Artist of the Month #6: Ghoula
A digital homage to Tunisia’s musical heritage
Wael Jegham is a self-taught producer, musician, composer and performer. Known by most audiences as Ghoula (Arabic for ‘monster’), the name of his flagship project, Wael makes music that delves deep into Tunisia’s history, one sample at a time.
Wael released his acclaimed debut album Hlib El Ghoula (The Monster’s Milk), in 2016 with a launch tour in Morocco, France, Algeria, Tunisia and Lebanon. Currently working on his anticipated second album Demi Écrémé (Semi-Skimmed) he released its first single ‘Bambara’ this June. The track, like much of Ghoula’s work, focuses on the country’s often overlooked Afro-Tunisian music heritage, which is not always an easy task. To Wael, sampling has always been much more than copy and paste.
Welcome to the midi
When did the passion for making electronic music begin? Wael recalls spending much of his early teens at his friend Kais Mabrouk’s house. His house was filled with keyboards, music magazines and gadgets, brought back by Kais’ father who travelled extensively for work. One fortunate day, a computer arrived. As if this wasn’t exciting enough, Kais had used a special cable to connect it to a keyboard with a MIDI cable. At the push of a key and button, you could see the keyboard’s notes on the computer screen and record them. “There was nothing like it at that time in Tunisia. I never wanted to leave Kais’ house”.
Since then, Wael has worked passionately to dissect and understand sound. He taught himself the skills to build a successful career in film music, mixing and sound engineering, playing keys with Pirania, a Tunisian metal band, and later, composing music for several independent Tunisian films and animations. His favourite so far? Lambouba by Nadia Rais “The director told me I was free to compose whatever. With the real film it’s nearly all there. Animations are more important than a ‘real’ film for me because you receive zero sound. You start with something dead and you give it life – it’s magnifique. It’s like you’re God. That changed my view on animated films”.
Continuously working with music, exploring sampling, engineering, composing and recording, Wael became keen to develop his own solo project. “I don’t know why I hesitated… I’d wanted to do it for a long time but I didn’t have the opportunity. I worked in post production. When you do that, you can’t also spend your free time [in the studio] doing the same thing. In the meantime, there was the A5Tuna project which let me breathe”.
A5Tuna was to become the stepping stone Wael needed to establish his solo project. During the lockdowns which accompanied the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia, Wael and his friend spent the curfew in the studio, reworking and editing sound and writing songs with the sounds he recorded during the protests during revolution. When the lockdown was over, the project was finished. Influenced by Maghreb music styles such as Rai, Mezwed, Gnawa and Chaabi, Tuareg melodies and Balkan and Mediterranean Tzigane, Wael was able to learn an immense amount during that time, refining his skills and honed in on his nascent vision of Ghoula.
To sample or not to sample
An avid record collector, Wael spent years digging through Tunisia’s old markets and, in the process, continuously learned about the history of the music he found. The album title ‘Ghoula’s Milk’ – referencing an old folktale about preciousness – an important theme for Wael, who treats every sample he uses with the utmost care, paying homage to its historical context, themes and lyrics.
“Sampling is really a waste of time if you are going to make something which kills the original”
Amongst Tunisia’s music heritage, Wael was most interested in the music and practices of Afro-Tunisians, particularly the Stambali heritage. Introduced to Tunisia by Sub-Saharan migrant and slave communities, Stambali traditions and spirituality continue to play a prominent role within its black communities. Despite its purveyors being sidelined and at times persecuted, Stambali rituals have had a resounding influence in Tunisia’s music.
Wael was spurred on in his discovery of ethnomusicologist Richard Jankowsky’s 2010 book Stambeli: Music, Trance, and Alterity in Tunisia, an unprecedented study of Stambali ritual ceremonies that date back hundreds of years. The real goldmine was the CD of musical recordings that came with the book. Jankowsky, delighted that his research was seeing the light of day, gave his blessing for Wael to use the samples, a task which Wael undertook with care.
“For me sampling is a waste of time if you are going to make something which kills the original. There are so many remixes that have killed the original – what’s the point? There are two possible approaches to sampling. The first – you manipulate and edit the original sample into something unrecognisable, nothing to do with the original sound, far removed from its original essence, and used as an isolated sound. That’s fine. It’s very creative. But The other type, this is what I do. If you keep the original sample, you’re using something sacred.”
