Friendship, opportunity rooted in the desert

Boston Globe, July 3, 2011

Discovery is a loaded term in world music. It carries the colonial connotation that the art of another culture does not really exist until an outsider – typically, a conquering outsider – comes across it, gives it a label, and delivers it to the market.

And yet small acts of discovery – say, a pair of music mavens sitting in a hotel room in Morocco recording tapes of the local radio, and suddenly blown away by a sound, an energy, they had never heard before – have been crucial in enriching the market with expressions from places that the news otherwise either ignores altogether or reduces to political factoids or economic statistics.

That hotel room epiphany, in 2005, launched an obsessive quest that led Hisham Mayet and Alan Bishop, cofounders of Seattle-based specialty lo-fi world label Sublime Frequencies, to locate Group Doueh, a family band from Dakhla, on the Atlantic coast of Western Sahara, and release four albums of their music, some from old tapes and others freshly recorded, including the brand-new “Zayna Jumma” CD.

Now Group Doueh is making its American debut with a tour that visits Oberon in Cambridge on Tuesday. The attractive double bill also features Timbuktu singer Khaira Arby, who played Boston in September and this time is joined by the horn section from Boston’s Ethiopian-funk outfit, the Debo Band.

Doueh is also the nickname of the band’s leader, Salmou Bamaar, who plays guitar and a three-string lute called the tidinit. His wife, two sons, and a shifting roster of others make up the group, and their sound is a hard-driving, often jangly mix of ecstatic rhythms and rock phrasings.

Their bread and butter is playing weddings, but Doueh also started straying from the traditional modes, scales, and song repertoire of the area’s Sahrawi culture long before Western ears were paying any attention. It was one such innovation, loud, chaotic, and enthralling, that Mayet and Bishop heard that day on Moroccan radio.

“That was a song they had written outside the Sahrawi modal system; it was just an unbelievable ruckus,” Mayet says on the phone from a tour stop in Asheville, N.C. “We’re so into unabashed low-fidelity recordings, and this represented the apex of all the stuff we’d been hearing.”

The song, called “Eid for Dakhla,” dated back to 1984, but Mayet did not know that yet. Having asked around and gotten no information, he returned to Morocco a few months later on a mission to find this band, traveling south and stopping to play the tape to anyone he met.

He was still coming up blank when he crossed into Western Sahara – a Moroccan-controlled territory with 700 miles of desert coast and fewer than a half-million people, traditionally nomadic herders, with vestiges of an armed independence movement in the barren inland. But when he reached the fishing town of Dakhla, his luck turned.

“I was taken to this little studio of sorts, and I thought, I doubt they’ll know anything,” Mayet says. “I’ve got my cassette, I put it in the guy’s boombox … and of course it was Doueh. And he just looked at me and was freaking out that it was a song he had recorded in 1984.”

Doueh himself confirms this, in a brief e-mail through a translator. “I had never had anyone come to my house from America asking about my music,” he says. “The fact that [Mayet] traveled so far with this cassette made me very happy.”

The meeting sparked a friendship that has seen Mayet make numerous trips back to Western Sahara and record both Doueh and other Sahrawi bands.

“I’m basically part of the family at this point,” he says.

Along the way Mayet has helped introduce more rock- and pop-oriented elements to Doueh’s music, including the drum kit to supplement traditional percussions. The new album mixes new compositions and improvisations with a version of the pan-Arab pop hit “Zaya Koum” and songs from the Sahrawi wedding canon.

For Doueh, who was known in Sahrawi and neighboring Mauritanian music circles but not far beyond, the chance to tour Europe and now America represents an immense potential broadening of his audience.

Asked if he thinks of himself as an innovator or an ambassador of Sahrawi culture, he answers simply: “Both.”

“I come from a proud Sahrawi tradition,” Doueh says. “The music I play most of the time is rooted in the traditional scales and modes and the words are from our rich oral tradition. I have written many other songs that are more original in scope. I hope that people can enjoy this music, knowing it’s been written for a modern audience.”