Posted by Jeremy Goodwin, February 7, 2018
Micro & Dean Johnston aka The Dux explain the enigmatic North African rhythm known as “chaabi”.
Posted by Jeremy Goodwin, February 7, 2018
Micro & Dean Johnston aka The Dux explain the enigmatic North African rhythm known as “chaabi”.
As globalization blends cultures and markets more and more everyday, it is only natural that artistic traditions and the artists that study them do the same. Mike Rivard is a leader in this regard, pioneering some of the most unique blends of musical styles and sounds today. Talking to him about his band Club d’Elf and his new project, Grand Fatilla, revealed a number of diverse influences that shed some light on the roots of the one of a kind voice he and his many collaborators have been developing.
All About Jazz: Where did you go to school?
Mike Rivard: I went to high school in Minnesota, and came out to Boston to go to Berklee after that. While I was at Berklee I took Ken Pullig’s class on the music of Charles Mingus, and there met Russ Gershon who was forming a band called the Either/Orchestra. He asked me to play bass in the group and that’s kind of what got me started gigging in Boston. One thing usually leads to another, and through that association I met and began long relationships with John Medeski and Mark Sandman. Mark had a group called Hypnosonics that he asked me to join, and I ended up doing some recording with Morphine, too. Through those connections I hooked up with other musicians, and like a fractal it just kept spiraling.
I drew on all of those relationships when I eventually formed Club d’Elf, starting with just getting my friends involved, as an excuse to play instrumental music with some of my favorite musicians in an open setting without any singers to get in the way! It grew from there; people would recommend other people, and I would met other cats and invite them in. In the 16 years the band has been around I think there’s been upwards of 100 people who have come in and out, with about 20 of whom are frequent offenders.
It’s a rotating cast, with the constants being myself and the drummer. Dean Johnston has been the drummer for the last eight years, and Erik Kerr was the drummer for eight years before that. Other drummers have come in and out, including Kenwood Dennard, Adam Deitch & Eric Kalb, but for the most part its been Dean and Erik.
AAJ: From the way you describe it, it sounds like Club d’Elf is just you and a bunch of your friends playing, but the band has a very recognizable sound.
MR: I guess the people I hang out with tend to wear a lot of different hats stylistically. As with most bands, the sound comes about through all of the influences we absorb, and there have been many along the way. While at Berklee I got involved in West African music through Joe Galeota, who was teaching Ghanaian drumming while I was there, and that was really influential. I met Jere Faison and Jerry Leake through that connection, who became part of the early D’Elf. Through Jerry I ended up joining another band called Natraj, led by Phil Scarff. That band was mixing North Indian classical music with West African Dagomba and Ewe music in a jazz style. Through them I got to work with Ghanaian master drummers Godwin Agbele and Dolsi-naa Abubakari Lunna. Eventually Dolsi-naa did some recording with Club d’Elf. He’s on a couple of tracks on Electirc Moroccoland/So Below: Trance Meeting and As Above, playing the talking drum. He was a heavy cat and it was a great honor having him play with us, even if he called it “Nonsense Music”!
So I had been into West African music and Indian music and then I started gravitating more towards North African music, through listening to records Bill Laswell was putting out like Night Spirit Masters, which was Gnawa, and Apocalypse Across the Sky, which was the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Mark Sandman turned me on to a CD by Hassan Hakmoun called Gift Of The Gnawa which really piqued my interest in the sintir and I became determined to get one and learn to play it. I had met a Moroccan musician named Brahim Fribgane in New York on a gig at The Cooler in ’99, and he eventually moved to Boston and joined Club d’Elf. That pushed the band in a really strong North African direction, and through Brahim’s connection I got a sintir and threw myself into learning that and incorporating it into the band. That was a really significant step, meeting Brahim and learning to play the sintir and adding that element to the sound.
AAJ: What exactly is a Sintir?
MR: It’s also called a guimbri, and its from Morocco. It’s a three string bass lute with a camel skin top. It’s kind of a drum and a bass all in one instrument—in fact it sounds like a tuned drum. Hassan calls it the “1000 year old bass,” and it really is ancient. It has a sound unlike anything else, and when I first heard it it spoke to me in a way that was really powerful, like few things in my life. It’s very percussive, very rhythmic sounding, which isn’t surprising given that its part drum. Besides Hassan I was listening to people like Maâlem Mustapha Baqbou, Mahmoud Guinia, Hamida Boussou, Abderrahim Paco from Nass El Ghiwane, and tried to emulate what I heard them do. You couldn’t find videos of them playing like you can now on Youtube, so I was left to my own devices and the tips that Brahim and Hassan gave me along the way.
The sintir is a pretty special instrument, and it’s used by the Gnawa people in healing ceremonies. That’s another thing that has attracted to me to it, this connection with healing and spirits. I frequently go into trance when I play it, and have come to find an energy flowing through it when I play that is not about me, you know? I take it very seriously and say a little prayer when I pick it up, because its serious business. In Gnawa music it’s the only featured instrument, usually with just singing and these metallic castanets called karakab. From a bass point of view it’s pretty easy to get hooked into that music, because it’s a bass instrument that dominates the sound. The sound of that instrument and the setting in which its used really spoke to me, and that’s been my passion for the last 15 years or so: learning that instrument and incorporating it into the band’s sound.