This is exactly what happened in the song ‘Sa3diya’, the fourth track of Wael’s album, which dives deep into the popular Stambali folkloric figure of Bu Sadiya (Arabic for ‘the father of Sadiya’). The sample comes from Jankowsky’s recording of Abd El Mejid Mihoub, one of the greatest Stambeli yennas (virtuosos) singing the old folktale. Mihoub passed away in 2008; the CD had the only recorded vocals of him ever taken.
Bu Sadiya plays an important role in popular celebrations in Tunisia. Dressed in pelts and rags and wearing a mask adorned with cowrie shells, he is called on for important social events such as marriages and circumcisions. Dancing and singing, he trawls the alleys of the old city, often frightening the children and giving out candies. Bu Sadiya’s notoriety is such that mothers threaten to take their children to him if they misbehave. Wael, like many Tunisians, grew up with this tale, but would be deeply touched by the story he discovered.
“But when I started researching this man, I realised that he has a very sad story. Sadiyya was a young West African girl who had been kidnapped to be sold into slavery. Her father, desperate to find her, travelled along towns towards North Africa and Tunisia from where it was known the slave ships departed. Every night, he searched through the trash outside of the cities’ walls for skins, animal skins to dress himself and found pieces of discarded metal to use as percussion. Every night he enters the medina, dances and plays the karkabou (castanets), hoping that his daughter will hear him playing. He does the tour of the medina in the hope that his daughter will hear him and come out. The guy went to find his daughter and doesn’t find her. And it’s funny we use it for the parties now. I find it tres sadistique’”
In ‘Sa3diya’, Wael explores the classic story in a new light, creating a song to examine the folktale from the perspective of the lost daughter.
Wael’s latest video, Bambara, continues to dive into Tunisia’s heritage, exploring the cultural and musical influence that West African groups such as the Bambara have had on the country.
The video, created by Belgian artist Bert Juliaan Vercruysse, evokes a Stambali ceremony, using Afro-Maghrebi patterns that emanate from artisanal crafts, textiles, carpet patterns, tiles and mosaics originating from southern Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Vercruysse created his own ‘sampling’ parallel to Ghoula’s work, a poetic visual translation of Tunisian history, heritage and culture.
Since those life changing days in Kais’ house, Wael has pursued his passion for old records and discovering the roots of Tunisia’s music scene. Unwilling to compromise the integrity of his artistic mission, he treats each musical piece with respect and curiosity. From movie soundtracks to the last remaining records of ritual songs, his music and research present a fascinating contemporary narrative, one sample at a time.
A warm thank you to all of those who submitted questions. To respect some privacy requests, we have kept names anonymous.
As an artist, how do you overcome that innate sense of perfectionism that prevents us from putting a project to bed? At what point do you know the track is finished?
The subjective perfect song does not exist because we as humans are never satisfied. I usually try to finish a version, not a song because every creative artist can end up with many versions of the same song and then I choose if this direction is good enough for a video clip, the club or on the radio. I make always two versions, one for the physical support or the streaming platform and another version for the live session and this last will always be updated 😀
What is your favourite record? And how did you come across it?
My favorite record remains 33T of Cheikh El Afrit because it was the first record I decided to sample. The Ghoula project was born thanks to this record.
When will you be releasing Demi Écrémé? And what was the inspiration behind this album?
Demi Ecrémé will be released next June 2021. The inspiration came with the records I bought when I was touring for my first album in Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and France.
Do you remember what it felt like to perform live for the first time? Does it still feel the same?
The first it was the release party of “Hlib el Ghoula”, I can never forget this event because it was just after a hard residency of 2 weeks at the French Institute of Tunis. We programmed the show on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the principal avenue of the Tunisian Capital. When you play for the first time after a residency in an avenue full of people it’s unforgettable. What I feel on a gig is related to the energy respected by the crowd. I’m like a sponge on stage.
What has been your favourite show to date, and why?
My favorite show was at the Visa For Music festival because I did a horrible performance and it was a good lesson for me. Sometimes bad events let you progress the most.