Moroccan Pulse Beats in Rock’s Defiant, Democratic Heart: Casablanca’s Hoba Hoba Spirit
“…sharp, vibrant and very nearly universal.” –Washington Post
“A crowd-wowing multilingual band from Casablanca”—New York Times
They’ve played Roskilde. They’ve recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio. But this isn’t your typical stadium-packing rock band. This is clever, catchy Morocc’n Roll.
Casablanca’s unfettered and irreverent Hoba Hoba Spirit finds the rock drive within the bold clack of qarqaba (double castanets) and rhythmic swagger of North Africa. They belt choruses as a band, invoking both the soccer-stadium democracy found in their homeland and the robust call-and-response of Gnawan song. They shout truth to power at home, and poke fun at the global cultural cognoscenti who decide who and what is called ‘world music’ with post-punk wit, high-energy delivery, and droll plays on words.
Bursting onto the scene more than a decade ago, the group won a huge fan base in their homeland by doing what rock once did on a regular basis: asking tough questions, challenging the status quo, and having a good time doing it. “We wanted people to be happy with who they are,” explains lead singer and philosophical Hoba Hoba frontman Reda Allali. “[Moroccan popular] chaabi music is full of this chaotic joy. We want this spirit, this private party filled with love and sweat and what you have in your heart, this African heart of Morocco, back on stage.”
Hoba Hoba Spirit will bring this powerhouse mix to American audiences in 2014 under the auspices of Center StageSM. Center Stage is an exchange program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Exchange programs initiated by the Bureau support U.S. foreign policy goals and engage youth, students, educators, artists, athletes, and rising leaders in the U.S. and more than 160 countries. Center Stage uses the performing arts to support cultural understanding between American and international communities; participating artists experience the U.S. first hand and cultivate lasting relationships.
A band of professionals—journalists, engineers, intellectuals by day; rock stars by night—Hoba Hoba Spirit plays with languages and sounds and puns across tongues. Songs like “Blad Schizo,” which coined phrases that entered popular slang, or “Dark Bendir Army,” which seamlessly melds a modal electric guitar line and pounding beat with raw-edged, soaring North African vocals and Arabic lyrics, show the band’s versatility and clever songwriting, their ability to craft riffs that barely give on where the Motorhead ends and the Moroccan party begins.
There’s great joy to be had at that party, and it’s connected to the texture and nuance of local culture. The way New Jersey inspired Springsteen, the Afropolitan, post-colonial culture of Casablanca sparked Hoba Hoba’s musical perspective. “Casablanca is a world apart, a chaotic world with big energy,” exclaims Allali. “It’s a social and cultural mixture that’s not the easiest thing to find in Morocco. It offers you freedom due to its size. People can live the way they want to live.”
The band grew up in this relative freedom, neighbors and friends who began to jam together as rock and metal-loving youngsters. Sons of Casablanca, they began to craft songs that were syncretic by default. The interwoven sounds of Morocco’s many traditions and complex history were the sounds they heard every day. Along with the Gnawa, Berber, and Arab sounds, and more mainstream rock idols like Springsteen and the Clash, Hoba Hoba Spirit embraces the onstage energy and multicultural wanderings of high-intensity bands like Gogol Bordello or artists like Manu Chao.
“We don’t have categories or boxes in our minds that, say, this riff is surf, this beat is Berber,” Allali notes. “You can listen to rock and reggae all day, then go to a traditional wedding for hours. You don’t analyze where things are coming from.”
While Hoba Hoba may not think in musical categories, they do think a lot about where they are from and what it means to be from Casablanca, the Maghreb, and the Arabic speaking world of Africa. “Our songs have a lot of very specific reference to what’s going around us, though this can feel very universal, just like Springsteen proved,” muses Allali. “There’s a lack of confidence, a lot of concern about the image that the rest of the world gets of us here in Morocco. We feel that we’re from here and here we are and what’s the problem? The attitude in our music is based on love for the pop culture of this neighborhood, this place.”
Hoba Hoba sees the pop culture of place in Morocco’s unsung nooks and corners, spaces outside the often stiff, stifling atmosphere of limited public expression and state-run media. One of these corners is the soccer stadium, a place where the band, avid soccer fans, has found a haven of democracy and popular sentiment. “When we were young, all public speech was censored, controlled. The people we heard had polite, cold speech. Then you had the stadium, where 20,000 people sing what they have on their minds, an island of freedom where everything could be said and sung. For me it’s great to see how a crowd can create a song, and very often when we write a chorus, we imagine a crowd singing it.”
That catchiness and the hot-button issues that rile and move their fellow Moroccans translate directly into songs and into their stage show. “All the musicians in the band are singers and they use their voices on stage. It gives you huge energy. It’s one of the key parts of our music. We all join the chorus, and we know how to make you stand up and grab the mic … In this moment, when you abandon yourself and your body, it just resonates.” The result: one hook-laden, thought-provoking party.
Hoba Hoba Spirit:
Reda Allali, guitar and vocals
Anouar Zehouani, guitar
Adil Hanine, drums
Saad Bouidi, bass
Othman Hmimar, vocals and percussion
Abdessamad Bourhim, guitar
Center Stage will bring seven ensembles from Morocco, Pakistan and Vietnam to the U.S. for month-long tours from June-December 2014, connecting artists with diverse communities across the country. Residencies will include performances, workshops, discussions, people-to-people exchanges, and community gatherings. Keep up with Center Stage on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/CenterStagePage) and on Twitter (@centerstageus) and at www.centerstageUS.org
Center Stage is a public-private cultural exchange program initiated by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and produced by the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, with additional support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the Asian Cultural Council. General management for Center Stage is provided by Lisa Booth Management, Inc.