M&A Review


Gnawa Leila

Guimbri and Lead Vocals: Amida Boussou (vol. I); Ma'allem Sam (Mohammed Zourhbat) and Ma'allem Hmidah (Ahmed Boussou) (vol. II-V).
Produced by Antonio Baldassarre and Michel Pagiras for Al Sur. Distribution: Media 7, 14 rue des Goulvents, 92000 Nanterre, France.



Sooner or later, nearly every visitor to Morocco encounters the Gnawa, acrobatic performers in cowrie-covered clothing, who twirl the long tassels on their caps like tops as they dance to the polyrhythmic accompaniment of double metal castanets and two bass side drums. Gnawa troupes perform for tourist buses at the gate of the Casbah of Tangier, and they bring down the house at the annual Festival of Folklore in Marrakech. Most famously, one or two groups of Gnawa appear each afternoon on Jamaa el Fna, the great entertainment square at the heart of Marrakech, where the performers spend less time in twirling their tassels than in passing the hat to spectators.

Public performances by the Gnawa appear to be light entertainment, and rather frivolous at that, but there is another domain where Gnawa music is very serious indeed. In all-night ceremonies, known as derdeba or lila, Gnawa musicians and officiants perform for the pleasure of beneficial spirits and for the propitiation of malicious ones, in order to secure peace of mind and cure the diseases of their devotees. The ritual is structured around a series of dance suites dedicated to seven families of saints and spirits, each characterized by specific colors, odors, flavors, feelings, actions, and sounds. In short, this is quite literally (or spiritually) a different world, marked by transformations of all the senses.

The Gnawa have their roots in communities of Sub-Saharan Africans, mostly from the region of the old Mali empire, who were brought to Morocco as slaves and mercenaries, starting in the 16th century. (Similar communities, with similar practices, exist in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya as well.) Their background is reflected in their belief system, which draws on both Islam and traditional Sub-Saharan religions. Many of the spirits in the Gnawi pantheon have close analogues in West Africa, and others bear the names of tribes in the Sahel, such as Bambara, Fulani, and so forth. At the same time, members of the group consider themselves to be good Muslims and they behave accordingly, praying, fasting, and carrying out other religious duties. The musicians sing primarily in Arabic, and their songs constantly invoke the name and epithets of Allah; furthermore, at least two of the families include Muslim saints, like Moulay AbdelQader Jilali and Moulay Brahim, who are well known in Morocco and the rest of the Islamic world; finally, several other sections of the derdeba --even those dedicated to Sudanic spirits--begin with hymns of praise to the Prophet Mohamed. In short, the Gnawa are nothing if not practical and ecumenical. The duality--or multiplicity--of their beliefs is resolved in the character of their patron saint, Bilal, the freed Ethiopian slave who became the Prophet's first muezzin (caller to prayer).

A lila (lit., night) generally lasts from sunset until dawn, and in some cases a full derdeba may stretch over several nights. The length depends in part on the mood of the participants, the number of spirits who must be propitiated, the seriousness of each case, and the resources of the sponsors. Some sections may get little more than a perfunctory run-through, but all seven families of spirits must be acknowledged in the music.

Drums (tbel, pl. tbola) figure in the lila just as they do in public performances, but their ceremonial role is relatively limited. The barbell-shaped castanets (qaraqeb), on the other hand, are as indispensable for trance-dancing as they are for entertainment music. The principal instrument, however, is a three-stringed lute known by a variety of names (guimbri, sintir, hajhouj). The guimbri has a semi-spiked construction, with a skin-covered body, sliding leather tuning rings, and a sistrum-like sound-modifier at the end of the neck. The morphology and the playing technique of the guimbri have obvious connections to West African instruments like the khalam and kontingo, as well as to the American banjo. Indeed, there are many parallels between the Gnawa and African-American music: the responsorial singing and the interlocking clapping patterns have the spiritual attraction and propulsive drive of good gospel singing, while the pentatonic riffs and deep percussive sound of the guimbri remind some listeners of a bass laying down the harmonic and rhythmic foundation in a jazz or rock group.

Until recently, the Gnawa were not well represented on record, although short excerpts of their performances have appeared on many touristic anthologies of Moroccan music, often recorded at the Marrakech Festival of Folklore or captured on the run on Jamaa el Fna. This situation has improved in the past few years, with the appearance of nearly 20 CDs featuring the Gnawa--and several more on the way. These releases include ethnographic recordings (or CDs presenting themselves as such); collaborations with well-known jazz and popular musicians such as Randy Weston, Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, and Led Zeppelin; and fusion experiments organized by a variety of Moroccan artists. In addition, there are many recordings, including complete performances of the derdeba, in archives and private collections around the world. In both scholarly and musical terms, however, none of the commercial recordings released thus far (and few, if any, of the archival recordings) provide the intellectual interest or listening pleasure of Gnawa Leila, the five-volume set produced by Antonio Baldassarre.

Volume I, Gnawa Songs and Music from Morocco, includes examples of music performed before the actual ceremony begins, as a warm-up for both musicians and spectators. This disk is really separate from the rest of the series, both in terms of the structure of the ritual and, more important, the circumstances of its recording. These examples were collected three years before the rest of the "lila," in two separate places--Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco, and Tamsloht, a village near Marrakech that is the site of one of the Gnawa's most important annual pilgrimages.