You asked previously what our influences are, and if you had to limit it to say seven albums you could pretty much come up with the basis for what we do by listening to these: Panthalassa, which is the Bill Laswell remix of electric Miles Davis; Gift Of The Gnawa; Hallucination Engine by Material; DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing; Square Root of -1 by We��; Liminal Lounge’s Pre-Set; and Incursions In Illbient. The electric bands that Miles had in the late 60’s/early 70’s was certainly a really strong framework for what we do, where there’s a lot of improvisation coming back to and starting from set themes. Also I was listening to a lot of Squarepusher. Combining that with the Gnawa music, Moroccan Berber music and different other influences like Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Weather Report, the usual stuff. For me as a bassist, I would say Dave Holland, Michael Henderson—the Miles connection; Willie Weeks, Tony Levin, John Wetton, James Jamerson, Mick Karn, and the Gnawa guys.
AAJ: One of the things that struck me about the band, in addition to incorporating traditional rhythms and songs, is the varied textures. Is the orchestration a really conscious decision? Do you keep that in mind while putting together a formation of Club d’Elf, or does it sort of just happen when you guys get together?
MR: I think there are various strategies. One of the really attractive things about this set up is that it’s always changing, it’s always shifting. There’s kind of a continual flow of new energy and new material in the group, which really helps to keep it fresh. It doesn’t really get stagnant, because its more like a river than say a pool. As far as orchestration or putting the bands together, it depends on people’s schedules: who’s around and who hasn’t played in a while. I try to keep the rotation moving around so we have different people come in and out. That’s how it is for the live thing anyway. In the studio is another thing, and the music really dictates what the orchestration is, and also what my current affiliations are. So we may have turntables if I’m doing a lot of work with a DJ like Mister Rourke, or French horn or oud or whatever. It all depends. We certainly have played a lot of this music with some wildly differing orchestrations, and it all seems to work.
As far as the players themselves, there are certain combinations that tend to work well together. Some musicians have a pretty deep simpatico and I like to draw upon that, so if someone is going to be in the band for a gig I start thinking about who plays well with that person. The music is tailored around the personalities that are going to be playing—I mean, it’d be foolish of me not to take that into consideration. The “book” that we have, the repertoire, is pretty large and I pick the tunes that we’ll do for any particular show depending on who’s playing. There are certain tunes that have been written with different people in mind, and those cats tend to put their personality on those tunes, so the repertoire depends on who’s going to be playing.
But then the idea is that the compositions are just different places to visit along the way. We don’t play the tunes the same way every time, and nothing is written in stone. The compositions are more just kind of reference points to come back to, like the kind of stuff Miles was doing in the 70’s. There’d be a lot of really open improvisational stuff and then a theme would emerge and the band would all coalesce into that point of reference, and then goes off from there. For example the song called “Salvia,” it’s on So Below—it’s got a lot of different sections, and sometimes we skip some. We’ll just do a couple of sections and then move onto something different. If Duke Levine is playing with us, we’ll do this long section where he solos like Ernie Isley, but if he’s not on the gig we usually skip that part.
Everything is pretty much non-stop, like a continuous DJ set, so the ways of connecting the tunes are usually some of the more interesting stuff that we do. There are these open, free improv sections where no one is really sure where it’s going to go, and that has created some pretty cool moments.
AAJ: How do you cue that?
MR: I’ve got a few different cues. It’s mostly just visual stuff, or I’ll whisper in somebody’s ear if we’re going to be changing key or going to a different section. The latest cue is I shout “Gojira!” and that cues a conducted, free-improv. I have charts for some of the players, or not, depending on the strengths of the musician. The arrangements are all spontaneous and come together in the moment, all part of the “crazy-make-em-ups” aspect of the music. Basically it’s all a conversation amongst the musicians. I may have an idea about where it’s going to go, but it’s all open to change depending on what’s happening and I try to follow those energies when they occur. If one of the players does something that’s really interesting I may cue a little side trip so we can explore that for a while. And there are a lot of wild cards, like one of the guys will show up to a gig with a musician friend, and if it feels right we’ll have them come up and that may lead everything in a different direction.
As a bassist I’m focused on the role of the bass as a support instrument, but then again the melodies are mostly the bass line, so the bass is foremost, but it’s not a soloistic approach. I prefer a heavy rhythm section focus, with the bass low and dub-like. Whoever’s guesting with us, I like them to feel free and relaxed, like we’re their backing band, rather than they’re just sitting in. Striking a balance between taking the lead and stepping back and letting someone else lead is an important skill. You could draw comparisons to sports, or combat maybe.
AAJ: Are you the composer?
MR: Most of the tunes are mine, but I encourage the other guys to bring in tunes as well; so for example when we play with Brahim, we play a lot of his music. Dave Tronzo has brought stuff in, as has Randy Roos. We do some covers too, like traditional Moroccan folk music, a Duke Ellington or Miles Davis or Sun Ra tune here and there. Pink Floyd, Cream, you know… stuff we like.
AAJ: How do you come up with the titles?
MR: The hardest thing about writing instrumental music is finding titles! (laughs). You can only have so many songs called “New Song #3,” you know? You need titles, just so when you call something out the band knows what you’re talking about, and then of course when you release something on a CD or whatever. I’m always searching around for titles, and find most of them from books that I’m reading. Certain lines or phrases jump out and catch my eye. I’ve always got my eye open for interesting title choices, and they reflect various interests of mine—things like science fiction, Philip K. Dick, George Saunders, Terence McKenna, psychedelic culture. I’ve been traveling to Peru for the last few years and working with indigenous musicians there, so some of the titles reflect my experiences in that world.
