Zohair (ZWM)

Only a few musicians can brag about having left everything behind for punkrock. Zohair, singer and founder of Moroccan band ZWM (Zlak Wlla Moute meaning « Slide or Die ») and his fellow musicians left Rabat for Toulouse, 11 years ago. There was no certainty in anything. But despite the struggle, he doesn’t regret anything. Here’s the portrait of an anti-conformist, always true to himself : never being where one expects to find him. | By Polka.B – trad. Julie B.

When asked about what it means for him to be one of the precursors of punk in Moroccan language, he merely shrugs. As if all of this didn’t involve him directly. For Zohair, as always, nothing’s pre-calculated. As a pure punk, only functioning through instinct, he tells us : « I wasn’t even realising that. I was just doing my thing, not wondering about much. To be honest, I only realised it less than two  years ago, while watching the Chaos in Morocco documentary !». This film, directed by documentarian Clotilde Mignon, retraces the origins of punk culture in Morocco, from the 2000s to the present. « The interviewed people said that ZWM was the « first » punk band. If they say so…it might be true (Laughs) ». That is so Zohair. Indeed, when asked about what motivated him when he started, he doesn’t even mention punk. The Moroccan beaches were the first thing that motivated his desire to go away. To emancipate. To get out of tradition’s strangleholds. To feel alive. « I was attracted to sliding sports in general. Surfing, skateboarding…these are the origins of ZWM. Originally, we are amateurs of extreme sports. We used to skate all day long…It really was a link between us ». Way before the Internet era, his first encounters with music were done through a VCR. His older brother, having Moroccan friends in Spain and in the USA, regularly brought him VHS cassettes about surfing. As always, his eyes tripped on the waves…

« To me, surfers are the only guys who live concretely. When you see them surfing the wave, it’s as if they were caressing life. On the background of the images, there was a soundtrack. It was punk music. But it was « infra-underground » stuff, not famous at all ! But my ear got used to these sounds. A few years later, my friends and I found each other again. We decided to do a project called « Ride or Die ». I was ok with it, but I wanted to do it the « moroccan way ». I’d already played in a little band before, but the others had no sense of music. We really started from the bottom. They couldn’t even do the guitar chords ! That’s how it all started… He who tries nothing gets nothing. So they worked hard and they made it. The first thing we played was « Time Bomb », a Rancid cover in moroccan. Damn !! How it fitted ! Not at first, of course…because the source of pronunciation of the word is really different. The hard work was really cut the lyrics so that they would fit the melody. It really was a lot of work ! ».

The ZWM are on. With no place to practice in, no amp, and no actual instruments, they got a chance to get real with the Casablanca festival L’Boulevard in 2006.

The L’Boulevard stepping stone

Ever since the early 2000s, this event presents itself as a major reunion for all the alternative music amateurs in Maghreb (hip-hop, fusion, and rock in general). Completely free, and willing to welcome thousands of people, this festival hosts international famous musicians (Mos Def, Gojira…), as well as young local bands just starting to bloom. The local audience, generally more into metal, is surprised to discover the punks from Rabat on the stage. Their amazement grows even more when the ZWM arrive on stage, styled as ever. Zohair proudly wears a gigantic red spike, and long striped black and white socks, with his renowned transparent sandals.

« There was a message behind all this. It was true in Morocco, but could have been anywhere else. In our societies, artists are marginalised. In any other workplace, a boss would never have accepted me as I am. I would’ve had to shave my head, and put on actual shoes. The system wants something from you. Whatever you say, it remains impossible to dress the way you want to dress. To be different ».

Borrowing equipment to other musicians from the festival, the ZMW guys plug on the amps, impressed by the scenic space and the size of speakers. The crowd, being used to hearing English lyrics, now hears the first verses in its own language.

