Maurice Louca Blends Distinct Sensibilities on ‘Elephantine’


Maurice Louca’s latest album is Elephantine (Northern Spy).

(Photo: Alexander Mahmoud)

The spirit driving Maurice Louca’s new album, Elephantine (Northern Spy), strikes a different chord than its 2014 predecessor, Benhayyi Al​-​Baghbaghan, which features a guest appearance from Sun City Girls founder Alan Bishop. Despite the earlier record offering up a sense of the sonically grandiose and melodically abstract through Louca’s inclusion of prominent free jazz improvisations, the bandleader’s understanding of Elephantine as his “most ambitious work” seems to take on an deeper meaning when contrasted with a hope for the continued growth of Cairo’s music scene.

The guitarist, pianist and composer recently took time to talk to DownBeat about moving among writing styles, inspiration and its connection to place, and the beauty of the word “Elephantine.”

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What is it about Elephantinea small island in the Nile Riverthat made it the best title to encompass this records concepts?

I felt [Elephantine] was the most fitting, because in a way, it was like a homage to all of the music that influenced me. On this record, that’s things like cosmic jazz, to music from the south—like African music and Yemeni music—and music that I felt had a strong impact on the record. And Elephantine is in Aswan, which is one of my favorite places in the world that’s in Egypt. It’s very rich with a lot of monuments, like pharaonic type stuff. And so, I just felt like that title meant something to me that way.

I’m not really a lyricist ... so, I often choose titles that I think phonetically sound nice in both languages. And I think “Elephantine” is a beautiful word, and it’s a beautiful island.

How do you feel about the relationship between jazz improvisation and an overall desire for change within Egypt? Did that connection have any influence on your compositions here?

To link free jazz to what’s happening now here in Egypt, or my relationship to the scene here and free jazz, yeah, it’s interesting. Being from Cairo, you’re often asked about Egypt and you’re often asked about your relationship to the place, and I don’t doubt that where you are affects you musically. But also, when it’s home, you don’t feel it as much, because you’re so used to it. Like, you would be more conscious of inspiration from a different place, because it’s new.

With free jazz, I always told myself that I didn’t like jazz, you know? I’m not really a “jazz guy.” We don’t really have much of a jazz scene here in Cairo, and most of what I heard was really watered down, loungey kind of stuff. Then I discovered this other side of the music that completely blew me away. I got into this whole thing, over maybe the last 10 years or something. So, I had to get through people like Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. And for me, it sounded like these guys were from the future, not the past—just from the loss of form, the experimentation, the sounds.

Free jazz came out in a lot of other projects I’m in [and] older records. But for [Elephantine,] it’s where it manifested most, I think. I understand I use a lot of free jazz sensibilities and the aesthetics, and the instrumentation, but for me, I still don’t see it as a jazz record in that way.

As someone who incorporates various regional writing styles into their music, how do you approach blending so many musical traditions?

Ultimately, you have Western music, which has been very successful in being kind of spread out all over the world, and then you have your own kind of musical heritage. Often, they combine together so organically that I didn’t really [notice] that I wanted to mix Arabic [music] with jazz. That’s where the songs went. At a certain point on the record, I just [decided to] change to that scale; that’s an Arabic scale with quarter tones. And then I was like, “OK, I have to get an oud player for this part.” It just happened that way.

When I finished my last record, I was a bit tired of working with machines. [With Elephantine] I was kind of hearing different things and from there on it was just kind of, “Is it possible to do this record?” Being based here, I [didn’t] even know if there [was] a vibraphone player in Cairo. I realized, “I’m going to have to reach out for this record. I can’t do it DIY here in Cairo with friends, like I did before.” I had to reach out to musicians I didn’t know, look for musicians who played particular instruments that I hadn’t worked with before. It was such an adventure, the whole thing. But it wasn’t something that I’m so very competent in, that I’ve done so much. The music took me there completely.

What are you most hoping to convey with Elephantine—not only to underground Egyptian music scenes, but the greater global musical landscape as well?

I’m excited about the fact that it’s pretty different than what I did before, at least in terms of instrumentation and things. My concern with [Elephantine] was that people were going to focus too much on the fact that it’s very different from [my] other stuff; that it could be [perceived] as just kind of a gimmick, let’s say. I would like it to be seen as a continuation of my work. Not for the focal point [to be,] “I used to do that, and now I’m doing this.” For me, things are not that linear. I find absolutely no contradiction between doing a record like [Elephantine] and then at the same time, I play in a band here that does electronic music and play in another band that does complete free improv. What I feel most blessed [about] is that I’m able to have all these kinds of forms of expression. But they’re all linked. They all come from the same place somehow. And I just wish that gets heard. DB

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