U-cef always knew that at some point he wanted to go back to what he calls "halal" music, the Moroccan sounds he was brought up with, so naturally he named his first album "Halalium". A composer, producer and DJ, U-cef says "I try musically to bring things together so they don't feel alien to each other - traditional music with urban beat London or New York hip-hop. Maybe somebody who is from somewhere dedicated to one thing will say "This is rubbish", but my belief is that nobody is made of one stuff."
U-cef goes on, "I remember when live bands played, the whole youth would be there - whatever they played, it had the beat, and we just danced and had fun" and he reckons his first interest in performing himself came from dancing at parties and getting into beats. After a brief attempt at doing "a proper job", U-cef moved to New York to really try and make it as a musician, and moving to London 10 years ago was similarly all about the music.
"It takes a lot of courage to try and create a new style. It's easy to talk about ideas, but carrying them through to success is a miracle. I wanted to put Morocco on the map of the world just as Talvin Singh put India on the map in London" he says. But fusing cultures isn't always easy. "People whose culture I've shared ask me about Islam, suicide bombers, but I don't want to be pro-American imperialist nor fundamentalist.
Ultimately though, with rave reviews from the Telegraph to DJ magazine, for U-cef it's really about the music. "The thing with music is that no matter where you are from, from a cosmopolitan place or being well-advanced in your mind, it doesn't matter. It's only the music that matters."
I was born in Rabat, the capital of Morocco.
The neighbourhood where I spent most of my youth
is called Diour Jemâa which means 'houses of the mosque'.
The main places to hang out were the Café Mauretanie
and the Cinema du Peuple where I used to see Bruce Lee
and Hindi films. At some point my parents divorced
and I went to live with my grandmonther in L'Ocean,
a neighbourhood by the sea. I went to the Koranic school there…
reading the Koran all day and getting hit with a stick
everytime I fell asleep or made mistakes.
As a kid I listened mainly to popular Moroccan music.
That was before I got into music from the west
when I was ten or twelve. I started to get into
the funk and the old soul stuff…..Jimi Hendrix,
The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and all that.
But Moroccan music is like your oxygen.
You breathe it all the time and it doesn't take
too long before some song gets really famous if its good.
I remember the time of Nass El Ghiwane and Jil Jilala
and before them there was Hossain Slaoui.
Nass El Ghiwane were a rebellious band.
They were saying more of what other people
had said before, about the social problems and being poor,
but they said it in a new way.
They were in the tradition of old poets
like Aderrahmane Belmejdoub or the people who sang melhoun.
I had five uncles and they were all big guys.
Noone said nothing to me because I had these big uncles.
At some point my uncle Rachid went to Europe
and he came back with some instruments.
I don't know what the hell he did but he got them somehow.
He came back with a guitar and a bass
and at that time his friends were playing Bob Dylan,
the Stones, Graham Nash, Neil Young.
You see, once they'd gotten hold of a guitar
they had to learn songs. When you buy a book to learn
it's going to be Bob Dylan or something like that.
I mean what the hell you gonna do, learn some Moroccan stuff?
It's not written down in books.
So what do you do, you learn Bob Dylan, then you fall in love
with Bob Dylan with no prejudice.
You don't understand what the guy's saying
but you still like that stuff. I started to learn how to touch guitar
– do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti and all that stuff.
Melhoun is poetry all about the good life or being in love.
The lyrics are the top of the top of the Arabic language.
It's like the aristocrats, that's melhoun.
Nass El Ghiwane were more on the popular side
but they ripped it up. All the kids knew the songs
and government knew how risky it was
to let a group like that express themselves widely and openly.
Western music was just a total fashion statement.
You know, it was that brain wash of wanting to be a westerner.
I felt hip listening to that stuff. You should have seen me.
I had 'les sabots' ('clogs'), platforms, tight trousers and flares.
I went to see Saturday Night Fever!
I was listening to funk…..Sly Stone, Isaac Hayes,
Kool and the Gang, Funkadelic.
We used to have these house parties….bring in the stereo,
take out all the furniture and get the house crowded with people.
The walls were steaming, I swear man.
First of all I used to go with my sister or my uncle Rachid.
