Blog May 2, 2017
Gnawa Springs Eternal

This spring has been a rich one for the Gnawa lovers of New York. If you know where to listen, the irresistible shuffle of Gnawa’s metal qraqebs and mesmeric melodies of the guembri have been in the air more than they usually are and in spaces where they have rarely been. From the weeklong Gnawa Festival Tour in March to a very special performance by local group Innov Gnawa on April 20, here’s a rundown of what has been happening.

To begin, for those new to Gnawa music, here’s a primer (excerpted from a previous Afropop post): Gnawa (or Gnaoua) is a musical and spiritual lifeblood of Morocco. The origins of this trance-inducing music lie with the people taken from the Sahel as slaves to Morocco beginning in the 12th century and given the label “Gnawa” (likely derived from a Hausa demonym for those from Kano,Nigeria). Although enslavement stripped them of liberty, they kept their musical knowledge and animistic traditions, which eventually morphed into Gnawa, only in recent decades recognized as a central part of Morocco’s cultural heritage. One can hear traces of these origins by listening to music made by hunters (donsow) in Mali. 

Gnawa music is made with the three-string guembri or sentir (akin to a larger, bass version of Mali’s ngoni) played by the maalem (master) and the hypnotic, rhythm-keeping metal qraqeb (similar to large castanets). In Morocco, Gnawa is something of a underground national music, maintained in a more traditional form by maalems and blended with globalized music like rock, reggae and hip-hop to create some beautiful, contemporary Moroccan sounds (or with dance, like these breakdancing Gnawis). Gnawa is changing in other ways too: the generally male-dominated musical form is seeing more women take center stage on guembri and qraqeb, like Asmâa Hamzaoui.

Since the early 20th century, Gnawa has been gaining recognition beyond North Africa as well; Jamaican-American writer Claude McKay’s promoted the music during the Harlem Renaissance, and many jazz and blues musicians who have been inspired since, Randy Weston, Ornette Coleman, Peter Gabriel and Carlos Santana among them. In New York City today, the live Gnawa scene is burgeoning, in large part thanks to the work of Innov Gnawa. We’ve heard from Innov Gnawa quite a bit since Samir Langus and Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer founded the group three years ago. 

Langus came up in the city of Agadir on Morocco’s southwest coast, raised in an Aïssawa family—a different Moroccan musical tradition that mainly uses the reedy ghaita and the bentir drum. However, it was the pulse and melodies of Gnawa music that captivated Langus, inspiring him to learn the style even though, as he says, “Being a Gnawi in Morocco, it’s kind of a shame.” Langus explains that Gnawis don’t get the respect they deserve, despite the popularity of the music. Aspirations to learn Gnawa are often met with negativity. His vision is to change that attitude and set up a school in New York to teach Gnawa and other Moroccan musical styles.

With Innov Gnawa, Langus is making headway. After making his way to the U.S., he teamed up with a Gnawi elder in New York, the much-respected Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer from Fes, Morocco, who leads the group with his voice, guembri and vast Gnawa repertoire. This past March was particularly exciting as New York saw its first ever of Gnawa Festival Tour. In celebration of the 20th annual renowned Gnawa and World Music Festival in Essaouira, Morocco, a delegation of Gnawis came to New York for a week of music. The festivities opened with a performance in the airy David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, featuring three big names:  Maalem Hamid El Kasri, Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane and Innov’s own Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer. Maalems El Kasri and Alikkane are popular Gnawis in Morocco and all three Maalems go way back to before Maalem Ben Jaafer came to the U.S. It was an ebullient party of a concert; an adoring, well-versed crowd sang and danced along with song after song as the three maalems traded center stage, supported by a core kouyous (chorus of qraqeb-playing Gnawis).

Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane - Photos by Sebastian Bouknight Maalem Hamid El Kasri

This party showed one of the dimensions of Gnawa music—the popular dance music performed in secular settings, with kids and adults dancing and clapping on the floor in front of the Gnawis. A few nights later, a lila took place at the New School’s School of Jazz, sculpting a very different kind of Gnawa atmosphere and one more deeply rooted in history. An otherwise bland meeting room in school’s very modern building was transformed by ornate rugs, fine leather cushions, a copper incense burner and intricate metal lanterns filled with string lights. The lila ceremony is the more traditional side of Gnawa, the spiritual setting where the music evolved and Sahelian animist arts syncretized with Islamic praise singing. The lila (meaning “night” in Arabic) takes place after the sun sets, often stretching through all hours of the night with Gnawa flowing from an open tap. The Lila stage

When all were seated and the lights were dimmed, the Gnawis—mostly members of Innov Gnawa—came marching in, singing and playing qraqeb and the large frame drum called tbel. Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane was presiding over the evening, with a surprise guest: Hassan Hakmoun, a well-traveled, New York-based maalem and fusion musician who has collaborated with a broad set of musicians outside of the realm of Gnawa: Don Cherry, Adam Rudolph, Peter Gabriel and the like. Hakmoun and Maalem Alikkane traded the guembri, each adding their own personal flair to the position. Gnawis

After opening the ceremony with just percussion and song (and dance), the Gnawis sat on the cushions and started into lila repertoire, led by Maalem Alikkane on the guembri. The ensemble was super tight and the intimate setting amplified the hypnotic quality of the loud qraqebs. A key element of lila ceremonies lives in the spiritual dimension: the event begins with songs welcoming spirits to the space as incense is lit and a hope is that, at some point, somebody will be inhabited by those spirits be compelled into dancing. Sure enough, after some of the more practiced and showy dance moves pulled out by the kouyous, Samir Langus dropped his head and qraqebs and was then helped by a fellow Gnawi to stand in front of the maalem, where he then danced frenetically, overcome by some strong spirit. Hassan Hakmoun, Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane and Samir Langus

During the performance a large platter of plump dates was sitting in front of the Gnawis and at the end, they were handed out to the audience. They were the most delicious, juiciest dates I’ve ever tasted; I was told that was probably due to all of the baraka—blessing or divine presence—generated by the lila.