Sala' Nabi'na (180 kb .wav file)

Volumes II-V were all recorded in a single evening in Casablanca, although Baldassarre does not specify whether the occasion was a lila he happened to attend or a session specially arranged for recording. Volume II begins with drumming, known as l-A`ada, which is used to announce the beginning of the ceremony. Here Baldassarre presents an extended opening section in relatively slow, stately tempo, and then, with a quick fade, jumps to the rapid final phase of drumming. l-A`ada leads into the derdeba proper, which begins with the White Suite, in honor of the family of the Prophet.

l-A`ada (196 kb .wav file)

Volume III covers the Blue suites, dedicated principally to Sidi Mousa, the Lord of the Sea (dark blue), and Sidi Sma, the Lord of the Sky (light blue). To the untutored listener, this volume and the two that follow present more (or less) of the same-- guimbri, qaraqeb, solo voice, and chorus. And yet each has its own interest. For example, the last two selections on this volume (Sidi Sma and Allah Bou Yandi Samaoui) are among the most compelling on the entire series, with a soaring chorus beautifully balanced with the guimbri and solo voice.

Volume IV includes both the Red and the Green suites which represent (ostensibly) different aspects of the Gnawa belief system. After invocations to the

Prophet, the musicians sing for Sidi Hammou, who presides over the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, and Baba Hammouda, the butcher who actually performs the slaughter. (Hammouda's signature song, Band 5, was adapted in the early seventies by the folk-pop group, Nass el-Ghiwane.) Because of the connections to Muslim sacrifice, Baldassarre associates this group with both the Middle East and with surgical healing; some Gnawa in Marrakech, on the other hand, regarded the Red spirits as rather wild and fearsome. The Green Suite, in contrast, is dedicated to the Shorfa (sing., Sherif), the noble family of the Prophet Mohammed. Although the various saints and spirits can be clearly distinguished by their associated melodies and texts, the music for the different families is quite similar in its general stylistic features.

Hammouda (193 kb .wav file)

Finally, Volume V moves further to the spirit side of the Gnawa, with the Black and Yellow Suites. The Black Suite honors the ancestral spirits of the forest, both male and female. The Yellow Suite--which might actually be termed polychrome, since it includes lavender, pink and other pastel colors--is devoted entirely to female spirits, whose personalities range from coquettish to terrifying. The set concludes with a song in praise of Aisha Qandisha, a goat-footed spirit who is revered, and feared, all over Morocco.

Aisha Qandisha (179 kb .wav file)

Indeed, this last section provides final proof that the Gnawa should not be called a "confraternity" or "brotherhood," as many scholars, including Baldassarre, persist in identifying them. While it is true that women rarely, if ever, play instruments in Gnawa ceremonies, a large percentage (perhaps even a majority) of the devotees are women, female spirits figure prominently in the pantheon, and, most important, many of the most respected officiants (mqaddem or mqaddema) are women.

As Baldassarre himself points out at the beginning of his notes, a recording satisfies only one of the senses, and can therefore offer only a pale shadow of the experience of a live performance by the Gnawa . The same could be said of any recording, of course, but it is perhaps particularly crucial in the case of the lila, which depends heavily on the stimulation of all the senses, and equally important, on the personal relations among the participants (and between the participants and the spirits). Still, short of packaging these disks along with seven colors of cloth, several varieties of incense, and containers of dates and milk, it is hard to see how Baldassarre cold have done a better job with the material at hand.

The performances are superb. The two leaders, M'allem Sam (Mohamed Zourhbat) and M'allem Hmidah (Ahmed Boussou), are perhaps the most renowned Gnawa masters in Morocco. Age and experience have given their voices and their playing a resonance absent in many younger musicians, and they are both in fine form here, as are the members of the chorus. The acoustic quality is, in general, very good, although there are occasional flaws, as one would expect in more than five hours of field recording. The sound of the guimbri on Volume I is far louder, relatively, than it would be in live performance, but listeners uninterested in the text may actually prefer it that way. Volume I also comes to an abrupt end, and the recordings from Tamesloht are a bit disappointing. There are moments in the other volumes when the sound is unbalanced, but overall, the disks are a delight to listen to.

Baldassarre's notes in French and English include line drawings of the instruments, bits of transcribed music, and a great deal of useful information. The notes to Volume I reflect the time gap between this disk and the rest of the series: the contents are rather different; there are variant transliterations of some terms and names (including M'allem Hmidah's); and there are Arabic transcriptions of some of the texts (which would have been welcome in the other volumes as well). The other four disks all share the same background information, plus a short section specific to each family of spirits, and translations of the texts.

Each of these volumes can be purchased separately, and, aside from passionate fans of the Gnawa and scholars specializing in North Africa, it is unlikely that many people will want to buy all five at once. Still, it is difficult to choose one above the others. The laid-back, almost bluesy introductory sections presented on Volume I may appeal to some listeners more than the faster-paced ritual suites; in addition, the elimination of the qaraqeb in the opening section, and their attenuation later on, makes the guimbri and voice stand out more clearly. On the other hand, Volume II, with the drumming selection and the White Suite, offers the most variety of all the disks, while Volume III offers some of the most stirring melodies--at least to my ears. Similarly, feminists might be most interested in Volume V, with its emphasis on female spirits, while bloody-minded macho men might prefer Volume IV--or vice versa. So pick a disk, any disk, to start with. The chances are that you will want to come back for more.

Philip Schuyler
University of Maryland Baltimore County

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