AAJ: You’ve got a new project. How different is it from Club d’Elf?
MR: Grand Fatilla has a pretty different sound from Club d’Elf. I play only double bass (with a little sintir as well) in Grand Fatilla, whereas in D’Elf it’s mostly electric bass and sintir, with some upright. Fatilla’s repertoire is folk music from around the world, with some originals inspired by some of these sources. Two of the guys are Italian so we do a lot of traditional Italian music like Tarantellas. The Tarantella is pretty cool because it’s another form of trance music, which I think is the element that really attracts me in music: trance. You find the same kind of energy and modalities in different parts of the world. Tarantism is not that far off from some of the traditions of Morocco like Gnawa, and Voodoo in Haiti. That stuff is fascinating to me.
We also do Bulgarian music, and a lot of music of Hermeto Pascoal and Astor Piazzolla. It’s a lot more structured than Club d’Elf, and we actually adhere to song forms. There’s a lot more harmonic variety in that band, with more chord changes, whereas Club d’Elf is more modal, one chord-oriented, more trance like.
AAJ: Where are you playing next?
MR: Club d’Elf has had a residency at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge twice a month for many years, and we get out and tour now and again when I can get the guys to do it. I have some new stuff planned for the near future like a couple of new live recordings and separate re-releases of Electric Moroccoland and So Below with a bunch of additional tracks. We used to go to Japan frequently until everything changed there after the tsunami, but hope to again. Playing in Morocco has always been my dream for the group, so that’d be cool for that to happen. Grand Fatilla is having a CD release party at the Regattabar in Cambridge. After that I disappear into the Amazon jungle in Peru for awhile and then who knows?
One of the more innovative bands in our region resides down in the Boston area. It’s a collective of musicians who take different shapes at different times – all the while being held in a loose state of continuity by frontman Mike “Micro” Rivard, a revered bassist and sintir player. The epic tribal-inspired jams that ensue are gripping and, at times, spiritual in feel. The music draws you in and forces your mind ajar, expanding your musical horizons and worldly vision simultaneously.
The band has played bi-weekly at Cambridge’s famed Lizard Lounge for what has amounted to a legendary residency, running for the past 16 years with an end-date nowhere in sight. Lucky for us, they’re calling in the New Year by traveling north a smidge to play The Press Room on Saturday, Jan. 3. Spotlight caught up with Rivard to ask about all things d’Elf.
Spotlight: Tell us about Club d’Elf. How did this all begin? What’s in the name?
Rivard: In 1998 I was playing a lot with Mark Sandman of Morphine in a band of his called Hypnosonics. He was busy touring with Morphine and got exasperated at my griping about no gigs for Hypnos and finally said, ‘Rivard … You need to start your own band.’ Of the names I came up with he liked Club d’Elf best, as it sounded vaguely French. I got all of my friends from various music projects involved, and it kind of took off. Terence McKenna, who I was reading a lot of at the time, inspired the name. Also there’s a macabre aspect when you say the name … it sounds like ‘clubbed elf.’
Spotlight: Music. What is it good for? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it?
Rivard: Like Frank Zappa said, ‘Music is the best.’ It cuts through all of the baggage and obfuscation that comes with culture and different nationalities like a laser-beam and connects to that which is intrinsically human, in a way I have found nothing else does. I don’t seem to have any choice in the matter, and it just kind of comes and takes over, like being ridden by a spirit entity. It makes me feel better and people seem to like it, so it just seems like a good idea all around.
Spotlight: How would you describe your music to someone that may not have heard it before?
Rivard: Music that comes from the place before you were born and after you die. Crazy, alien love songs that you can dance to. Or sounds like what a bunch of guys who grew up on Led Zeppelin, Philip K. Dick, James Brown, Fela Kuti, Arts Ensemble of Chicago and electric Miles Davis and then got into dub, Squarepusher and DJ Shadow, would play.
Spotlight: What are you looking for folks to take with them when they experience Club d’Elf?
Rivard: A heightened sense of belonging to something tribal and communal, and maybe some healing or at least working some stuff out. Experiencing the creation of something that didn’t exist two hours ago, and may never exist again that they and all those present helped to create. And maybe take home a CD or two to help us keep it going.
Spotlight: Let’s talk about the live album you put out a year ago. It’s a digital-only release. Was that by design? What is your stance on tangible vs. digital releases?
Rivard: I prefer physical, but the reality is it costs too much for that to always be viable. Mp3 files just don’t sound that good, so the audio purist in me rails at that, but I accept that this format isn’t going away anytime soon and people just seem to prefer the convenience of it. I’m glad I grew up in the era of vinyl albums where there seemed to be more intentional regard to the listening of music – actually holding the album, reading all about the musicians and making of the record, appreciating the artwork, and actively being involved in making the music experience happen by placing it on the turntable, dropping the needle, and sitting back with friends to listen communally. But that’s just an old fart talking …
Spotlight: Who wins in an arm-wrestling match: Sun Ra or Frank Zappa?
Rivard: Sun Ra. He’s got space juju that Frank just can’t match. I think they’d have better things to do than arm wrestle, though.
Spotlight: You’re coming back to The Press Room! What excites you about getting back to the Seacoast area? What do you like about The Press Room?
Rivard: We like to play rooms where the vibe is cool, and The Press Room fits the bill. Our show there last May was tons of fun and people are ready to go for it without holding back, and we appreciate that. Tristan and the crew there treat us well, and its just a fact that you play better when you’re treated well. Plus we had the pleasure of the lovely Jazmin Jade dancing and hooping to our set, and she’ll be joining us again for this show. Much nicer to watch than a bunch of geezers playing their instruments.