There was more music in this week of Gnawa than could be fit in one post, but here’s one more performance that shows yet another dimension of Gnawa music: fusion. At Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works, the visiting and local Gnawis got together for a night of boundary-blurring music making. They teamed up with rock drummer Will Calhoun and musicians Marcus Strickland, Marc Cary and Jamaaladeen Tacuma to craft something that blurred the lines between jazz, rock and Gnawa. Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane - Photos by Sabir El Mouakil Will Calhoun

Maalem Hamid El Kasri Supergroup: Maalems Hassan Ben Jaafer, Hassan Hakmoun, Hamid El Kasri and Abdeslam Alikkane Will Calhoun, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Marcus Strickland and Marc Carey

Just a few weeks later, after the visiting maalems went home, Innov Gnawa came together again at BRIC in Brooklyn to open for Malian guitar maestro Vieux Farka Touré. The band was in finest form, filling the space with their songs and again marching in from behind the audience with qraqeb and tbel. Maalem Ben Jaafer’s impassioned voice and lyrical guembri playing led the group. For a few songs, Samir Langus took over on the guembri, showing his talent as a future maalem.

Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer Samir Langus

There’s continuity from one performance to the next in lyrics and melody but every rendition varies according to the energy of the musicians and of the audience; an improvised section may be drawn out or a chorus repeated. The Gnawis have to be highly tuned in to each other to keep in sync. The kouyous watch the maalem, reading his flow of sound for signals to abruptly change tempos or switch to a new rhythm, something Innov Gnawa does remarkably well. Those playing qraqebs have to listen very closely to keep their rhythms exactly aligned – at a galloping tempo, one little slip can send the delicately balanced cycle into a tangled jumble. It says something about the depth of experience and intimacy with the music for a group of five or six to be able to move so deftly together.

The pairing of Innov Gnawa and Vieux Farka Touré was a keen choice, considering the historic bonds between the music of each. Touré recognized the link between Gnawa and the music of northern Mali, saying in an interview with Afropop, that “It’s the same, man; the Gnawa music and the music from the north of Mali–the real same, no difference. Just these people are playing with the ngoni [guembri] and we’re playing the guitar, but it’s the same man, very same.”

Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer

Most recently, Innov Gnawa had another unique offering, this time at the Greenwich House Music School (GHMS) in Manhattan’s West Village, where we recently caught a show by jazz artist Michael Mwenso. The band was coming off a stint of performances with British DJ and producer Bonobo (with whom they’ve collaborated), including one at Coachella Music Festival. In the significantly more laid-back atmosphere of GHMS’s small performance space, the Gnawis presented a less common repertoire: that of the tradition of Sebtiyin. Sebtiyin – meaning Saturdays – is a repertoire that grew out of centuries of gatherings held by Morocco’s Jewish community in partnership with their Gnawi neighbors. Jews have had a presence in Morocco long before Islam and the Gnawa (and before even Sephardic Jews came via Spain, indigenous Berber Jews were practicing there). The Jewish community and the Gnawis had mutual reverence, gathering together on Saturdays (Shabbat in Hebrew, Sebt or Sabt in Arabic) to play music and celebrate.

Samir Langus and Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer - Photos by Peter Parrella

Innov Gnawa’s Sebtiyin performance began with a prayer in Hebrew. The Gnawis were seated on cushions and, in the tradition of Sebtiyin, were all wearing varying garb instead of their usual matching dress and headpieces adorned in cowries. To a listener not well acquainted with the corpus of Gnawa music, the Sebtiyin songs aren’t outwardly distinct in musical style from the rest. But this collection emerged out of these particular interfaith celebrations and represents a grand idea of the diverse but unified society that Morocco can be. These shared spiritual songs, merging Sahelian spirituality and language with the common Abrahamic saints and stories of Islam and Judaism, offer a vision of Morocco where, as one Gnawi said, “above all else, you’re Moroccan.” Another Gnawi read a poem by a Moroccan rabbi, David Bouzaglou, that spoke to that effect: “This night, Hebrews and Arabs are all seated together – they rejoice with musical instruments and singing…One can no longer distinguish between a Hebrew and his Arab brother, or if they are city dwellers or villagers: the good spirit overtakes them all.”

If the past few months’ bounty of Gnawa suggests anything, it’s that Samir Langus’ vision for Gnawa in New York is blossoming. Innov Gnawa frequently plays at Barbès in Brooklyn and no doubt will be playing more around the city in the future. If you can’t get enough of Moroccan music, you’re in luck!

Afropop’s Sebastian Bouknight is soon to be headed to the World Sacred Music Festival in Fes, Morocco and will be bringing back all kinds of sights, sounds and words -- keep and eye and an ear out.

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