The Maghreban


The stripped-down second album by Ayman Rostom grows slowly on Jaša Bužinel

Born Ayman Rostom and alternatively known as hip-hop beatmaker Dr. Zygote, The Maghreban is a producer with a singular ability for fusing leftfield hip-hop, house and downtempo patterns with African and Middle Eastern jazz modes as well as contemporary global club rhythms. His music has been on and off my radar for a long time now, so the news of his upcoming second album, which follows his (2018) debut 01deas got me excited.

About six years ago I stumbled upon his bouncy percussive house heater <a href"”target=”out”>‘Brooklyn’ marked by an infectious bassline and hypnotic chants. My interest in his fairly stripped-down, percussion-driven productions infused with Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern melodic and rhythmic traditions was sparked even more by his 2018 EP for R&S Records, especially by the spiralling buildups of the track ‘Carpet Bombing’. These productions truly resonated with me, so my expectations for his second album were fairly high.

Another example of pandemic-inspired intercultural collaborative projects, Connection sees The Maghreban join forces with various international artists, including British neo-soul hero Omar and clarinettist/saxophonist Idris Rahman, Kenyan rapper Nah Eeto and Egyptian singer Abdullah Miniawy. They all come from different musical backgrounds, opening up Connection to a wide spectrum of influences. But in comparison with his previous outings, it feels like he has discarded something crucial, something hard to pinpoint – it is about the fabric of his sound, which is now very straightforward, bare-boned, condensed to mere essentials. I miss some of the additional layers and dusty details that were interspersed throughout his previous outings, which boasted a sense of analogue warmth and organic musicianship.

The album covers various bases, from early vocal house à la Mr Fingers (the track ‘Waiting’ with Omar), introspective UK breakbeat (‘Baby’), contemporary London-born grooves blending UK funky and Afrogrime elements (‘Got Your Number’) and eccentric sax-infused electro jams (‘Moving’) to acid jazz spin-offs, syncopated deep house/downtempo tunes in the Matthew Herbert/Theo Parrish mould (‘Synanon’, ‘Black Seed Oil’) and other jazz-tinged mutations (‘Anzilli’, ‘Celebratory Relapse’). On ‘Without You’, with its synthetic kalimba melody and vocal chops, he almost goes full “Plastic People-era” Four Tet style. Connection undoubtedly showcases The Maghreban’s vast range of sensibilities and aesthetic inclinations, but as a whole the record lacks something which would make it a proper head turner.

I was not impressed by it at all initially, to be honest, but it slowly grew on me with each new listen. It is a record where not too much actually happens after the initial musical idea of a track is presented. Too often, they feel undercooked and lacking substance. There is obviously a Maghreban thread, connecting the diverse tonalities of MENA countries, that runs through almost all of his productions, but you get the sense that he is merely scratching the surface, and not really making use of its full potential. The album sets a distinct mood, which absorbs you in, but I cannot get rid of the idea that it verges on sophisticated coffee-table music, balancing between lighthearted moments and more introspective passages.

Even though I am totally down for simple beats-based albums without any overarching theme, as a whole Connection lacks the cohesion and punchiness that would make it more than a simple collection of explorative house-inflected jams. In a way, it reminds me of last year’s M’berra, a collaborative album between Italian producer/DJ Khalab and the M’berra Ensemble consisting of musicians living in the M’berra refugee camp. But maybe due to its different recording process, it misses the same kind of intercultural connection that Khalab managed to capture on his LP. The Maghreban’s music aims for the kosmische, but it feels like he only manages to slightly touch the edge of the atmosphere, never actually catapulting you into space.

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