Spotlight: How do aliens influence the music of this band?
Rivard: The aliens have landed among us, and that’s just a given. Our brains are no longer the bosses, and I learned long ago that I am at the service of beings not from around here. They seem to be half-feline and half-snake, and I’ve always resonated with cats and snakes so I kind of welcome it.
Spotlight: Tell us a little bit about the sintir. What was your introduction to the instrument, and what kept you interested in it?
Rivard: It comes from Morocco and is used by the Gnawa people in their trance healing ceremonies. It’s got three strings made of gut and a camel skin top, and is like a bass and a drum all in one. The sound is like nothing else – percussive and punchy, like a tuned drum. As a bassist I was drawn to it from the first time I heard it when my friend Rich Ehrman made me a mix tape of some Gnawa music, and after Sandman turned me onto Hassan Hakmoun’s ‘Gift Of The Gnawa’ album I knew it was my destiny to learn to play it. The instrument comes from a tradition of healing and trance, and I have always been drawn to that aspect. I take it very seriously and say a little prayer whenever I pick it up to play. It’s no joke.
Spotlight: Have any sintirs ever been harmed in the creation of Club d’Elf music?
Rivard: Ha, no never. I have broken a bunch of strings along the way … Intestines are susceptible to temperature and atmospheric conditions that steel strings are not. And you can’t run down to Guitar Center to grab a new set!
Spotlight: Moving forward, what’s on tap for d’Elf in 2015?
Rivard: We’re re-releasing as single albums the two that comprised our last studio release – E’lectric Moroccoland’ and ‘So Below,’ with a bunch of additional tracks and source material, as well as two live albums. The dream is still to take the band to Morocco and bring what we have done with that music back to its source. It’s a hard band to promote, as the lineup changes for every gig and promoters can be hesitant about that, not to mention the music biz has gotten very conservative and bottom-line driven. However we have the aliens on our side and seem to be part of some larger agenda, so we’ll see.
Spotlight: If you could have a dozen of anything, what would that something be?
Rivard: Maybe 12 sintir strings? They’re hard to come by. I may have to slaughter some goats …
“The crux of Moroccan music is trance. Trance as a quality in music has always attracted me, whether it’s an extended James Brown cut, or something by Fela or Steve Reich. I’ve always sought out music that allows you to forget where and who you are and to break free from the mind’s constant chatter”, bassist and Club d’Elf founder Mike Rivard said once. Club d’Elf has just released a new and stunning double-album, Electric Moroccoland/So Below (Face Pelt), where jazz, freeform improvisation, rock psychedelia, glitchy turntablism and North African trance melt in one single cauldron. This unexpected Trance Mix brings together the band’s friends and musicians and its main influences. Besides, we publish a nice interview of Mike to go along with the mix and a short portrait. Pack and be prepared to reach mystical unknown soundscapes!
01. Hassan Hakmoun and Adam Rudolph – Marahaba (8:20)
(from ‘Gift of the Gnawa’ / Flying Fish Records 1992)
02. Morphine – Rope On Fire (5:37)
(from ‘The Night’ / Ryko 2001)
03. Club d’Elf – Sand (5:45)
(from ‘Electric Moroccoland/So Below’ / Face Pelt Records 2011)
04. Steve Reich – Music For 18 Musicians (Coldcut Remix) (6:10)
(from ‘Reich Remixed’ / Nonesuch records 1999)
05. Talking Heads – Listening Wind (4:43)
(from ‘Remain In Light’ / Sire 1998)
06. Mahmoud Guinia – Sast Demanio (9:23)
(from ‘Sast Demanio’ album)
07. Medeski Martin & Wood – First Light (8:29)
(from ‘Radiolarians I’ / Indirecto Records 2008)
08. The Master Musicians Of Jajouka – The Middle Of The Night (5:54)
(from ‘Apocalypse Across The Sky’ / Axiom 1992)
09. We – Illbient (8:09)
(from ‘Axiom Dub-Mysteries of Creation’ / Axiom 1997)
10. Khalifa Ould Eide & Dimi Mint Abba – Hassaniya Love Poem (Wana Laily Ya Allah) (5:19)
(from ‘Moorish Music From Mauritania’ / World Circuit 1992) 08/21/11
01. Is Electric Moroccoland your declaration of love to sintir and oud?
More or less it’s a musical love letter to Morocco, and the sintir and the oud are featured. Since those instruments are connected with North African music they are the primary mediums in which we pay tribute to the Moroccan music styles that we love, such as gnawa, Berber music, and specifically the music of the great rais Hadj Belaid (“Ambib”) & Nass El Ghiwane (“Ghir Khoudouni”).
02. Will you bring Club d’Elf to Morocco?
Inshallah! We hope to perform at the Gnaoua Festival in Essaouira next June and tour to other areas of the country as well. We have been performing a lot lately with Hassan Hakmoun and the idea is to go over with him and do some performances. I’m currently applying for a grant to travel there so we’ll see what happens!
03. Is there an european tour planned?
If we can find promoters who are adventurous enough to bring us there we would love to tour Europe. Unfortunately, with the economic climate it’s hard to get people to take a chance on a band such as ours, which is hard to categorize. I think the European audiences would really embrace the music and we hope to bring it there someday.
