Small-Scale Booze of the Shadows: Unpacking Elephantine’s New Jazz Epic, ‘Moonshine’

The latest album from Maurice Louca finds him leading a full band, performing under the name Elephantine name – this perceptive essay written by Asher Gamedze examines the various meanings of the...
By    September 26, 2023

Image via Tony Elieh

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Asher Gamedze brought the spirits.

Maurice Louca is the Sam Gendel of Cairo’s music scene—a humble visionary with a gift for bringing ideas together under different projects and collaborations. An experimental composer and multi-instrumentalist, Louca got his start making beats on solo efforts like 2014’s mind-bending Benhayyi El-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot), and he gained international acclaim in 2017 for an album of mesmerizing poetry and electro-folk he recorded with Maryam Saleh and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh as the trio Lekhfa.

He then took a radical departure in 2019, leaving electronic instruments and drum machines behind in favor of a live ensemble for his album Elephantine, an ambitious work of avant-garde jazz that summons the spiritual energy of Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders while also drawing on African and Yemeni musical traditions. He continued with the live-band approach on his 2021 effort, Saet El Hazz (The Luck Hour). And now, Elephantine has returned with a new album, Moonshine.

This latest effort finds Louca again leading a full band, performing under the Elephantine name. Asher Gamedze, a Cape Town-based musician and writer, has worked with Louca over the years, and in the lead-up to the album’s release he put together a perceptive essay on the meaning of the word “moonshine” and the making of the record Moonshine. We’ve published it below. — Peter Holslin

Not By Its Own Light, by Asher Gamedze

The popularizing of the term “moonshine” comes from the prohibition era in the United States and the rural strategy in the South of brewing by night to avoid detection. Prior to that, moonshine might have referred to the Light of the moon (the Sun) or anything illusory, or nonsensical. While the name’s mainstream use is very tied to this specific history, “moonshine” has many historical examples internationally as a strong (40-80% alcohol content!), clear spirit distilled from a wide variety of locally available materials (fruit, cereals, vegetables, sweets, etc.). The production of moonshine is characteristically small-scale, autonomous, independent and fugitive, evasive of state regulation and liquor corporations seeking to eliminate competition.

As an example, there’s “Maria-Louca,” an independently-distilled liquor produced by people who are incarcerated in Brazilian prisons using improvised methods and ingredients—including beans, rice, sweets, and fruit peels. Another example: Moonshine, the latest release of Elephantine, a band led by the Egyptian composer and multi-instrumentalist Maurice Louca (no relation to Maria). Moonshine was recorded in November 2021 at Morphine Studios in Berlin. Following up the group’s self-titled debut from 2019, this heavy-weight ensemble has come up with a strong, independently-distilled, compositionally and conceptually rich, expansively improvised home brew.

My relationship with Maurice goes back to 2019, when we were both playing in the Hague in the Netherlands at a festival called Re-Wire—him with Elephantine and myself with Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood. Our two bands shared a dressing room and we had a grand night of collective moon and shine. In late 2020, Maurice and I spent a lot of time together when I came to live in Cairo for a few months—we played music, had late nights of drinking and oud playing at his apartment in the neighborhood of Agouza, and he even came to one of the classes I was teaching on the history of music’s movement across North Africa and the Mediterranean. Since then, every time I have passed through Berlin on tour or otherwise, I have stayed with him in the Kreuzberg apartment where he now lives, which carries the unmistakable energy of its Agouza counterpart.

Late one September night in 2022, Maurice, our dear friend Xristian Espinoza, and I were sitting in Maurice’s Berlin apartment. I asked him if I could ask some questions about the album in preparation for writing this piece. “Of course,” he said, and then disappeared and came back with three glasses and some mezcal to set the mood.

He dimmed the lights. Outside, the moon was shining in an early autumn mode. “With this record, I thought it’s some of the most joyous music I did,” Maurice told me. “For me, there was something very joyful about it… And I wanted a title that kinda reflects that… and for me, with the word ‘moonshine’ there’s something joyful about it…. There’s also something that’s very rowdy about the record, and also, clearly, one of the connotations of moonshine is that it is something that’s a bit, you know, done under the radar.”

Moonshine grew out of Louca’s previous album, 2019’s Elephantine, in a very collective and organic way. Apart from the drummers, the musicians on Elephantine were all working with Maurice for the first time; before getting together with them to record, he had previously just checked them out online. Through putting out the first record and touring it, they got to know each other quite well (“family” is the word Maurice used to describe their relationship), and the group of musicians became a band. The impetus, excitement, and encouragement to record another album came mostly from other members of Elephantine, not Maurice.

