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Maghreb Jazz and crossovers, a Dutch guitarist’s passion for Moroccan music

Jan Wouter Oostenrijk is a Dutch guitarist who is fascinated with Moroccan music. With his special guitar, the musician creates crossovers that bring Western and African music together, relying on Chaabi and Gnawa melodies.

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Jan Wouter Oostenrijk, a Dutch guitarist who plays Moroccan music. / Ph. Eddy Taatgen

Jan Wouter Oostenrijk spent twenty-five years of his career as a Jazz and Blues adamant trying to find the most perfect and smoothest way of marrying his Western-oriented guitar solos with authentic Moroccan music. It was no easy task, but it was definitely a successful one that allowed him to learn a lot about the Moroccan and North African cultures.

Jan’s love for Chaabi, Rai and Gnawa music started in Amsterdam, his hometown. He was a Jazz student when he discovered North African music. «I was studying at the Conservatory of Amsterdam when I met some Moroccan guys, who had this Rai band», the Dutch guitarist recalled.

«It was love at first song», when Jan heard what these young people had to offer. «They played only Rai music … songs of Cheb Khaled, Cheb Hasni and all these famous chebs», he told Yabiladi.

After playing all these hit Rai songs, Jan and his Moroccan band started making their own music. But it was different from what he is doing today. «In the beginning, I was more of a Western guitar player for the band, playing jazz and blues solos», he said, adding that after a couple of years he decided to create his own mix out of it, marrying both Western and Moroccan music.

Discovering Moroccan music

But to fulfill such a task, Jan had to pack for Morocco to really know more about the culture he was about to translate with his guitar. «I spent two months traveling around Morocco, visiting cities like Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, Nador and Oujda as well as villages», the guitarist said.

In addition to his discovery trip to the North African Kingdom, Jan learnt Moroccan Arabic, Darija, in the Netherlands to better understand all these Moroccan musical genres.

Since then, his life took a different turn, focusing mainly on what he likes to call Sharqui Blues and Maghreb Jazz. «I like these rhythms, these multi-layered Chaabi patterns and all the unique instruments we don’t find here, such as Bendir and Krakeb», he proudly said.

Crossovers to understand cultures

Jan worked hard to incorporate these «optimistic melodies», as he likes to call them, to his guitar skills. He had even made a special guitar for that, to mimic the sounds of Moroccan music. «I made a special guitar for this kind of music, I call it a quarter tone guitar, with extra frets on its neck», he explained. This guitar allows the musician to create quarter tones or micro tones sounds like the ones found in the Arab and Eastern tones system.

Then, the rest is left to his improvising and creativity. «I like to improvise and make new things out of old songs», he said. But his message to the world is actually bigger than only making music.

«What I do is mainly about connecting cultures and that is very important. I see a lot of Western people who do not really understand the Arab culture and the other way around and I want music to play that role, bringing people together and introducing cultures».

Jan Wouter

And that actually worked, in both Morocco and the Netherlands, where a big Moroccan diaspora is based. Although old people might question his musical style or not understand it, «young people really enjoy it», Jan stressed. «Even in Morocco, I see young people admiring Western music and enjoying these crossovers», he added.

Indeed, Jan played several times in Morocco and did several collaborations with Moroccan and North African singers, including Farid Ghennam and Karim Ziad as well as Majid Bekkas and Maalem Mahmoud Guinea. He also travels the world with his music, performing in several countries in both Africa and Europe.

Jan is all about learning more about the Arab world and its music. He is planning to do a master’s degree in the quarter tone guitar and Taqsim, which refers to melodic musical improvisation done with the lute.

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