North African folk music with a solid dose of psychedelia and space-age fantasy.
The music of organist Abdou El Omari may have first hit Western ears on an early Mississippi Records cassette comp of Moroccan chaabi, but reissue label Radio Martiko has given us a full three albums from the maestro that they dub “the organ king of Casablanca.” These mid-‘70s albums merged North African folk music with a solid dose of psychedelia and space-age fantasy.
El Omari’s North African psych uses rock rhythm guitar and Farfisa organ but over a more seductive beat. The sometimes mechanized rhythms make it easy to imagine this as music for belly-dancing, but when was the last time you saw a belly-dancer swaying to something that suggested Miles Davis’ psych-monster Agharta? When the organist shifts from Farfisa to ARP, you swear he’d been listening to Sun Ra’s Space is the Place and wish the two organists could have collaborated.
Each of the three albums has its charms. Nuits D’Été (Summer Nights), originally released in 1976, is mostly instrumental. The nearly 12-minute “Angham Chaabya” shifts from folk chorus to an extended wah-wah guitar solo, followed by the glassy synth lines of the more concise instrumental “Agadir.” The rapid pulse of “Marsoul Alhoub,” on the other hand, approaches a kind of psychedelic drone. One wonders what Moroccan audiences thought of this folk-jazz hybrid 40 years ago, a distinct and almost avant-garde dance music emerging when the rest of the world was shaking their groove thangs to disco.
The second album in El Omari’s trilogy is a previously unreleased set that adds vocalist Naima Samih, a Moroccan woman who began performing at the age of nine. While tracks like opener “Rmani Rih” sound relatively more conventional, its rhythms more akin to Middle Eastern pop, El Omari’s sliding organ timbres still sound like something from outer space. He was clearly dedicated to getting the most interesting sounds out of his instrument, and Samih’s husky voice keeps the song and its longing melody earthbound. But then the drums that open “Zifaf Filfada” again recall Sun Ra, and ululating vocals alternate with what sounds like a children’s chorus, all while El Omari flies on that crazy organ, gliding between conventional riffs and wild swirls of electronic sound.
The final album in the series, Nuits De Printemps (Spring Nights), was also unreleased until now. The jazziest of the three, it may be the best place to start with his music. Opener “Rajaat Layoun” evokes the swampy pulse of ‘70s electric Miles, and though El Omari doesn’t have the benefit of an incendiary guitarist like Pete Cosey on hand, the organ lines and rhythms (check that heavily reverbed percussion) make this a wonderfully evocative soundscape.
Three albums of Abdou El Omari may be more than the average consumer needs, but once a curious listener hears one, they’ll want to hear them all. The organist died in 2010 at the age of 66, and these albums seem to be the only record of his musical work. One can only imagine where he came from and where he went with his explorative spirit. Fortunately, his forward-looking and surprisingly accessible music lives on.