« This scene marked me. It’s the first time I ever realised there could be an interaction with people. To us, it was highly sufficient. All we wanted was to get on stage and sing, nothing more. After that, we all went out to party. Sunday evening, we went back to the festival to see the last band. It was time for the awards. And the winners of the category : rising young musicians in rock/metal… were us ! I ran, hurling myself over the crowd, to get to the stage. I was swimming on people ! It was an incredible moment, I’ll never forget it. »

Motivated by experience, the band now has only one obsession : to record some songs. And this is a particularly difficult to do, in a country that doesn’t really have infrastructures. With some struggling, the ZWM managed to find a makeshift studio. But they decided to throw away all the recordings, as they were disappointed by their poor quality. But the hope of releasing an album came back in 2009. In Toulouse, a young manager seems to be interested in the band. He wants to have them playing in France, and promises to help them record an album.

Departure to France

It’s a crisis situation for the band. Excitement is at its peak. This opportunity was unexpected, and probably will only happen once. But are all of the members of the band ready to leave it all behind and go live their dream ?

« Undertaking this « reset » is no easy thing to do. We were going to have to leave everything we had in Morocco. Some of us were following a training course…and ready to graduate ! Personally, I was working in a civil engineering company. Our former guitarist decided to stay in Morocco… but we took off anyway, in 2011. Once in France, we were confronted to problems. First : finding a roof. And it got worse with time… »

In Toulouse, the ZWM finally record some tunes and play their first concerts. But simultaneously, they face administration problems. Visa requests are complicated, and the procurement of a residence permit obeys to drastic conditions. Being foreign artists, supposedly « temporarily » on the territory, it is very difficult (or even impossible) to find work. Meanwhile, the manager’s label in Toulouse gets overwhelmed by debts and is compelled to close. There starts a long barren spell for the five members of the band.

« Between 2012 and 2015, we struggled. The former drummer left us because it was too tough. Our former bassist was depressed, he couldn’t handle it either. So we rapidly found ourselves being only three : Zak, Amine and I. To me, consequences did not matter. Whatever happened, I knew I had to do my thing. I’m used to struggling. It made me stronger. Our residence permit said « I don’t care, you’re on your own now! ». Concretely, we couldn’t work. Therefore we couldn’t eat, or have a warm place to sleep in. We started to wonder if maybe we wouldn’t have to steal everyday to be able to feed ourselves. Back when there was 5 of us, it was okay. But now, it was a free falling. We had to find alternative to survive in the jungle ! (Laughs). So we met with collectives and associations. I’m not talking about music, I’m talking about people who have experience in struggling. We opened up places, fetched food left behind in markets, supermarkets…we build ourselves. We know life for what it really is. How do you make it when you’ve got nothing ? That’s what it was about. We climbed and climbed ranks with associations for refugees, and we started working with them. Somehow, struggling made us more human. »

Even struggling to survive, Zohair, Zak and Amine don’t loose contact with each other. No more drummer, no more bassist…But ZWM’s heart is still beating.

Second wind for ZWM

In 2015, the situation starts to settle. The three friends find small jobs, and start seeing each other again. But how to restart a band when two members have left ? Without losing face, their improvise, as they always do.

« We didn’t have 50 solutions. Zak switched to the drums. He was 1000% ready ! Amine dropped the guitar for the bass. He’d never played it before ! Until then, I was only singing, so I took the guitar as well. We gathered a bit of money to get some material, and here we went again ! Between 2016 and 2017, we worked hard on our instruments. Each of us needed to know what he was doing. One year passed, and it was time for us to confirm our coup. (Laughs) To see how we performed live, we decided to organise our own concert at La Cave à Rock. First try, and it worked out good ! Here, no one understand our lyrics. But the audience reacts emotionally. It’s their soul talking, and it’s wonderful. »

Now ready to get back on stage, the three group members shoot their first videoclip « L’Fawda » (« Chaos »), in 2018. Raging on the microphone, Zohair spits his determination on a destiny that left him his friends no rest.

« I personally still am struggling, but I learned to persist in risk taking. It’s as if it had always been forbidden, but I did it anyway. I carry on ! And it works ».

In 2020, ZWM is still standing… Go to their concerts !