04 The artcover of the album is gorgeous. Who signed the art?
Doug Sirois, who also did the cover art for Now I Understand. He is an amazingly talented guy and does a lot of fantasy book illustrations. He really gets the essence of Club d’Elf and his art is the perfect complement (www.dougsirois.com).
05. Can you explain briefly the origins of the band’s name?
We have a somewhat twisted sense of humor, and if the name is pronounced a certain way, it sounds like “clubbed elf”, which is an image that appealed to us at the time. In addition, it’s a tribute to Terence McKenna whose writings were a big influence on me personally, as well as on the music itself. He wrote at length about his experiences w/ psychedelics and of these “self-transforming machine elves” he encountered while in trance. The clincher was when I ran the name by Mark Sandman and he approved, so I figured it was worth going with.
06. What was the idea behind the double disc?
There was some thought about releasing two separate discs, but we decided a double disc would better showcase the diversity of the band’s music. It made sense to have each disc linked thematically, with Electric Moroccolandrepresenting the Moroccan trance side, and So Below the more electronica/DJ/psychedelic dub side. There’s a lot of dovetailing between the two discs stylistically, but in general you can break it down to those divisions. In addition, it’s kind of insane to put out a double CD these days, and if there’s one thing Club d’Elf is, it’s insane.
07. Were the tracks with Mark Sandman demos at the beginning on which you add the rest?
Not demos, but songs that were begun and put on ice for a long time until the proper moment came to complete them. There was a lot of Mark’s energy coming into my life in the last year or so through dreams and such, as well as the documentary about him being produced, and as I delved deeper into playing the sintir, the full extent of his influence on me became more apparent. I decided to complete the tracks that we had begun with him in ‘99 as a tribute and also covered “Rope on Fire”, which is one of my favorite songs he wrote. “Sand” was written with him in mind as well.
08. Regarding Mark Sandman, have you participated to the documentary (on him?
No, I wasn’t asked to be part of it, but I saw it when it premiered in Boston and thought it was quite good. Mark lived such a complex and full life that it would be hard to capture it all in an hour and a half documentary. I was happy to contribute to the Kickstarter campaign and am glad to hear that they will be releasing it to a wider audience. More people need to know about him, and if I can inspire listeners to check his music out through his presence on the new album then that’s the least I can do in return for the huge impact he had upon on me.
09. What are your projects in a near future? Any new instrument to learn?
I plan to go deeper into my study of the sintir and hopefully get a grant to go to Morocco to work with some of the master musicians there. I’m currently working on a video about my relationship with the instrument and bringing it into places it has not normally been used, such as Peruvian shamanism. I would also love to learn to play another Moroccan instrument, the rebab, which is a one stringed instrument played with a bow. I’ve been trying to incorporate the sound of that instrument into my arco bass playing for some time now and it would be really cool to play the real thing. I play with a group called Grand Fatilla that does a lot of folk music from around the world – Bulgarian, Brazilian, Turkish, Italian, tangos from Argentina – and another band called Natraj (which also features D’Elf tabla player Jerry Leake) and look forward to more work with them as well as Club d’Elf.
10. A word on John Medeski. How would you describe his unique sound and kind of playing?
John and I first met in the late 80s when we were both in the Either/Orchestra. We became friends and would generally end up rooming together on the tours that we did. We bonded over our mutual love for the movies of John Waters, schlocky horror films and and interest in macrobiotics & Hoshino therapy. Over the years our relationship has deepened, especially with both of us becoming more involved in Shipibo shamanism. John is without a doubt one of the most amazing musicians on the planet whose sound is instantly identifiable. He is able to channel energies in his playing that borders on the wizardly, and it’s always an amazing experience to have him play with the band.
About “Cure For Pain : The Mark Sandman Story” : http://www.gatlingpictures.com/
Interview made and translated at the end of June 2011 by Nicolas Ragonneau for Paris DJs 08/21/11
Mike Rivard’s interest in Moroccan music developed in stages. As a young musician, a friend played him a cassette by Mahmoud Guinia, a master of Morocco’s Gnawa music. Rivard, bassist and bandleader of Club d’Elf, was intrigued by the three-string bass at the music’s center, a camel-skin lute known as the sintir. In the early 1990s, jazz bassist Bill Laswell produced an album of Gnawa music called “Night Spirit Masters,” boosting Rivard’s interest. His fascination cemented when Morphine bassist Mark Sandman played him a CD by Moroccan musician Hassan Hakmoun called “Gift of the Gnawa.” “For me, that was one of those light bulb moments where it all just kind of clicked and I realized, ‘I have to get one of these instruments, I have to learn how to play it and incorporate it into my music.’ Something in it resonated with me,” Rivard said.
Hakmoun is among the many guest performers on Club d’Elf’s new double album, “Electric Moroccoland/So Below.” Rivard will bring one of his rotating ensembles to The Stone Church in Newmarket for a CD release show on Saturday, April 23. The band in Newmarket will also include long-time d’Elf member Brahim Fribgane, a native of Casablanca who helped Rivard understand Moroccan rhythms. Unlike Western music, the chaabi rhythms of Morocco place the accents on the upbeat, creating syncopations unfamiliar to most American performers. “I think Brahim has a pretty unique ability to explain the Moroccan concepts to Western musicians,” Rivard said. “He’s kind of the bridge between the worlds.” With Fribgane’s help, Rivard has built a band that drapes elements of dub, funk, jazz, rock and hip-hop over a foundation of Moroccan trance. The new album offers a psychedelic stew of music with ingredients from around the world, featuring guest appearances by John Medeski, DJ Logic, former David Bowie guitarist Reeves Gabrels, and even the late Mark Sandman, among many others.
