The new solo album by Cairo-dwelling guitarist and composer Maurice Louca makes a radical shift from its predecessor, which featured the specially formed Elephantine ensemble. Saet El Hazz (The Luck Hour), on Northern Spy, makes its striking mark by sounding like an extreme electroacoustic adventure, as hardened industrial textures drape emerging transparent melodies, marrying distressed surfaces to a lambent unfolding of diaphanous progression. The album has a particular character of its own, not always sounding massively Egyptian, but also possessing only hints of languages that might emerge from cocoons of minimalism, free improvisation, or wayward folkish exploration. In Egypt, the “luck hour” is a phrase used to indicate a usually debauched good time, surrounded by a tactful air of silence, after the event. No questions asked.
In truth, the vast majority of the album’s instrumental palette is completely acoustic, apart from a lone synth appearance on the title cut. It was perhaps better not to quiz Louca about the exact techniques employed, as your scribe had some of his illusions corrected. Much of the surface coating or abraded foregrounding actually results from extreme techniques and intimate microphone placement, the minute capturings coming to sound like the erosion of nature, or the fall of a vast factory.
The second track, “Bidayat,” sounds very much like a Cairo-born piece, but the following “Fire Flies” has the sound of breaking burnt wood and distant rust-stroking, as Louca’s self-designed gamelan metallophone chimes out a Far-Eastern ceremonial meditation. We could deem this Oriental free improvisation, except that Louca has composed these works on his microtonally altered guitar. “Foul Tongue” even adopts a Stateside country blues approach, as if Taj Mahal was deep into experimentation, and features a vibrato-crazed alto saxophone solo from the guesting Devin Brahja. The concluding “Higamah” exudes a slowly promenading Indian classical aura, closing up on a more contemplative plateau.
Louca has long been friends with the Lebanese members of the improvising “A” Trio: trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui, and double bassist Raed Yassin, all of whom prepare their instruments with various attachments. Louca wanted to collaborate with them as a starting point in recording a new album. Your scribe interviewed him while he was in Berlin, preparing for its Jazzfest in early November, where Elephantine would be appearing live.
“The idea behind the record is that I had these songs that I just wanted to throw at them, and then see how they improvised.” Soon after mooting this idea, Louca received a commission for a pair of linked performances at the ICA (London) and Ancienne Belgique (Brussels). The initiator was the Belgian arts organization Mophradat. This required a governing concept, so Louca suggested a body of music that would grow out of microtonally modified instruments. “I had an interest in microtonality, but mostly electronic, with synths and keyboards,” he says. “Lately, I’ve been more lured acoustically. I was hoping to achieve some of those tonalities acoustically.”
In August 2019, the ensemble had five days in the Ancienne Belgique studio, preparing for their gigs and as a side effect of rehearsals. The ensemble recorded live, close together, with too much sonic bleed leaving little leeway for mixing desk tinkering. There was time for multiple takes, most of which were very different in nature. Using reconfigured instruments ultimately imbued the material with another life, becoming more composed. Louca had two guitars altered and created a new instrument built around the metallophone strips of a gamelan. He visited an Indonesian festival in Surakarta, bringing back a heavy sack of metal strips, which he’d had tuned to the Western scale, but adding three quarter tones, commonly used in Arabic music. Once back in Cairo, Louca had them housed in casings, with sliding needles. He hadn’t intended to include gamelan elements in the new material, but events conspired to make this materialize. It soon became apparent that it was a good idea to induct percussionist Khaled Yassine to play this modified metallophone set.
“I didn’t want to make an instrument that’s unplayable,” he says of his altered guitar. Louca wanted the gamelan tones transposed to his axe, initially with a hybrid fretted and fretless neck. “The fretless part was too cheesy for me, too fusion-y. The sound of a fretless guitar, I didn’t like so much.” In the end, Louca opted for a fully fretted version.
“As opposed to an improvisational record, it became more of a composed record. These are mostly my own compositions. Knowing them very well, I know what they do, a bit…”—as much as we can predict what an improvising group might create. Louca would suggest the kind of sonics that he felt would be most suitable. The album’s ensemble was guided by the artists that Louca knew he wanted to play with, rather than any fixed instrumental palette. Soon, this meant writing parts for Christine Kazaryan’s harp and Anthea Caddy’s cello. “The Luck Hour is about the people involved,” Louca emphazises. “It’s pretty remarkable with these guys, how loud they can get with these acoustic instruments. Hearing it live, it’s very visceral. I’m glad that it comes across on the record. At times, it sounds very electronic, but that’s not the case.”
Louca’s last two albums started out as solo concepts, but 2019’s Elephantine soon expanded to feature a 12-piece band of the same name. At first, he barely knew any of the future members, aside from the two drummers, but the rest of the outfit was assembled as a result of various recommendations. “It’s hard to call them [the two albums available via Northern Spy/Sub Rosa] solo, because of the involvement of so many players, but in a way, they’re my compositions, they fall into the lineage of my own work. With Elephantine, it was purely about the instrumentation. I wanted to work with a horn section and a vibraphone. Since the recording, though, we turned into an actual band. Through touring, we decided, on a human and musical level, that we wanted to take this further and do another record. It became apparent that, while touring, it’s not just Maurice Louca live, but it’s the Elephantine band. It organically morphed itself into an entity.” Louca’s other work with bands such as Alif, Karkhana, and The Dwarfs Of East Agouza operates on a more collective level. It was a long time coming, but Elephantine played their first gig in Cairo at the beginning of October, after having already played a series of European dates in 2019. In recent years, Louca has been accustomed to presenting solo sets, in Cairo, and some shows with the Dwarfs.
“There’s venues to play in Cairo,” he continues. “But not as many as you’d expect, not as many as the city deserves. It’s still the biggest ailment of the scene, how inaccessible the venues are.” Most venues operate with strictures imposed by the government. “It’s very hard to start up a venue, because of all the permits needed. They’re making it more and more difficult. It’s very complicated...”