Fakroun dips his toes into a variety of genres, whilst staying true to his Libyan roots and his funky soul
It came as a bit as a surprise to discover that this funky disco album was produced by the king who sits astride the pillars of rock, Tommy Vance. Thoughts of the prolific radio broadcaster (and king of all that rocks) might typically conjure up images of him perhaps snorting ants with Lemmy as he sticks on another mental piece of brain-bleeding rock for his avid listeners in the heavy metal land of Deathlehem. Despite Vance’s reputation, this album is anything but offensive by Western standards, yet Ahmed Fakroun’s work seems to be the perfect antidote for his home nation’s shift in both social attitude and policy at the time of its release.
“Although on the surface, one might say that the growing anti-West sentiment in the country would make it hard for his cross-cultural music to take off; when one listens to the immense joy that emanates from the record it is no surprise that the album was loved on home soil.”
Fakroun met the monolith of rock, Tommy Vance, during his five years of study in the UK. Here he begun to develop a truly global sound, picking up influences that he would perhaps not have been so well exposed to back at home. That said, even when growing up in Benghazi, Fakroun seemed to have a proclivity for funk as his first instrument was an electric bass guitar; this came years before he developed a fascination of more traditional Arab instruments including the darboka, the mandol and the saz, that would become essential for his fusion style of music. Having developed his musical palate in the UK, Fakroun went back to Libya bearing the almighty gift of rai-disco fusion.
The very fact that the country had undergone quite a dramatic shift since his departure, had strangely worked in his favour, at least in the short-term, as the public were perhaps more in need of and receiving a record that connects with the Western world, due to the fact that their government was doing anything but connecting with the West. Colonel Gaddafi’s populist regime, which overthrew the Western-influenced monarchy, both financed and supported the Black September Movement, the Provisional IRA and Abu Sayyaf, that sought to destroy Western liberal values. Yet, as the Islamist movement was rising, there was still a brief window of opportunity for success before Libya's years of international isolation.
Although on the surface, one might say that the growing anti-Western sentiment in the country would make it hard for his cross-cultural music to take off, when one listens to the immense joy that emanates from the record it is no surprise that the album was loved on home soil. It was somewhat revolutionary in merging traditional rai music with Western genres that are fun and experimental – namely disco and art-rock. The funky opening song and title-track has a great rocky percussive beat, but it is made way more enjoyable due to the inclusion of a wind instrument that sounds like a panflute. However, for me this is not the star of the show. Nisyan, which has a great funky reggae inflection to it, seems like it was stolen right out of The Wailers’ playbook.
Despite other great songs, including the more traditional sounding Njoom al leyel (which translates as Night Stars), the dub-inspired Sinini and the space agey Al hob, Fakroun was rather unjustly unable to bask in his stardom for very long. This is partially because he was straight back on the hunt for new Western influences in both Italy and France before returning to a country that would reject attempts to modernise the music scene. However, upon his second return it became clear that Gaddafi was intent on promoting the likes of like singer and composer Mohamed Hassan in order to popularise traditional Libyan music and old-fashioned values. Overall, Fakroun’s album has enough variety and interesting experimentation to keep its listeners engaged for most of the record. However, if I had to criticise it, for a funk album it is just too long with the first half being of a considerably higher quality. That said, I don’t wish to take anything away from Fakroun’s valiant and successful attempt at cross-cultural genre, especially given the tricky circumstances of releasing the album for a country that might have totally rejected him and his work, were he not so talented.