In Morocco, Rivard explained, Gnawa music and the sintir, specifically, are believed to provide a gateway into alternate realms of consciousness, transporting the players and listeners to a world of spiritual discovery. “It’s about summoning spirits and different energies, and for me that’s been an interesting journey, because I wasn’t brought up in that culture. But, when I play this instrument and play it for long periods of time, I definitely feel that there’s an inner journey taking place,” Rivard said. “The ideal is to take yourself out of the picture and connect with something larger, whether you call it God or Allah or whatever.”
Rivard formed Club d’Elf in Cambridge in 1998. He had been performing with Sandman’s early band the Hypnosonics, a minimalist funk outfit, since the late ’80s. But, when Sandman turned his primary allegiance to Morphine, the Hypnosonics became less active, much to Rivard’s frustration. “(Sandman) was one of the inspirations for starting the group, because I kept hounding him to do more Hypnosonics gigs and he just got kind of tired of me bugging him and said, ‘You gotta start your own band,’” Rivard said. Fribgane joined Club d’Elf in 1999, adding the oud, dumbek and other Moroccan instruments to the group’s arsenal. Rivard, Fribgane and drummer Erik Kerr formed the band’s early core. They often played music in the basement of a Moroccan store in Cambridge owned by a friend of Fribgane. “That was sort of the hub of the Moroccan scene at that point, and we’d have late-night hangs in the basement,” Rivard said. “It was basically kind of a casual place where all the Moroccan ex-pats in the area would gather and drink tea and play some music. And that really began my education.”
Rivard traveled to Morocco for the first time last year. He had recently moved to Somerville, Mass., which has a sister city in Morocco. He joined a grant-funded delegation that included Somerville’s mayor and a couple of dozen teachers, health care workers and others on a trip to the southwestern city of Tiznit. “I think I got the best part of the deal, because I just hung out with musicians,” he said. “For me, it was really kind of a transformative experience to go there and experience the culture and the people and the food and the sights and sounds and smells. It was a real validation for what I was doing.” On “Electric Moroccoland” the influence of Gnawa music reaches new extremes. Many of the songs feature Arabic singing by native Moroccans, including a unique cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of your Love.” A range of Moroccan and American instruments enter the swirl, adding new textures to rhythms anchored by Rivard’s sintir.
On “So Below,” the North African components are somewhat less pronounced. It begins with the throbbing funk of “Gettin’ Squinty,” infusing touches of Rivard’s early influences, like electric Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead. Jazz, dub and funk pervade each tune, ranging in pace from fast, danceable jams to slow, hypnotic grooves. Both discs pay open homage to Sandman, who died of a heart attack in 1999. Sandman sometimes performed with Club d’Elf in the band’s early days, and Rivard played double bass on several Morphine tracks. “Mark was like an older brother to me,” Rivard said. “He was always a real mentor to me.” “Electric Moroccoland” includes a tune dedicated to him called “Sand” and concludes with a reworking of Morphine’s “Rope on Fire.” The title track of “So Below,” as well as the closing track “Taint Too,” feature parts by Sandman recorded before his death. While the range of styles on the two discs is diverse, the 25 total songs adhere to a sacred principle of trance in Morocco. The music is intended to help listeners abandon their sense of self and surrender to the sound. “Gradually, if things are working, you forget where you are, who you are, time kind of disappears,” Rivard said. “It allows you to enter into this stream of eternity or timelessness, and what you do there is open to the individual.”
Club d’Elf shares that energy with live audiences. Starting with the rhythm of a recorded song, the band improvises sonic embellishments, embarking on open jams that feature everything from hard rock to free jazz to hip-hop. “Each show is a process of deconstructing and reconstructing these components, so we’ll rarely do a song the same way,” Rivard said. “The melodies, the songs, are sort of signposts along the way where everybody gets their bearing and we coalesce, and then the goal is to go places that we’ve never gone before.” In addition to Rivard and Fribgane, the live band at The Stone Church will feature Newmarket’s own David Tronzo, an inventive guitarist known for playing slide with everything from plastic cups to mallets. Rivard first met Tronzo during a gig at the Knitting Factory in New York in 1997 and was immediately blown away by his playing. “I had heard of Tronzo, and he was kind of a mythic character at that time. He played with the Lounge Lizards and all the downtown people in New York.” Tronzo later moved to New Hampshire and took a teaching job at Berklee College of Music. He played with Club d’Elf for the first time in 2003 and has been a part-time member of the band ever since. “Newmarket is a very lucky place to have the likes of him there. Most people don’t even know he’s there,” Rivard said.
When he’s not touring with Club d’Elf, Rivard can often be found playing in the orchestras of Boston musicals like “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and, recently, “Mary Poppins.” He also performs in a couple of other bands that play music from India, Bulgaria, Brazil, Italy and elsewhere. Over the years, Club d’Elf has included members of various faiths, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and atheists. In a post 9-11 world plagued by religious and ethnic tensions, Rivard sees the group as evidence that people of disparate backgrounds can live in harmony. “Maybe it’s just because we’re musicians and we’re simpleminded folks, but it seemed to us that if somehow we can manage to live together and respect each other’s differences, then maybe bringing this music into the world would help in some way.”
The 18-plus CD release show begins with opening act Skyfoot at 9 p.m. on April 23 at The Stone Church, 5 Granite St., Newmarket, 603-659-0878, www.thestonechurch.com. Tickets are $8 in advance or $10 at the door.
