Orchestre National de Barbès

Creation date : 1995
Country : France / Algeria
Language : Arabic
Style of music : world music
Members : Youcef Boukella, Alain Debiossat, Larbi Dida, Fateh, Kamel, Tewfik Mimouni, Aziz Sehmaoui, Jean-Baptiste Serre

The Orchestre National de Barbes, better known to music fans as the ONB, recently exploded onto the Paris music scene with their infectious world sound. This joyous band of musicians from different cultural and musical backgrounds, are united by their common passion for re-inventing traditional music from the Maghreb.

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    The Orchestre National de Barbes, better known to music fans as the ONB, recently exploded onto the Paris music scene with their infectious world sound. This joyous band of musicians from different cultural and musical backgrounds, are united by their common passion for re-inventing traditional music from the Maghreb.

    The story of the ONB dates back to the early 1980's when Youcef Boukella was hanging out in the Belcourt quarter of Algiers, listening to rock and bossa nova with his elder brothers. Boukella, a passionate music fan, went on to play bass with the first Algerian rock group T34 in 1985. But he evntually quit the group to come to Paris with the French musician Jeff Gardner. He arrived in Paris just as the rai movement was beginning to take off in the capital, and immediately found work, playing with rai star Cheb Mami and the Kabyle singer Takfarinas. The musician Safy Boutella introduced Boukella to the underground jazz scene in Paris. Boukella then went on to record a mini 4-track album with Larbi Dida (the former lead singer of the rai/rock group Raïna Raï). In 1994 Boukella recorded his début solo album "Salam".

    Larbi Dida, who was born in Sidi Bel Abbes in Algeria, also went on to become a member of the ONB. He moved to Paris in 1989, after having established himself as one of the pioneering figures of the rai movement in his homeland. One of the first rai stars to have his records played on Algerian radio, Dida went on to become one of the best-known Arab music stars in Paris.

    Aziz Sehmaoui, another friend of Youcef Boukella's, would become the next member of the ONB. Sehmaoui, a born in Morocco was brought up in Marrakesh, where he soon became a practising Sufi. Blending the traditional music of the Gnawas (the descendants of the first black slaves) with the rhythms of Western pop, Sehmaoui spent his time in Morocco performing with a variety of groups, playing both traditional music and modern electronic sounds.

    Fateh, one of the most recent additions to the group, is an exile from the Casbah in Algiers, leaving his homeland because he could no longer bear the daily violence ripping the country apart. He began playing traditional Arab/Andalusian music at an early age, but then became an adept of the Chaâbi (a popular style of music in Algiers). In the course of his career Fateh has accompanied a number of famous Chaâbi stars.

    As for Kamel, he was born in Paris in the 14th arrondissement. This talented percussionist and raggamuffin expert skillfully fuses traditional rhythms with those issuing from a hi-tech beatbox, providing the ONB with a one-man rhythm section.

    The Bougnoule Connection

    The group, which gradually formed around the central figure of Youcef Boukella, were greatly helped in the early days of their career by Djilali, the driving force behind the "Bougnoule Connection" (a group of friends who banded together to promote North African culture). Djilali spent two years helping the ONB establish themselves on the French music scene, getting them local gigs and bookings at European music festivals.

    Re-inventing traditional North African music by mixing it with modern Western sounds, the ONB constantly sought new musical fusions. Pop music and electric instruments soon became an essential ingredient of the ONB's musical melting-pot, and the group remained open to a wide range of Western influences. The ONB were frequently joined on stage by saxophonist Alain Debiossat (from the jazz band Sixun) and keyboard-players Jean-Baptiste Serré and Tewfik Mimouni, the musicians taking a very obvious pleasure in their collective jamming sessions. The group performed their first live concert at the New Morning (the legendary Paris club better known for its prestigious jazz concerts). The ONB's early performances were basically extended 'jams' during which each musician went off into wild improvisations. As the group grew used to playing in front of an audience, their concerts became a little more 'structured' but they never lost their exciting raw edge.  

