''I Am a Muslim, But I Make Decisions about My Life''

The Moroccan fusion singer Oum El Ghaith Benessahraoui, aka Oum, makes intentional references to her African identity in her songs. Morocco, she says, is the gateway between Africa and Europe. Martina Sabra met Oum in Casablanca

Your latest album, Suerti, is due to be released very soon. What is the title all about?

Oum El Ghaith Benessahraoui: "Suerti" is a Moroccan dialect word. It is borrowed from Spanish and means "fate" or "happiness". In my home town of Marrakesh, this word has a number of different meanings. Among other things, "suerti" is a collective term for all kinds of games of chance of the kind you find at funfairs. This is why people in Marrakesh say "I am going to the suerti!" when they are going to a funfair.

I gave the album this title because "suerti" suggests a fun, dream-like reality and equanimity. Whether you have "suerti" or not, no one is in complete control of his or her life. Many things are predetermined; whether you believe it or not.

In musical terms, what is new about this album? What are the songs about?

Benessahraoui: Most songs are about love and sensuality. But I also want to show just how much Morocco is the gateway between Africa and Europe. The track "Harguin" tells of African refugees who are dreaming of Europe. I recorded this track with 'Blitz the Ambassador', a rapper from Ghana who now lives in New York.

Another track is about globalization. Unlike my first album, Likum, almost all of the music on this album is acoustic. All the instruments were recorded in acoustic. I wanted to hear more of myself on this album, less arrangements and effects.

You studied architecture and taught yourself most of what you know about music. You began your career in a gospel choir in Marrakesh. As a Muslim, what brought you to this Christian music?

Benessahraoui: I was about 14 or 15 at the time and a huge fan of Whitney Houston. At some stage, an American with Jamaican roots was invited to the city by the Institut Français. He invited us to set up a gospel choir. I immediately joined it.

We sang Jamaican songs and traditional American gospel songs like "Jesus loves me". I became convinced at the time that – regardless of the language you speak or the God you believe in – it cannot be bad to sing about this love. The choir helped me to develop my voice and my technique.

Your biggest hit to date in Morocco was the track "Hamdulillah". That was back in 2005. Some conservatives in your country criticized you at the time because they considered your stage show to be too risqué.

Benessahraoui: "Hamdulillah" was my first solo single. I wrote the song myself. When I am on stage and sing this song, I sing in English and Arabic and I dance to the music. "Hamdulillah" means "Thanks be to God". For me, this song is a way of expressing my love of life and Creation.

Oum during one of her concerts (photo: © lofmusic)
"We are in the process of waking up ideologically and culturally": Oum performing on stage with African metal castanets

​​Part of that is that I perform in dresses that reveal my shoulders and that I am at liberty to move the way I want to move, with my sensuality as an African and an Arab woman. I consider it important to show that I can be a devout Muslim without wearing a headscarf. I am a Muslim, but I make decisions about my life.

Morocco is situated in Africa, but when one travels around the country, one often gets the impression that the Arab and the European heritage is dominant and that the country's African roots only play a minor role. Your music, your costumes, and your stage show, on the other hand, are heavily influenced by Africa. Why?

Benessahraoui: As a Moroccan woman, I don't really feel as if I belong to the Middle East, but more to Africa. It is a simple fact that we Maghribis are Arabs and Africans at the same time, and I like to emphasize that fact. Perhaps it has something to do with my childhood. When I was small, I had a nanny who came from Morocco's deep south.

But apart from that, there are more than just traditions from sub-Saharan Africa in Morocco. The Berbers in the Moroccan mountain regions have a completely different culture, but they also belong to Africa. When they look at me, people always see the turban first. But I consciously wear jewellery of the Amazigh, the indigenous Berber people of North Africa.

Africa is an important constant in your work. You recently began working with the famous saxophonist Manu Dibango from Cameroon. What led to this collaboration?

Benessahraoui: In July 2011, I met Wayne Beckford in Casablanca; he has composed a number of pieces for Manu Dibango. Wayne and I performed on the same stage and we got on very well. He made a short video of my performance on stage and showed it to Manu Dibango. After he saw it, Manu Dibango asked me if I would sing a track on his new album. And in November 2011 he invited me to perform with him at Casino de Paris.

photo: © lofmusic
"The new prime minister is not a friend of mine." Oum with her band

​​It was a marvellous encounter with all the musicians, artists and diplomats from Africa and Cameroon. Manu Dibango is a really lovely person, and very generous; he is over 70, which makes him rather like a grandfather. We will probably perform on stage together this year again.

When tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against corruption in early 2011, there was a lot of criticism of music festivals, which are partially subsidized by the state. Are music festivals in Morocco just for the elite?

Benessahraoui: No, that is an over-generalization. Entrance to most festivals is either free or very inexpensive. One exception is the "Mawazine", and this was the festival that was targeted most in the debates. For "Mawazine", the tickets for the area in front of the stage are so expensive that it is mostly only foreigners who can afford to buy them.

In this way, foreigners and Moroccans are kept apart at the concerts, and that is not a good thing. What's more, I don't think that "Mawazine" should just showcase major, international acts. It should be much more of a place where Morocco shows off its young talent to the international audience.

A wave of conservatism is currently sweeping North Africa. Do you have the feeling that the Maghreb will shut itself off and isolate itself?

Benessahraoui: No, I don't think so. There is a simple reason why people are following religious ideas. After years of being oppressed, they are now able to relax and say, "Look, I do exist! I'm here too!" For the first time ever, they have the feeling that they are being taken seriously and that they are worth something. Once people have lived through this experience, we will see that there is an opportunity in all of this. Debates in recent months have been much more lively and dynamic. Many now feel emboldened to come out from behind the curtain and openly say what they think for the first time. I think that's good.

Do you expect the Islamists to restrict the freedom of art and culture?

Benessahraoui: I don't think they'll manage that. We have a new generation in Morocco that has its own strong culture. We are in the process of waking up ideologically and culturally, in every direction in fact. Obviously, the new prime minister (the Islamist Abdelilah Benkirane – ed.) is not a friend of mine. I am very definitely part of the opposition; but I see no reason for alarmism. The artists will continue their work. These days, isolation is no longer possible.

Interview conducted by Martina Sabra

© Qantara.de 2012

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Editors: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de