Nobody stirs the senses of self exploration better than the Boston-based collective Club d’Elf. This trance-tinged groove syndicate combines the outer reaches of the celestial ether with the most instinctual yearnings of the inner psyche for a sonic incarnation of the cosmic id every time it takes the stage. Drawing from a broad frequency of musical influences—avant garde jazz, fusion, acid rock, hip hop, electronic, and a Moroccan dance vibe—the Club is defined not so much by its “on-the-bus/off-the-bus” exclusivity as its commitment to creating an open-ended venue for experimentation. It’s trance music in the traditional sense of the word, aimed to induce introspective examination within communal aspects of sound—a daunting task, for sure, but one that this amorphous coterie of expert musicians have been dedicated to for almost 13 years.
Fresh off the release of its new double CD, Electric MorroccoLand/So Below—a two-headed beast of North African dance trance and psychedelic jazz-fusion—I got a chance to sit down with bassist and Club d’Elf master of ceremonies Mike Rivard. Talking over a couple of Guinness drafts in Somerville’s Precinct, Rivard explained the many faces of d’Elf as well as the intricacies of trance music, the Moroccan vibe, and the role of bass in mapping out the depths of the internal universe.
“I like anything with good bottom, good low end,” says Rivard. His playing channels everything from the kalimba-driven junkyard funk of Konono #1 to the glitch whomp of SquarePusher and Aphex Twin.
Plugged in from an early age, Rivard explains that he “started seeking out stuff that didn’t sound like anything else … from Captain Beefheart to Sun-Ra.” He was soon studying music at Berklee alongside a vibrant community of jazz-afflicted youth. During his time there he began playing with Russ Gershon’s jazz ensemble, the Either/Orchestra, with a slew of local heavyweights that included keyboardist John Medeski. Gershon’s ensemble provided strategic networking resources, enabling Rivard to form many lasting relationships that he would later use to fill the rotational ranks of Club d’Elf. It was his friendship with Somerville’s Mark Sandman (RIP) of Morphine that exposed him to the tribal trance of Gnawan music—of which the three-stringed, bass-like sintir, often played by Rivard at Club d’Elf shows, is the featured instrument—fermenting tangled inclination into shimmering effervescence.
Rivard initially founded Club d’Elf in the late 1990s with a more traditionally established member lineup, but soon let the group evolve into more of an amorphous collective due to both pragmatic limitations and to avoid stylistic stagnation.
“It’s always changing, always shifting,” says Rivard, “like a cloud that you can’t achieve clear focus on…operating in the peripheral vision and disappearing in direct view.” With a core cast focused on the rhythmic backdrop (Dean Johnston on drums, Mister Rourke on turntables, Brahim Fribgane on oud) and a revolving crew of reoccurring characters that includes regulars like Dave Tronzo and Duke Levine in addition to guests ranging from John Medeski and Reeves Gabrels to Marco Benevento and Jennifer Hartswick, the music is in a constant flux of re-creation. But it’s Rivard who is the quintessential non-navigator of the vessel.
“It’s easier for a group to have one leader, which works for us and I feel comfortable doing it because it’s not ego-driven music. It’s not me promoting an agenda,” says Rivard, “but rather creating a canvas where other musicians can come and play as if the band was their own.” And this aspect of the groove commander that Rivard reluctantly personifies is made possible by his approach to the music he plays.
“I prefer bass as a rootsy and fundamentally rhythmic instrument. It has to do with the tonal sounds. Bass sound waves are long, so to achieve that rich low-end you have to allow the notes to breathe in order to fully develop.” It’s the visceral impact of Rivard’s slow, grinding bass lines, accompanied by the steady churn of his rhythm section, that fills the dance floor and promote the gang of accompanying musicians to sublimate to new levels of sonic transcendence.
“We don’t hold back,” he says with stoic certainty. “It’s a weird balance between having musicians come in and be respectful—to not have them just masturbate all over the place, but to also have the willingness to take charge and dig in … to play as though it’s always the last time.” Navigating the fine line between tasteful interplay and overbearing self-indulgence on the brink of Edge City is a bionic exercise in tension and release, inviting the listener to slip into the spell—a spell that has been flavored with a more African incantation in recent years.
Always seeking to “synthesize and distill different elements of the trance tradition,” Rivard and the others have added Fribgane to the core lineup, giving unrestricted access to the insights of North African Gnawan music and the centuries-old traditions of hypnotically spiritual tunes.
“I know Moroccan music now rather than just appreciate it,” Rivard says. “I’m now able to play from within the music. The beat can be very elusive,” he explains, and it lends itself to the perpetuation of a more languid flow particularly inducive to the trance aesthetic that so permeates that culture.
“But we’re talking about trance music as a trans-genre experience,” he says. “Trance music is in James Brown, it’s in Led Zeppelin, Sun-Ra, Moroccan music … it’s in electronic music. We approach trance music from the broader, older sense of the term.” Yet, to truly experience the psycho-spiritual power requires not only mind-bending concentration from the musicians, but unremittent focus from the audience as well.
“It’s all about time,” he says. “You got to be in it for the long haul.” It takes time to build the necessary momentum to achieve that sonically induced equilibrium where the self melts into something more elemental, rooted in the communal groove. It’s very challenging music due to its introspective nature and necessity.
“We try to make it social and comfortable,” Rivard says, but he admits that “it can at times be slightly distressing because when you repeat something over and over it becomes like staring somebody in the eyes … It can be a little confrontational. This type of connection with an inward field of energy, well, it’s not for everybody,” he says.
