Dorian Lynskey The Guardian, Friday 8 June 2007
Bringing together 12 musicians from across the Arab world was ‘nuts’, Music Matbakh’s Justin Adams tells Dorian Lynskey, but the result has been harmony, not conflict.
It is a warm and noisy Saturday night in Casablanca. On the Boulevard d’Anfa, Moroccan football fans are celebrating their team’s 2-0 defeat of Zimbabwe in an African Cup of Nations qualifier. On the forecourt of a nearby Italian restaurant, 20 musicians and crew from seven countries are having dinner.
The table slowly accrues a layer of pizza crusts, beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays, while the air fills with smoke, spontaneous outbursts of song, incomprehensible in-jokes, and the babble of conversation in English, French and Arabic. Even by the standards of musical director Justin Adams – whose long career includes fusions of western and Arabic music with Robert Plant and Jah Wobble, and producing the music of the Touareg band Tinariwen – it is a chaotically cosmopolitan scene. Not for the first or last time, he looks cheerfully overwhelmed by the whole Music Matbakh experience.
“It’s completely nuts,” he says, shaking his head. “It could have been a complete disaster.”
The British Council approached Adams about Music Matbakh last Christmas. He was asked to choose two artists from each of six countries – Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon – from shortlists drawn up by the council’s local staff. Including Adams and two other British members, Matbakh numbers 15 musicians. When the final lineup arrived in the UK, he had to work out a set from scratch, and then mount a short tour. He acknowledges that the concept might have been a recipe for either blandly exotic mulch, or blaring chaos. Even the name – matbakh means kitchen – seems to invite unflattering comments about too many cooks.
Adams recalls the speech he made the day they met. “I said: ‘Look, we’re all musicians and we know this situation is insane. It can take years to find chemistry. It can take years to work on a great set. We don’t know each other, and we’re going to try to write a set in four days. Let’s accept we’re in a crazy situation, try to enjoy ourselves, and see what happens.'”
In the event, a fairly cohesive set of songs was written, and the dates went smoothly. The next phase, to be filmed by a documentary crew, involves a show in each of the member countries, starting in Morocco at the Boulevard festival.