01 – Chech el khater 4:38
02 – Mamchout 4:34
03 – Le min ijina 4:04
04 – Tarjaachi layem 5:30
05 – Wazzaa 5:20
06 – Hezzi haremek 5:27
07 – Dek biya 4:44
08 – Roddih 3:29
09 – Sidi el kadhi 4:55
It’s the forgotten place. Lying between the mountains of northwest Tunisia and the Algerian border, the Bargou valley and the village named after it lie isolated, away from the world. It’s poor, barren country, but standing apart, Bargou has developed its own culture that had never been documented until Nidhal Yahyaoui began the task. Born in the valley, he grew up hearing his parents and family sing the songs that belong to the region, and he was determined that the music and traditions shouldn’t slip away into obscurity. With Targ, the album he’s made with his band Bargou 08, Yahyaoui has perfectly fused the past and the present to place Bargou on the map.
“Nidhal began collecting songs from all over the valley more than ten years ago,” explains producer and keyboard player Sofyann Ben Youssef, who’s known Yahyaoui since they were both ten years old. “No one had ever done that before. He listened to the women, to the village elders, and he learned all the variations on the songs. This is his passion, and he asked me to join him.”
Together, they assembled a collective of both local and European musicians who spent three weeks playing in the Yahyaoui family home in Bargou village. They worked on the material, shaping a sound that harnessed the power of the tradition and connected it to something the young would understand.
“These songs are all in the Targ dialect,” Ben Youseff says. “It’s part-Berber, part-Arabic, the language people speak in the valley. Many of these pieces are more than three hundred years old. After the changes in Tunisia in 2011, we felt it was time for a new relationship with our roots, to have something true to the past but that was also intelligible to the young. We spent three weeks in Bargou, with people from the area, performing and listening. By the time we packed up, we felt we were creating something that managed that.”
They took the music they’d created on the road, playing it in cities and villages throughout Tunisia and around the globe, including roaring performances at the famed Roskilde festival in Denmark and the Rainforest festival in Sarawak. For touring, Bargou 08 became a five-piece band, with Yahyaoui on vocals and loutar, Ben Youssef on Moog, along with drums, bendir, and gasba and zokra flutes. By the time they arrived back in Bargou to finally record, they’d honed their ideas and knew how the album would sound.
“It was important for us to record there and to use some local musicians on the record. But we also wanted the young people in the village to see that something could be created right there and that they didn’t need a lot of money to do it, to inspire them.’
Made over the course of three weeks in the Yahyaoui family home, it hewed close to the tradition, taking its power from the root, with Ben Yousef’s synthesizer adding subtle touches at the top and bottom ends.
“Everything goes through the rhythm in this music,” he says. “If you grasp that, the picture becomes much clearer. I tried to imagine what would have happened if an aircraft full of Moogs had crashed in the valley years ago. How would they have integrated them into their music? That was what I did, just something simple but effective. I kept the instruments and voice in the middle and enhanced the top and the bottom frequencies. Those bass lines I play are all traditional rhythms; I just fattened up on the keyboard. To me, I was simply playing traditional music.”
Bales of hay were piled up in the rooms to act as acoustic baffles. Ben Yousef set up in the kitchen, operating the recording equipment with one hand and playing Moog with the other. It was an improvised setup, but it captured the fire and energy of the musicians’ performances. But it all revolves around Yahyaoui’s voice. Raw and emotional, plaintive and passionate, it proudly bears all the weight of history. And underneath, the thick, fat bass carries the music firmly into the 21st century.
But at the heart are the songs themselves, and the insights they offer into the life of the Bargou valley through time.
“We didn’t choose the material on Targ,” Ben Yousef says. “The songs chose us. The place made the selection for us. They brought it all alive. “Mamchout,” for instance, is a man describing his lover, saying how her hair feels like the feathers of an eagle, so dark. The words talk about how they speak to each other, how they kiss and make love, but all phrased in a way that obeys the taboo of the time. It’s history in your hand.”
Yahyaoui’s singing, whether about love or the sense of difference and isolation that marks the Bargou people, catches every strand of emotion in the songs, making them so real and concrete that the songs could have been written yesterday. Around him, the explosive rhythms of drums and percussion give a primal power to the bass grooves. It’s the trance of the past emerging from out of the speakers.
With Targ, Bargou 08 make sure that the valley and its people will never be forgotten.
Lassaed Bougalmi – gasba, zokra (traditional reed instruments)
Imed Rezgui – bendir (percussion)
Nidhal Yahyaoui – vocals, wtar (oud-like instrument)
Sofyan Ben Youssef – synthesizer, musical director
Benjamin Chaval – drums