Oualid Khelifi wants to challenge your concepts of African belonging

El Foukr R’Assembly is a collaborative music and film project initiated by Algerian filmmaker Oualid Khelifi. It “looks to foster independent cultural production between North Africa and the rest of the continent, away from state-funding and its sub sequential censorship and demagogy.” Their’s is a bold, political statement of purpose, laden with centuries of historical baggage. The project’s aim is not too far in concept from initiatives such as The Nile Project, but it’s core aim at working independently of state funding gives the mission a bit of a sharp (dare I say punk?) edge. If successful in its aims, El Foukr R’Assembly could challenge dominant concepts of African belonging, race, nation, and cultural diffusion on both sides of the Sahara.

The project’s first edition took place in Djanet, Algeria, between four musicians from different parts of that country. It resulted in a six-track album, and short film documenting the process. Oualid Khelifi is currently in Ghana, trying to raise funds to complete a second collaborative album and short film:

Akwaaba Music founder and Africa is a Country contributor, Benjamin Lebrave, sat down with Oualid to talk about the project and delve deeper into some of the project’s motivations:

Oualid, tell us a bit about the background story for your project in Djanet: how did you and the musicians come together? What sparked the project? What is your respective backgrounds?

Having lived, travelled and worked in various West African countries as an independent multimedia journalist, throughout the years I’ve grown increasingly convinced of the need to foster mobility and exchange between different regions of the continent.

As an Algerian, I’ve brewed a frustration of seeing my co-citizens and other North Africans missing out on incredibly vibrant regions south of the Sahara, as we remain in the Maghreb exclusively locked to the Middle East, Europe and former colonial powers.

In my eyes, a very fruitful synergy could develop, be it economic, cultural or artistic, between North Africa and the rest of the continent. To overcome preconceived erroneous stereotypes, music and short documentary film are accessible tools, which are more likely to carry this rapprochement message without risking alienation of heavily charged political and historic discourses.

I met the musicians through my ordinary social circle in three different parts of Algeria, hence the rhythmic and melodic variety in our ‘Look South’ debut album. To begin with, we became friends. For a few months, I knew they were into music, but had not idea what they were capable of, especially that half of them did not record professionally nor performed on major stages.

Having covered and attended several world music festivals in North and West Africa, I felt a burning urge to make something out of these encounters. I then brought forward to the guys the idea of a film-music ensemble, it made sense to all of us, everybody is into Sub-Saharan music, storytelling and human vibe. The rest just followed.

Why Djanet? What was the creative process like in Djanet?

In early 2014, I went to shoot a short documentary in south Algeria. After production, I decided to take a short break a few hundred kilometres east of where I was in the Sahara, so I headed to Djanet, a province which had for long teased my curiosity.

This ancient crossroads oasis has hosted for over ten centuries nomadic and semi-sedentary communities whose ethnic origins are Berber, Hausa, Peul, Songhai and Arab. Today, they are mostly settled, sharing Tamasheq Touareg as a common language, but still deeply rooted in their varied heritage.

Djanet borders Niger, Libya and is home to communities who still have active extended family links as far as Chad in Central Africa. One could only imagine the human and subsequent musical wealth in that isolated spot of the African Sahara.

What made you want to come to Ghana, and why this Algeria/Ghana collaboration?

In early 2013, I made Abidjan/Ivory Coast a base of my freelance professional life. During summer of the same year, I crossed the border to Ghana with a few friends merely to travel for a couple of weeks. Upon my return to Abidjan, I began flirting with the idea of trying to live in Accra. My instinct and very short experience there told me it would be a place full of visually strong stories on one side, and a city where one could make things happen artistically on the other.

I therefore moved there in June last year and was glad to realize right away that my hunch wasn’t off. The local scene throbs of savvy youngsters rigorously launching projects in photography, multimedia, music, street art and theatre.

Choosing Ghana as the first art-residence destination of El Foukr R’Assembly film-music ensemble followed naturally. Bridging Algeria and Ghana independently isn’t solely a matter of two different regions of Africa, but also a dialogue between Francophone and Anglophone parts of the continent, given that African nations and societies usually remain within their colonial languages’ comfort zones. We want to transcend these handicaps, we may not be able to talk to each other in words, but visuals, sound and music will do it beautifully.

I co-founded Afreekyama Collective with my Tunisian friend and multimedia maker colleague Selim Harbi. The platform now acts as the official production behind El Foukr R’Assembly project. Two years ago, when I drafted the philosophy document for Afreekyama Collective, I wrote: ”we believe that common struggles of the past and mounting dares of the future dictate that divisive notions of two distinct ‘Sub-Saharan’ and ‘North’ Africas are to be transcended, for the sake of cross-border social cohesion, empowerment and exchange

Today, we are coming to Ghana in this spirit.

