Oum el Ghait Benessahraoui, better known simply as Oum, delivers an inspired album blending Moroccan influences with jazz and soul. While she has two previous releases under her name, Lik’Oum and Sweerty, this is the first to gain international distribution. The multifaceted singer, composer and lyricist brings plenty of talent to the table on this CD alongside her accomplished bandmates. Her core ensemble includes flute, saxophones, acoustic guitar, double bass, drums and percussion. Electric guitar, electric bass, oud, oboe and English horn make occasional appearances throughout, often accompanied by Oum’s steady qarqab and castanola playing.
The overall tone of the record is a jazz mixture wrapped in gnawa rhythms that draw on the Hassani dialect she grew up with. Singing in Darija and English, Oum’s voice is elegant; a solid lead for the band to follow. Lyrically, the album focuses on the celebration of life, love, happiness, Morocco and Allah.
Soul of Morocco starts with “Whowa,” a nod to swinging cafe jazz with Alain Debiossat’s raspy flute taking the lead. “Shine” is another jazz piece injected with soul as the electric bass holds the line alongside some nice percussion and a wailing soprano sax. “Salam” is a brilliant slow burner that moves languidly before building intensity, offering one of her finest vocal moments on the record as her voice soars in the song’s closing moments.
“Haylala” is arguably the strongest track on the record, which may sound familiar to some listeners, as it is a traditional Hassani song. Here, she sticks to a more standard interpretation of this great composition by holding back the jazz and letting the gnawa rhythm take center stage. Along with “Taragalte,” a driving hymn to the Saharan desert, these tracks mark the most natural moments on the record, rewarding the listener with the type of commanding satisfaction that makes one lose themselves in the music. This gripping presence is not matched on much of the rest of the recording.
The album wraps up with “Menni Lik,” a long, beautiful composition that slowly states its intent. “Aji” closes the set with an upbeat bossa nova. While the entire record is enjoyable, some tracks stand out more than others. Oum’s jazz is sincere and delightful, but the more traditional tracks are the real gems here. Dipping toes into other genres is always a gamble, albeit it one worth taking. It all depends on what the listener is looking for in the end. Soul of Morocco offers sweet jazz alongside captivating gnawa grooves; a full-bodied blend of Moroccan music that lacks a bit of consistency overall, but has some tremendous moments along the way.
Originally published in RootsWorld Magazine.