Ghoula’s Presentation

Ghoula is an artist, musician, producer and composer. In 2016, he released his first album entitled ‘Hlib el-Ghoula’, (Shouka / Inouïe Distribution) which means “Ogress Milk” in Tunisian dialect and which refers to something untraceable and rare.

Rare as the vinyls that Ghoula searchs for and finds in North of Africa, to create his unexpected and alternative compositions which mixes electro sounds and traditional music.

Second album “Half-skimmed” (release scheduled for late 2020)

After touring with his first album “Hlib el Ghoula” in France, Tunisia, Lebanon and Morocco (2016 – 2018), Ghoula decided to take a step back and reshape his artistic approach by composing his second album “Demi-Ecreme” (which means half skimmed, release scheduled in late 2020). Like the previous album “Hlib el Ghoula”, the album “Demi Ecreme” is inspired by traditional North African music, which he transforms through his own distinctive electronic compositions and style.

The album “Demi Ecreme” was made possible thanks to the program (Aid in musical production) from Al Mawred Al thaqafy, and a year-long artistic residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts (Paris).

Ghoula-Bambara-Demi écrémé
© Bert Juliaan


“As the ritual unfolds, the bodies respond to one another and they are transformed. Entranced, the dancers are visited by spirits or seized by saints… sometimes both.”


The song « BAMBARA »

Bambara, the song released from Ghoula’s new album “Demi Écrémé” was created from a sample of Abd el Mejid Mihoub’s voice, who is one of the virtuosos “Yenna”, grand master of Stambali in Tunisia.

The initial track from wich the samples have been sourced to create “Bambara” were recorded by Richard Jankowsky date. An American researcher at the University of Chicago and author of the book “Stambeli: Music, Trance and Alterity in Tunisia”. He conducted ethnographic research on origins of Stambali music in Tunisia. To conduct his research, R. Janwosky was hosted by the masters of Dar Barnû – the house of Bornou – in Tunis. It is one of the last and oldest community houses which welcomed sub-Saharan slaves and migrants in the past. This community house still serves as a place of representation for Stambali ceremonies. As R. Jankowsky mentions in his book, he was able to attend sessions of divination, sacrifices and Stambali ceremonies, given by Master Abd El Majid Mihoub.

In order to tame the musical universe of the song “Bambara”, we must look back to the origins of Stambali culture in Tunisia, its celebrations, traditions and rituals. Stambali culture was introduced by Sub-Saharan Africa’s diaspora, particularly by a community called Bambara when travelling to north Africa and Tunisia. Bambara community are Mandingo people finding their origins from West Africa, who settled mainly in Mali and whose Bamabara language is spoken by 82% of the country’s population. They are also present in Senegal, Guinea, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and Niger.

According to JM Lesage, in the article “Gnawa” (in Berber Encyclopedia): “The Afro-Maghrebian set, having its origins in the Aoussa and the Bambaras, as well as in certain cultures of the Senegalese zone and also including the rituals of the Tunisian Stambali along with the Līla of the Gnāwa”

Bambara-Ghoula-Demi écrémé
© Bert Juliaan

The origins of Stambali

Stambali is a name given to the Afro-Tunisian culture. These practices were inherited by the descendants of sub-Saharan salves and migrants, who settled in Tunisian, over the years.

Stambali is part of the Tunisian musical history and heritage. It designates spiritual music and therapeutic ceremonies, where the master of ceremony invokes spirits and divinities in order to cast out evils and heal the soul. 

Stambali music is the equivalent of Gnawa music in Morocco, Diwane music in Algeria and Makeli music in Libya. But the ancestors of this culture remains Bambara (people of West Africa), the Haussa (people of the Sahel), the Kanuri (people of West and Central Africa) or the Songhay (people of West Africa ‘West).

Before being Muslim and Christian, countries of sub-Saharan Africa were animists (belief in a spirit, a force which animates human beings and objects as well as natural elements). For example, among the Haussa, the Bori is a cult of possession that originates from the ancient pre-Islamic religion. The pantheon of Bori is based on a set of deities classified by category. Each supernatural spirit is invoked by its own drum beat. Moreover, a music, a color, a sacrifice, a ritual is assigned to each of these deities. According to Ahmed RAHAL, in “The Tunisian Stambali” (Circles of New Studies in Anthropology), Stambali is a culture made up: “of a syncretic religious system, associating a cult of possession of African origin, the worship of the Bori (African divinities), with the Maghrebi popular Sufism”.

These “habits and customs” are also found in Stambali music, where a song is played to invoke each spirit. As an example, the piece Stambali “Maalem Soufou” refers to a mythical spirit which has a central place among the deities and which contains its own rituals. The title “Doudou Brahim” (Moulay Brahim) pays homage to the spirit of the sea. We also find songs performed for pleasure like “Mariammo”.

The Stambali ceremony

The “Yenna” Master represents the “conductor” of the Stambali ceremony. He sets the tempo with his musical instrument the Gumbri: Lute with three strings, he is also the Lead Vocalist through his voice. The “Yenna” performs songs of praise and invocation, also called noubas. 

He is often accompanied by several musicians with choirs and Chkakchek (karkabou) and sometimes with Bendir or Tabla (large two-sided barrel drum).

Among the big names of “Yenna” in Tunisia, we find: Abdelmajid Mihboub, his son Belhassen Mihoub, Hamadi Bidali, Hafedh Haddad or even Habib Jouini.

During Stambali ceremonies, Gumbri is the primary medium of communication with spirits. Once contact is established, the “Yenna” sends the genies to the assembly present to make them dance. As soon as a spirit takes possession of a dancer, the musical cadence increases tenfold to gain the favors of the divinity invoked.