This collective becoming—the transcendence of this project starting out as the bandleader’s and becoming the band’s—is unsurprising if you know Maurice and his capacity for warmth, generosity and hospitality. At the heart of Elephantine is an invitation, one that Maurice extends to the other musicians in the band. One of the music-worlds that Maurice inhabits is maqam, a system of Arabic scales and modes. By contrast, most of the band members play in scenes related to traditions of free improvisation, in its European and its African-American-derived variations. Louca told me that Elephantine is more about him coming closer to them, not him trying to bring them completely into his world. In other words, although the music owes much of its formal character to maqam, the goal wasn’t to get these musicians, who don’t come from that tradition, to play Arabic music as if they were Arabic musicians. Instead, the music was a social and a sonic space where Maurice was open to hear what it would sound like for these players to play Arabic melodic lines on instruments that were not built for that notation, and improvise around them from within their own sensibility, aesthetic and sound.

In relation to Elephantine, Moonshine sounds more live, more raw. It has a more collective sound (at least to my ear). The rest of the band seems to sit inside, on top of, next to and within the wide double-pocket of drummers Tommaso Cappellato and Özün Usta, the former doing groove-distilling driving and the latter painting and providing color. The reeds section is made up of Piero Bittolo Bon on alto saxophone (he also plays electronics), Daniel Gahrton on baritone and Isak Hedtjärn on clarinet. Together they channel the feeling of a rowdy party, often voicing melodies in unison while expressing the intoxication of their individual souls. They veer off into abstract territories of freedom, but there is always a grounding—a beginning and a return. Rasmus Svale Kjærgård Lund is on tuba and tends to float somewhere between the reeds and the bass. He frequently plays off the basslines of Rosa Brunello, whose compass is the melody. Her playing sometimes deepens the harmonic sensibility and is always grooving. Els Vandeweyer, on vibraphone, plays what sounds like the additional level of consciousness that a drinking session seems to open up once it enters the early hours. And of course, Maurice Louca plays guitar, lap steel and synthesizer, all in the most unassuming and inconspicuous yet essential way—an incredibly humble orientation for a bandleader.

The album is made up of three tunes.

The first is a suite in three parts and makes the title for the record. The first movement’s melody, blown by the horns, seems to start in the middle of itself and unravel. When the rest of the band enters, the song winds outwards into and through solo sections, backed at times by a call and response line played between the guitar, vibes and the horns before the melody returns at the mercy of the clarinet. The movement closes with a short melodic goodnight line after the room has stopped spinning.

The second movement breathes open into interleading free sections and a beautifully orchestrated line that moves between the different elements in the ensemble. It’s all guided by a consistently determined drum section, which holds down a hard groove with eccentric overtones to help weave a joyful dirge. “Moonshine Part III” begins with a bass solo until the repeated, abstracted blues of a lap steel guitar introduces a mood reminiscent of a babalas (South African term for hangover), made more intense by electronic mutterings of worlds gone by and worlds to come.

Back in his Berlin flat, amidst the mezcal and the moonlight, Maurice describes the following track, “Trembler”: “It’s actually the name of a bird, and with that tune in particular, the reason that name resonated that much with me was the idea of involuntary shaking. The idea of not shaking as a particular movement, like related to dance or something, but just not being in control of your motor skills.” To my ear and feeling, there is a sense of fatigue but also of determined resolve in this tune: Almost like a wedding band that has been playing for hours, and whose morale has been lubricated by libations funded by the festive pockets of the party guests. Late into the night, through a rendition of a tune in a behind-feeling but forward-moving backbeat, coloured on top by twin melodic lines that later make space for an excursion into other territories via a wonky synth solo, before returning—through all this, they keep the spirits high and flowing.

The last song on the album is called “Achilles Heel.” It is structured by deconstructed solos, duos and trios that are either composed or improvised, based on certain scales. These sections are all interspersed with the whole ensemble swelling together and playing around a short melody that recalls the pursuit of desperate triumph. For Maurice, “It’s what that reference is, its vulnerability, and with that piece in particular, on an emotional level, I think that term [achilles heel] means so much to different people in different ways.” The sections are all so specific and unique to themselves that, upon first time listening, it’s easy to think they have moved on to another song. That is one of the piece’s beauties: the searing and wrenching melody that the ensemble plays together relates all these otherwise disparate concepts, allowing you to hear the ensemble as expansive, multiple, internally differentiated, and elephantine.

The word “MoonShine” indicates not just the liquor but a Time and a Sociality. It creates, and simultaneously is part of, a social setting and a context for its production and enjoyment. The Cycle of Solar Reflection, of waxing and waning, is a measure of life’s Rhythm: Connecting a thousand indigenous cultures of distilling, histories of prohibitive and totalitarian, freedom-despising governments and settler colonialism, of drunken freedom and reckless joy, the small-scale booze of the shadows, the inebriated Spirit of the Underground and the drink of choice of the margins.

Moonshine is the ensemble’s intoxicated celebration of long nights under the moon, mirroring the light of the sun.

And so, Maurice pours us another mezcal…

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