It was a dancing thing.
You see these guys, dancing their arses off,
dressed up and trying every little trick to impress.
I went to parties where they would only play James Brown
and we would do all that synchronised dancing stuff,
twirling round in time and all that .
Later, around 15 or 16, we used to go to a lot of clubs.
I remember there was The Jefferson, La Casbah,
L'Entonnoir at the Café Jour in Rabat or La Nauté in Casablanca.
I went to Tangiers a lot dancing with Spanish girls
at Gospel and Goya clubs.
I got the beat and all that stuff from dancing before anything else.
The way western music was, it was less complicated than our music.
There are patterns like the 12-bar blues
and you really get to know them quickly.
At the same time I tried to learn a few tricks
form the halal side, the Moroccan side.
I was borrowing all these things from my uncle
and at some point he got a drum kit, a lousy drum kit,
and at first he wouldn’t let me touch it.
The kit was easier than the guitar
because you just sit at it and boom chi, boom chi
and it make noise right these, no tuning, no nothing.
I hooked up with some younger guys like me
who wanted to put a band together
and we decided we were going to play covers by The Beatles,
'Suzy Q' by Creedence Clearwater Revival
and that one by Queen, 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love.'
None of us could say it. It was just
"na na na na na na na na Love dum dum" ha ha!
My uncle, who had been to Europe,
started arguing with singer like "I know the lyrics to that song,
you don't know the lyrics. I'm gonna sing that song!!"
Thinking about it now is hilarious.
I would just sit there playing the rhythms
with shish kebab sticks on a cushion.
Every house in Morocco has shish kebab sticks.
Anyway we performed in this competition
to see which was the best band in Rabat and we won!!
The band lasted two years and then one of the members left for Canada.
I'd finished school and I went to France to study
supposedly which I did for a few months in Montpelier.
At the time I didn't know whether I should stay in music.
All I did in France was work at bit, hang out,
buy and take drugs, go to clubs, you know.
I travelled between Paris and Montpelier
and then back home a lot.
I met the Breakdance Posse, breakers from New York
and that was one of my first contacts with hip hop culture.
I also met Jimmy Cliff. I was already a huge reggae fan by then.
Back in Morocco me and my friend Samir Guedira
were really into Bob Marley in a big big way.
Samir was totally into him and noone else.
He loved his philosophy about anti-segregation
and Haile Selassie and all that.
So anyway, Jimmy Cliff knew some girls I knew
and he wanted to buy some hash so I sold a small piece to him.
He was a great guy,
just said a few words like "thank you so much" and then left.
I was famous that day!
back to top
I stayed a year and half in France,
going back and forth to Morocco.
All I wanted to do was settle in France.
That was a big confusion in everyone's mind,
not knowing what to do but wanting to stay.
I'd do anything, any work, so long as I can stay.
Can I stay?? No! Ha ha.
I went back to Morocco and started studying architecture.
It was my parents who said
"you're not going to sit there and do nothing,
get a degree or something!"
I did it for about six months.
Hanging out on the beach in Morocco I met this guy called Mamoun
who was a really talented singer.
We decided to start a band
but we didn't want to play covers anymore.
We wanted to play our own thing.
The band was called Quark, which is the smallest particle,
'cos we were so much into the cosmos,
stars, the solar system, galaxies and all that.
We thought we could be the best band in the world.
It was rock, halal, jazzy, everything!
At the time we listened a lot to Return to Forever,
the craziest fusion band in the '70s.
Our compositions were subtle, really complex
and we added a halal thing.
But it was a lot of struggle.
We played in a hotel but gigs were a real problem.
We wanted to do more but we didn't know anything
'cos obviously there's no music industry in Morocco.
There are all kind of boundaries and obstacles
to make you trip so that you don't make it and they were effective.
We played for 3 or 4 months in the Hiatt Regency Hilton in Rabat.
It was good money, about £300 a month,
but I was kicked out for not wearing a tie one night.
It lasted 4 to 5 years and then everyone left.
Friends from my own neighbourhood went to New York
and they would come back looking good
with clothes and money and 'tings and you're like
"Man, I wanna get some of that myself"
so I decided to go and see what I could do.