For the deity, this is a rare opportunity to discover the human world, which generally allows the host to be at peace for the rest of the year. The ceremony is therefore considered a successful “healing”. The goal of the session is to invite the spirit into the host’s body. The trance dance constitutes an offering for the spirit that does not lead to a final healing, it is rather a means of managing the virtual relationship between the helpless human and the holy or malicious spirit.

Bambara-Ghoula-Demi écrémé
© Bert Juliaan

Stambali heritage preservation

“Culture without my culture acculturates me” Jean ODOUTAN

A fascinating music, Stambali has lost its aura in Tunisia. However, this culture is still practiced thanks to mythical places like Dar Barnû that continue to celebrate and maintain this unique heritage. In addition, up until today, this ancestral culture maintains strong links with its roots, allowing the Tunisian sub-Saharan community to remember its origins, by exorcising its pains and by conveying hope… An affirmation of belonging to avoid sinking in acculturation.

The lyrics of the song “Bambara”

The lyrics of the title Bambara, like many songs in the Stambali repertoire, are not all understandable because they come from the vernacular languages still spoken today in West Africa, inherited from the Bambara, Kanuri or Songhay peoples.

These pieces from the Stambali repertoire were able to survive thanks to the oral transmission of its descendants, who knew how to preserve their culture, heritage and rituals, despite their conversion to Islam through history.

Bambara-Ghoula-Demi écrémé
© Bert Juliaan

The sampling

Bambara is a song based on a variety of pieces of traditional music (called samples) extracted from old compositions that carries a great weight of heritage and culture. Just like the title “Bambara”, before starting the sourcing process for each extract of traditional music that I “sample” from a vinyl, I always ask myself the following question: “How far can I go with this material, with this stamp, with this melody, with this rhythm?”

What is noticeable in the technique of sampling, is the process of detaching a voice from its initial universe in order to teleport it and place it within a new musical orchestration that I compose to guide this new creation. While I do this preparation work of sampling, it feels like I am connected back to the musician who has initially created the sound. He actually offers me the opportunity to revive his sounds trough my music, which I’d like to think that I am composing for him as well across the dimension of time.

My artistic approach is not intended to transform or distort the essence of the samples that I use, but it is rather a way of employing the raw material of sounds while respecting its nature and its particularities. As you can hear the samples of Abd El Majib Mihoub that I used for the song “Bambara”.

Finally, my background work and musical research helps me understand the richness of ancient cultures and rituals. This is a way of protecting and promoting the diversity and abundance of North African heritage and traditions, which is reflected through a modernistic and more alternative vision of music that I have.

The Bambara music video directed by Bert Juliaan Vercruysse

In order for you to visualize the Stambali culture, I went to a great artist, Bert Juliaan Vercruysse, Belgian director of animated films. He received our request with great consideration and accepted to work with on the music video.

Due to the Coronavirus lockdown, we communicated with Juliaan through videoconference over several sessions. This exchanges allowed us to outline the main guiding lines of our common project: The making of a music video. 

It turned out later that B.J Vercruysse was also an amateur of sampling, not for sounds but that of image and animations.

In this music video, he managed to explore and use the Afro-Maghrebi patterns that emanate from crafts, decorative art, traditional carpets patterns, fabrics, z’liz (pieces of colored earthenware tiles) originating from South of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, to create a palette of colors specific to the region.

B.J. Vercruysse took an innovative look at the project. Thanks to the image, he symbolized a fresco evoking a Stambali ceremony. All dimensions of the painting were exposed in harmony. You could see this through the animation of The “Yenna”, the Gumbri, the musicians of Chkachek, the characters in trance and the sacrificed animals in the video. The music video is thus, a nod to moorish architecture by the presence of mosaics and traditional doors, existing in present day Tunisia, as well as an important culinary aspect found in the representation of couscous and tea, available during Stambali ceremonies.

Finally, the music video represents the Stambali tradition in its whole splendor. Bert has majestically succeeded in making a poetic translation of it, sublimated by the images of this particular universe. A mesmerizing clip that tells and shows the stambali ceremony in great details, which is a strong part of the Tunisian history, heritage and culture.

Bambara-Ghoula-Demi écrémé
© Bert Juliaan

Why Stambali?

The Stambali is the name given to the north region of Tunisia, as the south region of the country is called “The Banga”. Thus, a shift in meaning occurs, since in the Tunisian language, “Banga” means a noisy person and this, in reference to the very loud sounds released by the Chkachek (karkabou).

The idea of producing an artwork around Stambali is not new to me. In fact, I have had the opportunity to explore this culture since my childhood and first steps in music. It is a way of showing that Stambali is not reduced to music but refers to a culture with its own traditions, codes, symbols, rituals, colors, outfits, music, instruments and scent of incense. All this is topped by an overflowing energy around the culture of trance, its rounds and its choreographies. Hence why making a clip with Bert Verrcruysse and writing this presentation around Stambali with Faïza Lellou (Artistic Director of Wah Wah Prodà) was initially a challenge, but the Sample of the great Abd el Majid Mihoubi has made the song “Bambara” a mixture of traditional Tunisian heritage reflected in a modern appreciation of music. 

We could also go as far as comparing Stambali culture to Hip Hop culture, sometimes reduced to a secondary and non-conformist culture, and yet it is more than just a musical style. Similarities are found in that both cultures are based on 4 main pillars: dance, Graffiti or Street art, Beatmaking and Rap flow just like the Stambali flow.

Any musical style existing can only represent the embodiment of a societal and human wealth and traditions. We would like to think that the Stambali music belongs to this category of cultural wealth, carrying a huge amount of traditions, that we consider our responsibility to revive, transmit and disseminate through time and history.

Ghoula & Faïza Lellou