Matt Unicomb dials up Casablanca to find out about an exciting new label pushing techno and electro.
Driss Bennis, cofounder of the Moroccan label Casa Voyager, is speaking to me over Skype from Casablanca. It's just after midnight. A few days earlier, the fast-talking Moroccan was stranded in Georgia. He was there for more than a week, having lost his passport during what was meant to be a short tour to Tbilisi. Customs almost didn't let him through in the first place.
"They told me they were going to put me back on a flight home," he says with a chuckle. "I think it was about citizenship, because some people from Turkmenistan were also blocked."
Travelling the world on a Moroccan passport isn't easy, but that hasn't stopped Bennis, who releases music as OCB and DJ Booth, from making Casa Voyager an exceptional up-and-coming label. Its blend of house, electro and techno has appeared across five vinyl EPs and two cassettes, all pushing a reduced, spacey sound that's snapped up by European DJs as soon as each release lands in record stores. More afterhours than peak-time, Casa Voyager's sound stretches from lush deep house (Kosh's "Casablanca Vice") and dreamy electro (Bennis's "Aquaquest Pt.2 (The Anticlimax)) to mean bleep techno (Bennis's "Computer Default").
"It's interesting to think about how you can merge your roots with what you like," says Bennis. "We want to use Moroccan rhythm patterns. We have a lot, man. And it's not 4/4 rhythms— they're super complicated. If we are able to merge those patterns with club music, then something crazy can happen. Until now, what I saw—Floating Points and James Holden with these gnawa guys—was just mashups. I think you can go further. "
Casa Voyager's grooves are up there with the best of '90s dance music, which makes them great to mix with classic sounds. In those days, Roland drum machine beats, injected with just the right amount of swing, combined with clever sampling and sound design to create dance floor bombs with plenty of feeling. The same goes for Casa Voyager. Take Kosh's "Null 212," where a boogie-style bassline darts underneath a jacking breakbeat, slapping snares and shuffling hi-hats. Then there's Bennis's "Tour De France (Ohm Track)," a twisted electro tune with a tumbling groove. Sparse but loaded with character, it's another gem in a catalogue that, so far, hasn't missed. And while Casa Voyager pushes a reduced sound, the atmosphere shifts from track to track. On Casa Sports Vol.1, its first release, Kosh's introspective electro tune "Eat A Soup" shares a side with the more positive "Keep Trying," where a wriggling bassline nods to the brighter moments of The Other People Place's Lifestyles Of The Laptop Café.
Loosely founded by a group of friends, the idea for Casa Voyager came about in 2012, but the first record didn't arrive until July 2017. Every aspect of each EP, from the graphic design to the train motifs found in the logo and track titles, is there for a reason. And while Bennis is the artist most associated with Casa Voyager, many make essential contributions. Jonas Bengio, who releases electro and IDM as Viewtiful Joe, helped fund the pressing of the first record. Moira Rosabrunetto, another friend, provides insight on the label's direction, as do the producers Malik, Jessin and Polyswitch (who Bennis calls "the Moroccan Glenn Underground").
There's also Kosh, who's provided several of Casa Voyager's most popular tracks, including "Null 212" and "Electronic Setups." His sound is deep and emotional, best deployed during a party's more psychedelic moments. "He's not involved in the non-sexy parts of the label, but his music helps build a unique sound signature," Bennis says. "He's one of the most talented artists in Morocco, and still has a lot of potential to develop. But don't ask him to help you carry the soundsystem at the end of the party."
Bennis funded the label's first release by selling most of his records and "half of my studio." It came about after a period living in Berlin, during which he helped run a business for Airbnb hosts and spent a lot of time making beats in a studio at the Friedrichshain club Salon Zur Wilden Renate. During those years, the idea for the label was never far from his mind. "We spent four years struggling to find a name," Bennis says. "We wanted to make a label for years, but we all knew that we didn't have the maturity to do so. And we didn't want to just be another label, so we waited until we had something special."
That careful consideration extends to the way Bennis views Casa Voyager's place within the scene. Part of a new wave of Arab labels and artists gaining international recognition, Casa Voyager is an important addition to global dance music. Until recently, it felt like most releases associated with the Arab world were handled by outsiders—that is, non-Arab label owners from Europe and elsewhere sampling or reissuing Arabic music for their own projects. And while many of these projects, like the Berlin-based reissue label Habibi Funk, are run by people who treat the music with sensitivity, others feel more crude. According to Bennis, the most important discussion is about the networks Moroccan artists use to showcase their work.
"There's a good example of what I want to explain in the French literary field," he says. "Some French-speaking African writers linked to the ex-colonial zone are gaining popularity and acknowledgement. Yet, as long as they are still only published by French companies, it can also be seen as cultural colonialism, as France's well-built networks keep the monopoly on African resources. It's the same in electronic music."
