Call Sawt el Atlas the younger brothers of Orchestre National de Barbes on the strength of this impressively varied debut album by the Paris-based group, with its creative core drawn from two families. It's the music of second generation immigrants drinking from North African roots influences, filtered through growing up amidst the cosmopolitan musical mix of Paris.
The opening song, "Zmane," sets the tone: it's got a solid R&B/funk groove, then drops in a house piano lick, then some rai-derived Arab pop vocals over racing djerbouka beats, and finally, some heavy guitar punctuation. The reggae-inflected verses also incorporate trade-offs between the lead vocalists, and from synth to clavinet keyboard lines. Got all that? Good, because it's typical of the wide range of influences on Generaliser, although the title of "Ragga Raï" really sums up the base of the sound -- it's a funky ragga-rai-reggae party.
The key is how well Sawt el Atlas handle all their different style moves and sonic touches. The arrangements are well-crafted, full of changes and details without overplaying them; the needs of the songs rule, and the music flows unforced and organic. Sawt El Atlas have obviously thought everything through -- the songs go well beyond riff and groove formulas -- but nothing is gratuitous, and all that thinking hasn't squeezed dry the life and emotion in the music. The title track leans toward the rai side: mixed funky bass and JB-scratch rhythm guitar, before throwing in a pushing ragga transition. The keyboard atmospherics of "Arde Lille" -- the title ("Lille Is Burning") makes you wonder about social commentary in the lyrics -- give way to upbeat rai, driven by strong vocals, phat bass, and drums crackling on the offbeat.
The easy-skanking "Rabra Bina" returns to the ragga-rai home base blend, "Immigré" sports a sunny Jamaican groove, and fine singing and sensitive djerbouka on "Natchtou" shows that the group can adroitly handle a ballad. The uptempo "Amri" veers closer to funk, and "Sbabi" opens with heavy slide guitar before veering into an intriguingly strange half-funkin', half-skankin' groove, with djerbouka filling in the spaces. But Sawt El Atlas make it work, which you've come to expect by this point, on a very mature and confident debut that avoids false steps or shaky moves.