Journalist and Hoba Hoba Spirit guitarist, singer and songwriter talks the business of music in Morocco.
Words by Jeffrey Callen, Ph. D.
Hoba Hoba Spirit was there when an alternative music scene came together in Casablanca in the late 1990s. They were there on the front lines of the protests after 14 heavy-metal musicians and fans were arrested and accused of being satanists in 2003. Creating distinctively Moroccan rock ‘n’ roll (with lyrics in French, Darija and English, and music infused with healthy doses of Gnawa music, reggae & Moroccan rhythms), many critics and supporters considered them too hip to ever be popular outside of Casablanca. Playing wherever they could get a gig, they introduced the live experience of rock ‘n roll to audiences in small cities and villages throughout Morocco and, by 2007, they had become one of the most popular Moroccan musical acts of any genre. More than any other alternative band, Hoba Hoba Spirit has advocated an opening of the Moroccan cultural landscape—through music and through the writing of bandleader and journalist Reda Allali in the magazine Telquel. In a far-ranging interview, Allali talks with ethnomusicologist Jeffrey Callen about the Hoba way, their unexpected road to success, the alternative music movement and the obstacles to making a living as a musician in Morocco.
Listening to Hoba Hoba Spirit over the last 10 years, I noticed a lot of musical complexity has come into your work that wasn’t there in the beginning?
I don’t know if it’s musical complexity. Maybe, but I don’t think we can do things and analyze what we do. We’ve made a long road… In 10 years we learned how to make records, how to make concerts, how to deal with the audience… Maybe it looks very easy in [the US] because people have come before you… [In Morocco] we had to invent things, discover our own way to do things. I wouldn’t say our music is more complex today. Maybe it’s more powerful – that’s what we try to do.
Where I notice musical complexities is in the layering of the rhythmic elements…
Remember we didn’t have a drummer until 2002, so for years, the songs were written without drums. There’s a huge difference in writing songs without drums and putting drums inside, and working creatively with (the drums) and the rhythms. The whole band is very interested in the drums and the rhythms… We all fight to go play when Adil stands up to take a break. The drum part is the core of the system. Journalists always talk about the lyrics but there [inside the rhythm] is the core of Hoba Hoba Spirit.
I remember you saying that the band concept was not well-accepted in Morocco. In the early days you’d go to play outside of Casablanca and find yourself billed as Reda Allali & Hoba Hoba Spirit.
Yes, that’s true. There’s always the problem of the singer.… for the generation of today, we are not aliens… For 10 years we played everyplace in Morocco and now they’re used to us and used to bands. In the ’70s, we had bands. In the ’80s and ’90s, they disappeared and we were very much in the Asian model of the [superstar] singer.
How has your songwriting process changed over the years?
For the first two albums, songwriting was a two-person creative process [Reda and guitarist/singer Anouar Zehouani]. Today it’s very different, Othmane [Hmimar; percussionist/singer] and Adil [Hanine; drummer] are a big part of the creative process…. We decided we didn’t want to make the perfect song… We are not very anxious about creativity and production. We don’t wait six months to make a perfect mix… Spontaneity is very important in this band; that hasn’t changed since the beginning. We want to let it roll!
There’s been a tremendous growth of professionalism of the band’s live show….
One thing we decided very early was that we loved to perform live and that we needed an organization that allowed us to be really professional on stage. One thing people loved about our shows was we had big fun on stage and to really have fun, you really need to be secure with the technical things.
It also seems important to you to build a connection with your audience.
We didn’t expect this. We didn’t understand when we saw people following us to see a show far for their home. We don’t know how to analyze this. In the story of the band is the story of the fans because they keep pushing us.
I was a little surprised at the level of success the band attained because when I first saw you, I thought you were too hip for the country outside of Casablanca.
Everybody was saying that. Our influences go from the Clash to Manu Negra, from James Brown to Nass el Ghiwane, to Joe Strummer to Bruce Springsteen… Having such influences, I thought we could never be a popular band. The first band a lot of young Moroccans saw was Hoba Hoba Spirit. Because I decided to play everywhere. People loved the impact and the energy of the live show. Rock was not played in Morocco the way we played it with Arabic lyrics and Moroccan rhythms, but the core of the system is the rock ‘n roll attitude which is to try for something impossible, to be at the edge of chaos, to make the illusion that everything is possible, to give the impression of places better than where you are now and this is important… This is now… In small towns we opened the eyes and ears to what a rock show is… We don’t want to make the moment nice, but to change it… Something strange is happening — this is not what we expect.
Hoba Hoba Spirit has had an impact on Moroccan culture, including introducing slang terms.