I studied English at the American school in Rabat
so that I could get this little piece of paper saying
'I'm studying English and I want to come to your country
to get some knowledge', ha ha!
The first time I went to New York I thought
"what the hell is this pit-hole?
I've got to get me out of here!"
So I went to see this Moroccan friend of mine
who lived in the suburbia of Detroit, Michigan,
in a place called White Park Lane, or something.
There was noone but Scandinavian looking types living there,
you know, white!
I didn't know this so I was
"Woah, what a beautiful looking neighbourhood, damn!" ha ha!
Wherever I walked people were looking out the window
and calling the cops. When I got there I went with my friend
and his father-in-law to the police station to register my visit.
That's what that place was like.
I spent two weeks in Detroit and then went back to New York
and found a place to live in Brooklyn.
I worked in an Israeli-Chinese-Moroccan cuisine restaurant
owned by some Moroccan Jewish family.
Then I got a job at the Trattoria dell' Arte in Manhattan
as a bus boy and I worked there for two years.
I started to get the Village Voice
to see who was looking for drummers.
My English was terrible. I'd ring people up and say
(puts on a spoof foreign accent)
"I'm a drummer from Morocco and I play drums,"
ha ha! I joined this alternative rock band called Turn.
The singer was Italian and he had a seriously strong accent.
Slowly I started to meet people.
I met Cavass, the bass player who appears on my album 'Halalium'.
I met this British band called Fee Fi Fo Fun.
Within a year I'd also met Hassan Hakmoun,
the Moroccan Gnawa musician who's really in with the funky New York jazz scene.
We did some nice gigs together.
Once I got to play with Don Cherry
and another time at a Giorgio Armani fashion show.
Then there was all the hip hop jazz thing at Giant Step.
Basically I was just floating between funk, rock, jazz and hip hop.
When I saw Hassan playing with Gnawa with jazz musicians
it was kinda impressive.
Back with Quark we'd thought of fusing everything,
no control, man, like a bit psychedelic.
New York was a more realistic place.
You couldn't afford to be too dreamy too much.
Western culture is like this….
when you're into reggae you just do reggae.
When you're into hip hop you do hip hop.
I don't have that kind of baggage with me
so I just tend to play whatever feels good.
What really got me were the hip hop scene
and the reggae scene in New York.
I was 'woosh' inside the Caribbean thing,
no problem. Some people think I'm Caribbean.
I was just in the music, hanging out, vibing,
trying to make some money.
Smoking was obviously another top priority.
All the time I was in New York I was illegal until the day I left.
Settling down was a real struggle.
I met this English girl called Fiona Parker and I married her.
At the time, Europe was not in the picture.
In New York, if you're in the music,
there's a lot more happening compared to what there is in England.
People know how to party in New York.
Manhattan is small, you see a lot of people around,
famous people and it's all mixed.
In London it's all a lot more private.
But it's dangerous in NYC too.
There's a lot of drugs involved in that
and a lot of guns too.
I was already aware of the UK acid jazz mixture
through Giant Step in New York.
The first time we heard the Jamiroquai record I was like
"Woah! What are these guys doing in London?!"
I went to see JTQ play. That was great….no vocals just serious funk.
We also saw a lot of world music
in Central Park and other places….Baba Maal and stuff.
It was all getting to be a serious struggle in New York
so Fiona and I decided to go to London.
We arrived there in 1994. I joined this band called Pan who I met through Fiona.
There were five of us and style was dub, reggae, house, hip hop, dance.
The lights were pretty psychedelic
and the sound engineer was pretty down with Lee Perry,
like loads of delay and reverb and effects.
We used to swap instruments and the music never stopped.
We ripped up so many places: Belfast, Dublin, Heaven, Glastonbury.
We played for 4 hours non stopped. Glastonbury, that was mega!!
At one point Talking Loud were interested in us
but eventually it just didn't happen.
I got lost in London too many times.
I thought maybe I could walk everywhere, ha ha!!
Help! Where the hell am I?
But besides that, the dance music thing and the ambience was wicked.
When I first heard about a machine
that samples sound my first question was
"Well how do you do that?"
