Jihane Bougrine’s debut release was a long time coming.
The six-song EP, Dima Labass, is an often upbeat and eclectic mix that reflects the multicultural melting pot of her native Morocco.
All sung in the Moroccan Arabic dialect of Darija, the songs traverse various styles including folk, reggae, RnB, soul music and bossa nova. Put all of that together and it paints a picture of singer-songwriter both adventurous and assured.
Another quality to add to that diverse mix is Bougrine's patience. Because if she didn't follow her instincts, Dima Labbas would have turned out rather differently.
"And it would have probably come out five years ago," Bougrine tells The National. She recalls agreeing to work with an acclaimed local producer (whom she won't name), with initial recordings taking place in 2015.
“We just had different ideas on how to approach it. The music sounded too modern and too slick. It didn’t sound like me at all,” she says. “So I basically cancelled everything and decided to produce it myself. I want my work to feel like it’s genuine and show people my sound.”
'There is a freedom here': the sounds of Morocco
That viewpoint is rather representative of Morocco’s vibrant independent music scene, one that is defined by its authenticity and curiosity, while retaining a deep respect for its heritage.
It is these ideals that lured Bougrine back to Morocco a decade ago. Born in Rabat, she relocated with her family to France as a toddler, only returning to the city for holidays.
The decision to resettle in her homeland was driven by a desire to explore her personal and creative roots.
“When it came to the music, I realised that it wasn’t working for me in France,” she says. “In my experience over there, the industry just judged me by my image and put me in this RnB box that I couldn’t escape. In Morocco, especially in the independent scene, there are really none of those rules. There is a freedom here to express and try new things.”
That bravery, Bougrine notes, was infectious.
It led her to the decision to ditch singing and writing songs in French, and instead embrace the Arabic language and Darija dialect.
"The idea of writing an Arabic song initially scared me, because there is a lot of history that goes with that," she says. "When we talk about Arabic songs, we are talking about the great singers like Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez. It took me a while to get over that feeling of heaviness when I first began writing music in Arabic."
A good way to arrest some of that tension, Bougrine realised, was to write in the Moroccan dialect. Not only did it feel more intimate but it also came with its own creative benefits.
“The dialect has a sing-song style. If you stand in a crowded street in Marrakesh or Casablanca and hear everyone talking, it almost sounds like music,” she says. “Darija has its own words and it has a certain rhythm. It really adds to the music.”
Songs with powerful meaning
It also allows some of Bougrine’s lyrics to hit harder.
The summery vibe of Dima Labass (a Darija phrase meaning "always fine") is occasionally punctured by darker material discussing societal dysfunction.
A case in point is the standout track Khelini Alik ("leave me in peace"), a driving rock-inspired number that addresses domestic violence in Morocco.
Released as a single on the eve of International Women’s Day (March 8), it arrived with a powerful video featuring Moroccan actress Faty El Jaouhari.
The track, with its key lyric of “you’re the only person who can save yourself", is Bougrine’s plea to her fellow Moroccans to discuss what is viewed as a taboo topic.
“It is a problem that we have here and a lot of the time it is because people are either too ashamed or scared to talk about it,” she says.
“While Morocco is extremely modern in many ways, there are still things that don’t make sense. Like this idea of not talking about violence at home because of how people will think of you.”
For the gipsy-folk rhythms of Madabya ("what if"), meanwhile, Bougrine celebrates the ethnic and cultural pluralism of Morocco.
“That is a song about hope, freedom, respect, love and dignity,” she says.
“I am from a diverse country where we are all different. Different in traditions, in the way of speaking, in culture and, of course, in the colour of our skin … so it was about cherishing that and being grateful and not taking it for granted.”
Take your time
Such important and rallying messages need to be heard far and wide. However, with the pandemic having shut down the Moroccan live music scene, Bougrine has had to make do with the occasional online performance on social media. While she says there are fun, she admits she is missing the stage.
Then again, biding her time is something she is used to.
“Concerts will be back eventually. Patience is key for a music artist. Because the industry is so fast paced and they want you to release things quickly. When you do that, a lot of times you won’t be happy with yourself,” she says.
“Sometimes it’s good to hold back and take your time and do your work with the respect it deserves.”