“Fhamator” for instance is used as a name for a character in a sitcom. Fhamator is Moroccan superhero, character reinvented. For instance, we have a song “Black Mossiba” which means black disaster and is about a football loss. Yesterday, the Moroccan team lost in this song was everywhere on the radio. We are very proud to have brought some concepts to the Moroccan popular culture of our time.
You’ve always said that humor is very important in your work.
Yes, we don’t want to be too serious—it’s music, and let’s be ironic and have some fun. They’re too many people giving very serious lessons. Rap and hip-hop is full of people telling us how to live… I don’t think the musical scene was in need of one more moral teacher. Hoba Hoba Spirit is not a dark band… A lot of our songs come from our private jokes.
Even though you’re not serious, your music is intended to make a difference, help people raise their consciousness, right?
The first part of the job is to make people have fun… If after one or two hours they are sweaty and have a big smile, my job is done. If on top of this, you can raise one or two questions and move the certainties they have in mind, that would be enough. We love to give messages that are beyond the fun.
Do you consider Hoba Hoba Spirit a rock band or a fusion band?
(The fusion label in Morocco came from the Boulevard des jeunes musiciens festival— that began in 1999). The Boulevard had three days: hip-hop, rock— and rock became heavy metal — so everyone who was not hip-hop or heavy metal became fusion. We consider ourselves a rock band, but people have called us us fusion because rock in Morocco has been understood as heavy metal and we’re not heavy metal. We are a rock band like Manu Negra. We want to rise a rock spirit.
I saw Manu Negra in ’88 in France when I was a student… When I watched Manu Negra onstage, I thought this is the kind of music I want to make. If it can be played live, it must be played like this. In the midst of the groove and all the energy, there were two or three questions put in our brain in the middle of the party. That’s what I wanted to do. Manu Negra toured with Joe Strummer after the breakup of the Clash, and used North African and reggae rhythms, so it is rock that is open to the world. As a Moroccan, it was natural for me to go in that direction.
Is fusion a realistic category in Morocco today?
Not really. I think the main types of urban music are hip-hop and R&B in terms of quantity. [If] people listen to Hoba, they listen to Hoba.
In Morocco today, is there an “alternative music community”?
I don’t think “alternative music community” makes any sense today. There was a community for the first few years because there was a physical place, the Boulevard, where we met and played together. When the [dozen heavy metal] musicians were accused of being satanists [and arrested in 2003— including current Hoba bassist Saâd Bouidi], there was a community that came together. It was a community and then very quickly, we felt there was no community and we had to follow our own path. And then in 2011 with the Arab Spring, the break between the bands was completed. It is not really coherent to compare bands like [hip-hop group] Fnaire and us — we don’t make the same music or take the same positions.
Our success was so unexpected in the alternative world. It created some tension. We never wanted to be underground. From the beginning, we wanted to have the maximum number of people love our music without having to lie or disguise it.
The lack of copyright protection in Morocco is a major problem for artists.
The only sources of revenue for musicians are live performance and deals with sponsors.
Is this a source of frustration?
Yes, when we watch a guy on TV writing one hit 20 years ago and raising his kids on it.
Are there any new Moroccan bands you’re listening to?
No. It is a very sad moment for Moroccan music. The big energy and hope of 10 years ago is becoming bitter – based on [a] hope that is not fulfilled, based on political lies, based on the fact that people don’t see it [Morocco] move fast enough. Everybody seems to have given up hope of making this country better in a collective way. You cannot tell people for 30 years that you are in a democratic transition. For us, the Arab Spring is very important. It makes you remember the people have the power. We thought we had a malediction in the Arab countries — a problem with the water or the weather or the DNA structure. Anyway, we discovered that things can be changed; that was far from being obvious before. We thought nothing would ever change.
What is your vision for the future of Hoba Hoba Spirit?
We have reached a point where we can now do something which will give us a lot of pleasure. To write new songs and give them to the people and play them on stage… We are very aware that the pleasure we’ve had the last 10 years is a miracle, and we want to make it last the maximum.
Want to see and read more? Check out MTV Iggy’s special report on Morocco’s music scene, here.
Jeffrey Callen is a storyteller living in San Francisco. Along the way to receiving his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, he learned the bracketing of reactions, the deep hanging out, the willingness to be surprised that are the sine qua non of the ethnographic method. An ethnographic approach is integral to all his work as a writer, researcher and consultant. His writing on music and popular culture regularly appears in scholarly publications and popular outlets, such as PopMatters, The Wall Street Journal(wsj.com), SF Weekly, East Bay Express, The Beat and Afropop Worldwide.