Mohamed, being the band that has graced the line-up of the festival the most times, Panache Culture are the uncrowned kings of Reggae Geel. How does that make you feel?
Mohamed Hamra (bass): "(laughs) Well, this year we're celebrating our 25th anniversary so that definitely comes with some history. I think we can humbly say we represent the foundation of reggae music in Wallonia, but as the proverb states: ""A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house." (Matthew 13:57, red.). If I remember correctly, the first time we played here was in 1995, so about twenty years ago, and this year will be our fourth time at Reggae Geel."
At the core of Panache Culture were four brothers with Moroccan roots. How did reggae music enter your lives?
Mohamed Hamra: "I've been listening to reggae music for as long as I can remember. I grew up listening to bands like Steel Pulse, Aswad, Burning Spear and so on. That being said, as you just mentioned, we're of Moroccan descent and we've always integrated that heritage in the music we played with Panache Culture. That's also what the Panache Culture band name is all about of course: our music is a blend of influences from different genres and cultures. Personally I believe the fact we were four brothers - I have to say were, as Aziz, who played keyboards in the band, sadly passed away - made for a chemistry you wouldn't easily experience in a regular line-up."
How do you remember your brother Aziz? What kind of a person was he?
Mohamed Hamra: "I mostly remember him in a musical context, as what we did together all the time was exactly that: play music. I still miss the rhythmicity he brought to the Panache Culture sound. Aziz' death has left a hole in our hearts that will probably never be filled again, but we have to carry on regardless and try to uphold his legacy."
Panache Culture has a longstanding relationship with the Dutch RUNN Records label. How did that story get started?
Mohamed Hamra: "When we were just starting out we invited Guido (Delvoux, red.) to come and see us play at Cool Running (coffeeshop in Maastricht, The Netherlands, red.) one night. He was so impressed with what he heard that he immediately asked us if we would be interested to work with them. It was the start of a working relationship and friendship that's lasted for over two decades now. Due to the changes in the music business, like so many smaller labels, RUNN Records eventually also folded."
Have you guys adapted or changed the way you work to survive?
Mohamed Hamra: "Definitely so! In the twenty-five years that we've been around we've not only seen reggae music change from Rasta and roots influenced to slack and homophobic and back again. Where sales are concerned, as I already said a lot of the independent reggae labels that were around when we started in the business don't exist anymore, so the only way we can survive is to try and set up our own label and distribute our music ourselves. In the end what's most important for us is not the money side of things but the fact we can get our music out there and the internet is the perfect medium for that."
Recently Panache Culture got involved in a project involving the music of Amadeus Mozart. What was that project all about?
Mohamed Hamra: "One of the other things I'm involved in is making movies and in that capacity I was asked by a friend of mine who works with the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, if I would be interested in doing a documentary about a collaborative project they were doing with disabled people. I also work as a youth worker in one of the youth centers in Liège and filming that project gave me the idea to take things a step further and combine Mozart's music with reggae and hip-hop, so I could also get these often deprivileged youths involved. The project was originally intended as a unique one-time event, but it was such a great success that we would now also like to turn it into an album."
Being of Moroccan decent, I'm guessing you guys will have had a Muslim upbringing? How did you reconcile that with the Rastafarian philosophy often present in reggae music?
Mohamed Hamra: "I don't think we've ever pretended to be a Rastafarian inspired band. To us music is music. You don't need to be religious to play reggae music. The main thing we shared with the reggae musicians coming from Jamaica is the fact we all come from some kind of ghetto and we've all experienced suffering and inequality; over there it was black versus white and over here immigrants versus natives. To me that is the true universal message of reggae music."