At first I thought it was a machine
that separated all the instruments out
so that you could take a little bit of just one instrument and use it.
Then I learned that it was a machine that records sound
just like any other recording device
and you locate it and cut it up and that's it.
I thought it was a good facility for making music.
My problem came from the fact that I knew
that it would take a lot to learn how to use those machines.
You're an instrumentalist and you can consider
that you've already done enough musical training to get work,
recording sessions etc and sell your music in the shops.
You don't want to go another way and try
to learn about machines and all that blah blah blah.
But…you can run but you can't hide.
For me, with sampling and sequencing and all that,
it boiled down to the frustration of not knowing about it
and not having the possibilities in the studio.
I didn't know anything about anything,
not even a mixing desk, but when I came to London I came to terms with it all.
In New York it's more about live instruments and live playing.
In London people play around in their home studios
and you don't see them on the street.
But the electronic way appealed to me
cos in Pan we had a lot of moogs and we used things with effects,
keyboards and a sampler and I'm like "Wow! This is great!"
I was living with Fiona in Chippenham Mews in west London.
With the help of Martin, this neighbour of mine,
and my good friend Elan Polushko
I started to put together a little studio in a room
which I had soundproofed.
The halal idea was always in the back of my mind.
I had the chance to express a musical angle
in a way that I had lived it for years being from Morocco you know.
For some reason when you go away from your culture
you try to remember some of it, keep in touch with it.
Music is one thing, language is another one,
a cup of mint tea is another…..whatever.
What I felt toward western music was another passion,
experiencing the New York scene, the London scene, the Paris scene,
all these kind of things that are going on.
I've put it all in that particular pack 'cos that's what I lived through.
The London scene man, the drum and bass, the jungle,
the Bristol 'ting, Brighton and all that….the English sound is like mega, really.
I've experienced the greatest sounds here in Britain.
When I saw Roni Size djing, he was something else.
Drum and bass and jungle really opened up a lot of doors.
It's a drum pattern which could work practically on anything and fit with every beat.
In the Chippenham mews studio I started working
with the singer Ali Slimani, Delroy 'Blak Tip' Mclean,
Jamie from Pushkin, Kwesi, Jayzee and various other people.
At the time everyone was calling me 'Halal'….
"Hey, Halal. What's up Halal?"
The whole halal adventure started to happen
because I decided to rely on myself and noone else.
I needed to do my own thing, which reflected me as a person,
and I needed to do it in my own time and in my own space.
If I had tried to do a straight pop thing or rock thing
or whatever thing that was nothing to do with own origins
I don't think I would have stood a chance.
Music is a very hard world to get into.
Where was I going to fit in?
In the summer of 1997 I really got going,
first at Chippenham Mews, then at Elan Polushko's studio
and then in my own Halal Joint studio.
The first real tracks to come out were
Tagazoot and Halal Monk.
Apartment 22 put them on a 12" which was released
in the spring of '98 and some of the reactions were pretty good.
The good thing about being in London
rather than New York is that it made it easier for me
to go back to Morocco which I did for a couple of months
in the summers of '97, '98, '99.
That's where I recorded all the raw material…
people like the rappers Dar Gnawa from Casablanca
or the singer Hicham Zrari from Rabat.
The first track that got me feeling pretty confident was Tagazoot
and then when I did The Moorish Matador one summer's day in 1998,
that really killed me.
I just felt like "Yo man! This thing is really gonna take off."
Even for myself, I'd never heard anything like it.
I felt like I was on a roll and the other tracks on 'Halalium',
my first album which was out in November 1999, came quick.
There is so much to explore, not just in the Moroccan culture,
but based on what my mind can see and on this kind of production,
this approach, this concept…..if it is eventually appreciated by people.
I mean I really like the music on 'Halalium'.
To me it sounds kind of normal but that's
because I've lived and experienced that blend.
I have hopes on this and I'd like to do a lot more
– work with Irish vocals and Flamenco and whatever.
All these things are really related to African music…..
North African, west African.
Gnawa music sounds very much to me like Brazilian music…..it's the lunatic loop.
It works! I could do all that.
It was just struggle after struggle after struggle and it still is.
We're not there yet. lllllllllll