“It’s part of the human condition, the human drive to connect to something larger,” and their brand of trance surely manifests itself in dance in any setting. With a killer lineup for tonight’s Portland show at the Port City Music Hall, and a double-decker sold-out rendezvous at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge tomorrow (Friday, April 22; both shows feature Medeski on keys with Levine on guitar tonight and Tronzo on the axe tomorrow), it most likely won’t be your last chance to dance trance, but I’m sure they’ll make it a very fashionable End of the World Party (just in case).
Rivard is especially adamant about only one thing, really. “We just want to swing so hard it’s embarrassing,” he says. Well, no doubt. But what’s really embarrassing is that I was too faded to jump on the Lizard tix when I had the chance. Now I’m gonna hafta hike it up to Portland tonight just to catch a glimpse … I suggest you do the same.
Club d’Elf will celebrate the release of its new double CD Electric MorroccoLand/So Below with two shows tomorrow night (Friday) at the Lizard Lounge (8:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.). Although both shows are sold out online, there will be limited space for walkups.
Boston’s Mike Rivard has developed a big niche for his bass approach.
“I try to be as versatile as possible,” he explains. “I play upright
and electric, and I have a lot of different instruments. When
producers hire me, they know I’ll have a lot of different sounds
available. If a tune calls for a fuzz bass, then a fuzz bass it shall
be! If you listened to four albums that I’ve played on, then you’d
have a hard time telling it was the same bass player.” “Micro” has
also developed a knack for melody down low. “I like to get
counterpoint and call-and-response in the bass. I love what the bass
does, and I love filling up the bottom with wonderfully diverse sonic
Rivard holds the distinction of being the only bassist to have played
behind both Wild Man Fisher and Cab Calloway (though not
simultaneously). His many credits include gigs and recordings with
Morphine (now Orchestra Morphine), Either/Orchestra, Mighty Sam
McLain, and Paula Cole. In addition, Mike leads his own project, Club
d’Elf-an amalgam of jazz, world music, electronica, and hip-hop. The
band’s regular gigs at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
have featured special guests such as John Medeski, DJ Logic, and
Reeves Gabrels. Winners of the Best of Boston’s Best Cutting-Edge
Band, Club d’Elf is releasing its first LiveArchive CD, As Above (Live
at the Lizard Lounge), this summer.
Starting first on guitar, Micro picked up the bass at age 12 to play
with the school stage band. Soon he became attracted to the
exploratory styles of Jack Casady and Phil Lesh, and John Paul Jones.
It wasn’t long before he became sought-after for his ability to get
inside a tune and play supportively, yet still inject his personality.
Rivard’s instrument choice usually dictates how he approaches a tune.
“If something is feeling stagnant, I switch to something different.”
For inspiration Mike draws upon fretted and fretless Lakland
5-strings, a Danelectro Longhorn, Wal fretless, ’61 Fender Jazz, ’66
P-Bass, ’76 Music Man StingRay, ’60s Rossmeisel, ’67 Guild Starfire,
’60s Hofner solid-body, ’70s Gibson Les Paul Signature, and a Chapman
Stick. His upright is a 1990 Rheinhold Schmidt that he bought used
from Dave Holland. “Dave used it on his solo album One’s All
[Intuition]. It’s incredible owning an instrument with that kind of
legacy.” Mike strings his upright with D’Addario Helicore Hybrids and
amplifies with a David Gage Realist pickup. Live he uses a Demeter
preamp and an Ashly power amp and a couple of SWR Goliath Jr. 2×10
cabs. With Club d’Elf Rivard uses a Lexicon JamMan for loops. “Both
the drummer and I get a MIDI click from the keyboardist, so we can do
some pretty hip live loops.” Rivard also uses a Mu-Tron III, EBS
Octabss and Uni-Chorus pedals, DigiTech Whammy pedal, and an SIB
Vari-Drive for distortion, plus T.C. Electronic and Fishman parametric
EQs for the acoustic bass.
Rivard has been touring with Orchestra Morphine, a nine-piece version
of Morphine, since the band’s 2-string slide bassist/leader Mark
Sandman died last summer. Mike played mostly upright with Morphine for
five or six years; he appears on Like Swimming, The Night, and B-Sides
and Otherwise [all on Dreamworks]. “I haven’t played 2-string slide
bass yet, but if they want to do old tunes on the tour I might pick it
Rivard continues to pull in a wide range of interesting projects. He
recently played on Patty Larkin’s new CD due out on Vanguard this
summer, as well as Experiments in Truth [Grapeshot], a spoken-word
record by Paul Auster with Oteil Burbridge, John Medeski, Billy
Martin, Vernon Reid, and Bob Moses. Rivard helped with a WGBH
documentary on George Wallace for PBS’s American Experience series. He
has also been getting into North African Gnawan music, created by
mystic troubadors for healing and inducing trances. And, inspired by
sintir player Hassan Hakmoun, Rivard has been scouring the East Coast
in search of his own Moroccan bass lute to add to his already healthy
collection of options.
“I listen to many different types of music, but the unifying principle
is always the groove. I want to play bass from the heart and tune into
it as a way of getting closer to the life force of the universe.”
*Groove Tip: One of Micro’s favorite practice techniques is to play
along to his Boss Dr. Beat clicking triplets. “I like to play with the
two-against-three feel, or four against three. I love the wonderful
ground where four meets three.”