Rendez-vous Barbès marks something of a return to form for the Maghreb assemblage which has planted its musical flag in the Parisian cultural mélange after which the band is named. Their previous album, Alik, held plenty of appeal but was blighted in places by its Négresses Vertes/Rachid Taha-style rock pretensions, and although the hard-edged urban cool, gruff vocals and deep and groovy rhythms remain, the solid north African roots of earlier releases are once more totally to the fore throughout.
Having stripped away much of the in-yer-face guitar and drums, the beguiling mix of whirling chaâbi synthesizers, accordion, oud, solid bass grooves and shuffling percussive phrasing becomes more apparent, all of which is leavened with just a taste of Arabic pop fromage.
Algeria is always the biggest North African influence, on top of which is added some down and dirty Moroccan funk, driven by the twanging woody drive of the guimbri (Moroccan bass-lute) on gnawa-influenced tracks such as the album’s high-watermark, the stark and hypnotic Laafou.
There’s plenty in the way of lighter stuff too, albeit not always as successfully delivered as the trademark rollicking Barbès fare. No No No has an enticing Moussou-T catchiness, but maybe lacks some of the Occitan troupe’s self-awareness, and Rod Balek veers too close to cod reggae at times (in contrast to Chorfa’s appealing dub skank). But these weaker moments are outweighed by tracks such as Denya, a bright slab of rai-pop which possesses the authentic ache of Algerian love balladry. And closing track Allah Idaouia is subtler still, with oud to the fore as the song shuffles along with a chorus that treads just the right side of the line between and singalongability and banality. They’ve softened quite considerably for this one have Orchestre National de Barbès, whilst retaining enough edge to keep established followers happy. A satisfying move in the right Arabic-pop-meets-roots direction.