What were the biggest shocks in Ghana? Both good and bad, within creative and artist circles as well as socially, culturally or economically?

Like everywhere, I’ve had my share of pleasant and slightly less pleasant surprises. Compared to neighbouring Ivory Coast, I was glad to find out that people in the creative scene were more entrepreneurial, punctual and straight to the point.

For instance, I had the chance to attend and cover in photo and video Chale Wote street festival in Jamestown, Accra. Those 3 days filled me with hope and positivity.

On the other hand, the zealous rising of church influence and role in collective spirituality in Ghana is something I find of concern. Mushrooming panels of pseudo prophets and money-making priests are a social threat. Coupled with economic grievances and political ill management, religion could turn into an instrument of hatred, division and violence overnight. We saw it happen in Algeria in the 1990s, we still suffer its dire consequences today. I personally would like to see the African youth everywhere in the continent mount its guards against such dangers.

Music, art, culture and the creative industry are usually the first to suffer from these hits.

Do you have an idea where this collaboration may go? Whether creative or social or other?

El Foukr R’assembly’s vision is to transport through documentary film and visuals bits and pieces of ordinary life. We are more connected by the day across the continent, so we aim to reach out to as many Africans as possible, to get to know each other online through collaborative performances.

After Ghana, we will go elsewhere in the continent and take back visuals and sound to Algeria and North Africa. On an ad-hoc project basis over the medium to long term, the idea is to also invite artists we will have worked with in Ghana and beyond to Algeria to perform and interact with us as well as other artists.

I ask this next question in the days following the Paris massacre. Do you feel your project has a particular social or political role? If so, where and for whom?

Paris incidents are to condemn regardless of ethnicity, religion and political ideology. Similarly, one should stand firmly and in equal measure against Boko Haram massacres in Nigeria, the forgotten conflict in the Central African Republic and the mayhem in Libya – just to name a few — during which lives of journalists, activists and innocent civilians are being taken regularly.

El Foukr R’assembly is an independent Pan-Africanist & multi-disciplinary project, which calls for the empowering of all Africans through creative means. According to me, the only way for us Africans to defend our human dignity and combat the worthy-vs-unworthy victims paradox is to work together within the continent, learn from each other, gradually become a cultural, economic and geopolitical force. The rest would ensue, and it would be a win-win situation for Africans and the rest of the world.

Do you have a message for creatives seeking a purpose in or out of Africa?

Hard to tell, given that there is no one formula. I believe people should follow their natural tendencies and create within their spheres of passion. That said, Africa isn’t a country just to sarcastically cite the anecdotal reductionist tag, so getting out of one’s comfort zone, be it collaborating, trying out new artistic genres, traveling, working or living in another region is monumental for a realistic and true sense of African belonging. The youth today is more pre-disposed than ever to do so, so let’s just do it.

Let’s end on a lighter note… tell us a funny anecdote about your first trip to Ghana.

During my early days in Accra, a taxi driver asked me about my country of origin. When I said Algeria, he replied “ah, North Africa, the land of rich Arabs”. We laughed, then discussed how my part of the continent is of an African Berber ethnic descent, and that celebrating and taking advantage of the continental diversity is what we all ought to do to strive forward beyond divisive post-colonial notions.

Towards the end of the ride, he jokingly teased me: “well, it is just confusing when it comes to colour. I see that your people are different from Lebanese and Middle Eastern Arabs, but you have so much petrol and gas too, so just bathe yourselves into it, you will all become black, and things will be much easier for everybody.”

Some of the music highlights you came across while in Accra?

It was such a pleasure to meet Wanlov and Fokn Bois crew. I love how they venture into film and musicals to get their voices and message further out. Doing it in pidgin, claiming roots and embracing that continental open spirit to funk out projects with like-minded youngsters is a promising trend, which will go far.

I am also very glad to see people like Villy & Xtreme Volumes working to revive the Afrobeats scene. Ghanaians and Nigerians have for long made wicked music together, but to witness it still happening today in modern fusion style is to my eyes constructive and forward-thinking resistance.

I had the chance as well to check out Siaka Diarra and his band swinging between their native Burkina Faso and Ghana, they maintain a traditional sound while incorporating elements of groovy high life. It is promising for Accra to become hopefully one day soon a West African and continental artistic hub.

I shouldn’t forget the electro-house scene. DJs seem to be increasingly connected to what the African diaspora is doing elsewhere in the world. I had listened to some South African mixes in London, and was surprised to see DJ Steolo in Accra spinning them locally.

Boima Tucker

Chief Boima is a Sierra Leonean-American music producer, DJ and writer. He is also the managing editor, podcast host, and music section editor of Africa is a Country.

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