    The ONB's début album, recorded live during a concert performance at L'Agora in the Paris suburb of Evry, was released in February 97. An old Gnawa squatted on the cover of the ONB's eponymous album, sticking his tongue out as if to ward off potential enemies. Following the release of the album, which the group produced themselves on the Samarkand label, the ONB performed at La Cigale in Paris (February 28th, March 1st and 2nd). The concerts proved extremely popular with the extensive North African community in Paris and attracted a large following of world music fans. On April 5th the ONB were invited to perform at the Grande Halle de la Villette as part of the African festival "Ouaga-Carthage".

    The Orchestre National de Barbes, undoubtedly at their best during their exuberant live performances, then embarked upon a tour of the major French music festivals, playing at the Printemps de Bourges festival in April, the Festival des Musiques Métisses in Angoulême in May and the Festival de la Jeunesse organised in Ivry sur Seine in June.

    The ONB went on to organise themselves into a tight-knit structure, setting up their studio, offices and rehearsal space in a disused paint factory in the Paris suburbs. In the spring of 98 the group hit the road again, performing a whole new series of concerts. One of the highlights of this recent tour was the ONB's three-night performance in Barbes, the multi-cultural African/Arab arrondissement of Paris from which the group originally took their name.

    1999: "Poulina"

    The ONB are primarily renowned for their live performances - indeed, at times the group have appeared to be so caught up in their hectic touring schedule that they have avoided studio work altogether. However, in May '99 the ONB finally got round to releasing their first long-awaited studio album "Poulina". (The group's debut album had, of course, been an entirely live affair!) In spite of their snowballing commercial success, the ONB continue to finance the production of their albums themselves, thereby guaranteeing that they retain full control over their artistic creativity. On the 1st and 2nd of May, just a few days before the release of "Poulina", the joyous band of 17 brought the house down when they performed at the legendary Olympia music-hall in Paris. The ONB also brought the house down when they appeared in Paris at Le Zénith (on 2 November), one of the dates included in the group's extensive autumn tour.

    Currently caught up in a hectic whirl of touring and festival performances, the ONB continue to build up an excellent reputation for their energetic live shows and their thoroughly infectious world beat. 

    The ONB kept up their hectic non-stop touring schedule right through until 2002. After this intensive collective experience on the road, the individual members of the group then went their own separate ways for a while, working on solo albums and projects with other bands.

    2008: "Alik"

    The ONB finally made a comeback on the recording front in February 2008, releasing their third album, "Alik". The album, recorded in the famous L'Usine studio (which was later demolished for health and safety reasons) paid tribute to the legendary figures of Algerian ‘chanson’ such as Mohamed Larbi, aka Cheikh Mamachi (via the ONB’s ultra-rock take on "Civilizi oki"), Slimane Azem (on "Résidence 2", a song evoking the trials and tribulations of immigrants) and Mohamed Mazouni (on "Lila"). "Alik" also featured a surprise reworking of the Rolling Stones’s classic "Sympathy for the Devil", a track which marked the Orchestre’s desire to branch out in new musical and cultural directions. True to their founding spirit, the ONB continued to integrate a wide range of influences in their work, fusing everything from Rai and chaâbi to reggae and traditional Gnawa trance, but this time round their new album had a strong rock bent.

    The ONB, always at their vibrant best live on stage, took to the road again shortly after the release of "Alik", performing at L'Elysée-Montmartre, in Paris (14 & 15 February 2008). They then went on to play a series of dates in France and abroad.

    2010: "Rendez-vous Barbès"

    After their flirt with rock, the ONB’s fourth album, “Rendez-vous Barbès” marked a return to their roots. Enthusiastically, the musicians reworked their original winning formula: a skilful mix of gnawa, chaâbi, allaou and raï with a touch of ska. As energetic as ever, they set off on a tour that took them from Brussels to Bobigny, via Constantine (Algeria) with performances at the Cabaret Sauvage from 26 to 31 October 2010.

    January 2011

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