precision then of course you will need to edit. But for me it’s the opposite, I feel that actually kills music rather than serve it. But you need strong musicians for that; if your drummer doesn’t know how to keep time, you’re going to have to use a click, what else can you do?

In the past four years, what influenced me most were the people I worked with, and the experimentation with process. I feel that I’ve been really lucky when it comes to that, to be able to express myself musically through all these different avenues — to work on projects like the Dwarfs, Karkhana, Lekhfa, and Alif. The best part is that each of these projects is very different, even when it comes to process, but they all come from the same place. It wasn’t about making experimental music, but making music through an experimental process. And being inspired by the people you work with — you pick the personalities and then figure out what you will make with them. It’s more that, than thinking, “Hey, I want to make an Afro-punk album, who makes Afro-punk in the city?” I don’t really think that’s the right way to create a band. This is what ties all these projects together — there wasn’t a single project where we had to discuss what kind of music we wanted to make. It was always about the idea of wanting to work together, and see what comes out of it. A process like that is very inspiring, especially when you have the good fortune to work with such great musicians. 

For the most part, I play music every day, in the morning more than the evening. But of course if you’re mixing an album or if you’re on a tour or if you’re at the point where you’re still beginning to conceptualize an album or to write, everything changes. It’s hard to have a routine when you’re living this kind of life. But also talking about music as work always feels a bit weird. I play music, but it’s my work at the same time, so of course I sound serious when I say “I’m working,” but really I’m just sitting in my boxers on the couch, playing music. Yet it is my bread and butter at the end of the day. All I can say is we’re very fortunate that this is what we do for a living, thank God.

Maha ElNabawi 

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