"Of course some kind of appropriation by Western artists exists," he says. "But two French guys playing Arab music is the same as three Arabs trying to make Detroit techno. I'm not sure a lot of Moroccans were aware of Fadoul [a '70s artist described as "Morocco's answer to James Brown"] before Habibi Funk reissued it. I think this is kind of cool."
Governed by France from 1912 to 1956, Morocco is still navigating the legacy of colonialism. (Spain governed a small portion of Morocco's territory, including the islands of Ceuta and Melilla, both of which are still contested.) French is the primary language of instruction at Moroccan universities, and France remains Morocco's biggest trading partner. Many Moroccan families speak French at home, read French newspapers and follow French politics. In the electronic music scene, clubs and parties usually promote their events in French.
"Kosh and I are like the collateral damage from colonialism," Bennis says. "We went to French schools in Morocco and learnt the French way of thinking. They sucked the Moroccan part out of us and put something else inside."
"Before colonialism, the breadth of cultural techniques and crafts was crazy," he continues. "For example, there were so many ways just to make a carpet. Or so many ways to build a house. And when French people arrived in Morocco and Algeria, they came with this idea that they had the right ways to do things. So they told the Moroccans and Algerians to do it their way. Then it stopped creativity."
Bennis sees Casa Voyager, which uses Arabic script on some releases, as a new platform for Moroccan artists, giving them a chance to release their work through a homegrown operation with established connections to the wider scene. But achieving this requires more than simply releasing good music from Moroccan producers. There must be a cultural exchange with artists outside Morocco, which Bennis believes will strengthen his label.
"There aren't enough reliable, quality Arab platforms for Arab artists to publish or release their work," Bennis says. "So they'll always prefer to work with Western labels, because they have more credibility and will get more attention for their work. If we want to break this cultural colonialism dynamic, we have to provide a platform for both Moroccan and Western artists. For this reason, we've opened the label to producers from outside scenes."
The first of these releases is Private Stock by Detroit's Filthiest, a veteran Iraqi-born producer based in the US who's been active since the '90s under names like DJ Nasty, Digitek and 313 Bass Mechanics. Released this month, it packs four raw electro tracks that are among the most energetic tunes signed to Casa Voyager. It's also a direct line to the Detroit electro sound that has inspired so much of the music its artists make and play. Later in the year, there will be an EP by the Georgian artist Cobert, who Bennis met during his time in Tbilisi.
Casa Voyager calls the series of releases established for international artists Trans World Railways, another train reference in a catalogue full of them. The label even takes its name from the Casa-Voyageurs station in central Casablanca, an important stop on the Moroccan train network. (The Casa Sports compilation series is named after a brand of notoriously cheap Moroccan cigarettes.)
"The concept came easily once I had the name," Bennis says. "The train image is super important in electronic music—the deeper I went into tracks and labels, the more I saw it. I've heard from people that each time they take the train, they think about Casa Voyager. Especially electro heads. If they see a train, they will think about our logo. That means it stays in people's minds."
Casa Voyager is likely to remain in people's minds for a while. Seven releases in, it might be the most exciting new label pushing techno and electro, run by a group of talented artists with unique perspectives. As they explore the links between the Arabic rhythms of their childhood and the mechanised electronic grooves they discovered later in life, we can expect more world-class club tracks that land in the sweet spot between funk and feeling.
It's almost 2 AM in Casablanca, and it's time to wrap up our call. "I have to talk more about my friends next time we speak," Bennis says between goodbyes. "I've only spoken about me or colonialism. That's not cool."
Even if that was true, the quality of the music on Casa Voyager speaks for itself.
Trip out to Casa Voyager’s spacey signature sound, heard in this mix of unreleased material from OCB.
Polyswitch - CSV shuffle (CSV04)
Kosh - Null 212 (CSV02)
Cobert - Forthcoming on Tbilisi Voyager
Detroit's Filthiest - The Chase Scene (TWR01)
Detroit's Filthiest - Trauma (TWR01)
OCB - Computer Default (CSV04)
DJ Nasty - Cosmic Orgasm (MCEC Detroit / Subject Detroit 032)
Cobert - Forthcoming on Tbilisi Voyager
OCB - Aquaquest (CSV01)
Kosh - Catch The Train (CSV02)
Detroit's Filthiest - Crème de la Crème (Forthcoming TWR02)
Bergsonist - Bomb Silicone (Börft165)
Kosh - Keep Hope Alive (Forthcoming CSV05)
Kosh - In A Maze (Forthcoming CSV05)
Viewtiful Joe - Victorious Orianna (Forthcoming Casa Sports Vol.3)