We had a great pleasure to interview Ammar 808 on OFF-Festival in Katowice before his concert. Here’s what he said.
Fun in Poland: Ammar 808 is not your first project. What is the story of you as a musician?
Ammar 808: It started with classical training in Arabic music. And then metal, rock, electronics – I’ve been through quite a spectrum. The last few years I’ve played quite a lot of rock with Kel Assouf. As a keyboard player I’ve also produced albums. Ammar 808 is a bit of this collaborative alter ego in electronic music that I use as a name. I try to explore different areas, do many things that I like.
F: Do you remember the first electronic music you were listening to?
A: Back in the days when I was in Tunisia I had access to cassettes. I think we had the first singles of The Prodigy and things like that – drum’n’bass and big beat music was quite a big thing in the 90s. Most of my electronic music influence came from the computers themselves and instruments such as drum machines. And then, of course, the way I produce is also very heavy influenced by traditional music from around the world. So every time I try to explore different regions, take from that traditional music and mix it all down.
F: Roland TR-808 drum machine is the trademark instrument of this act, to the point the number is even in its name. What other synthesizers and physical instruments do you use in your music?
A: There is a lot of sampling going on. Even the 808 was sampled for the album, and then it was pitched, distorted, processed… That is a big part of the act. The traditional elements are put in front – these are real sessions that I did for the album. Then you have all the programming and sampling aspect, including drum machines, percussion and traditional music. I did some sessions for the album and now I use these materials live. I am set up in a way that I can improvise the live sets, change it every time according to the audience or what time of day or night I perform. It’s about finding a way to be free on stage. Also there is a set of visuals by VJ Sia Rosenberg. It’s all in played in real time – visuals, machines, electronics.
F: Your album contains nine remakes of traditional music of Maghreb (the name of northwest Africa region). How different is the creative process of making such remakes compared to making something completely new?
A: Remake or not, for me it’s absolutely the same process. I think melodies are pretty much universal. When it comes to traditional music and style of Maghreb, all the melodies of today have been influenced by those from hundreds of years in the past. It’s layers over layers over layers. When you are making a remake, even if you don’t want change the song, you’re automatically changing it just by playing it in a different time. A song that is a couple hundred years old, if played today in 2019, cannot be the same. For example from the way your interpreter will sing it. Whether you find ways to appropriate this music and think about it as an original track or a remake – it doesn’t make much of a difference.
F: Can you tell us a little about the general themes of traditional songs from Maghreb that yours are based on?
A: The songs are in a spectrum. For example Gnawa songs from Morocco, a sort of traditional trance music, are talking more about saints, spirits, devotion. Then you have Raï music which started in Algeria and has more of blues feel to the lyrics – it’s about painful relationships, painful life. The rest is north western Tunisian tunes, which are more like real life stories. They can be about love or exile, for example. Something I have to mention is that in many interviews it was very hard for me to translate the content of the songs because it’s written in a very old language that is very subtle and poetic, so it keeps a lot of margin for interpretation. You can see it in one of my songs titled Ain Essouda – the one with music video that shows half-man half-ram people. ‘Ain Essouda’ means ‘black eye’. You can interpret this song as if it were a love song, but it can take other meanings, which is what we showed in the clip.
F: Your album also contains an original song (Zine Ezzine). What struck me about it is that it used a 2-step rhythm pattern, something commonly seen in drum’n’bass. Was that a one-time experiment or a sign of things to come from your project?
A: That’s also a traditional Algerian rhythm. I co-wrote that song with Sofiane Saidi, a singer from Algeria. I think the whole album was a bit of a banger, a lot of rhythm was going on. It felt natural to compose an ending track that was super chill, with a nostalgic feel of music that I was listening to as a kid. It was natural to find a little bit of space on the album for it. It’s not necessarily a sign of things to come, but it’s also another side of things I do as producer. I do all these electronic heavy bass tunes, but also lighter stuff.
F: All songs on the album have strong, dominant vocals. Does the album as a whole also carry a strong, dominant message?
A: I think the message is the name of the album: Maghreb United. It’s a message of a dream of peace, unity. I also fantasize that maybe we can start with the Maghreb and then we can end up uniting everybody. I think the unity thing for me is an invitation to meditate about our differences and similarities. This is what makes us all closer to each other as humans. That’s the message.