Global Ear: Marrakech

This was originally published in the August 2002 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

William Burroughs called Morocco’s northern port city of Tangier Interzone back in the 1950s, and described it as “the market where all human potentials are spread out.” Musically speaking, this remains a pretty good description of the Djemaa el Fna (“the place of the dead”), the large square at the center of the southern Moroccan city of Marrakech. Despite its age, in the daytime the square looks unimpressive. A few snake charmers sit under umbrellas, waiting for tourists to come have their photo taken. A heat haze rises off the tarmac. But when the sun goes down, crowds converge on the square and clusters of musicians appear with darboukas, djembes and other drums and chant the songs of the Sufi brotherhoods or Berber folksongs. In another area, the same hand drums are accompanied by a toothless young man on an electrified oud, who thrashes out scratchy Beefheart style guitar lines over the drums. Near the orange juice stalls, an especially large group has gathered around a long haired moustached guy who sits by a drum and what looks like a photo of himself. He is flanked by drummers, guitarists and two banjo players. The young guy next to me says that he is not the same as the guy in the photo, who turns out to be the leader of revolutionary Moroccan-rock group Nass el Ghiwan, who died in a plane crash in the early 1980s. The group plays cover versions of Nass’s stridently political songs, while women covered from head to toe in the traditional manner shuffle sexily to the music. Meanwhile, over by the vendors of love magic and the fortune tellers, are the tape stands, selling the latest Jay-Z or Limp Bizkit next to tapes of Arabic classical music, contemporary Moroccan chaabi pop, while “Arabica” remixes of Oum Kalthoum and Missy Elliott cooked up in bedrooms in Casablanca rock the speakers. Periodically the amplified voice of the muezzin in the nearby Koutoubia mosque cuts through everything. The cacophony, with its constantly shifting performance spaces and amplified sounds marks the square out not as the primitive exotic place beloved of writers like George Orwell and Elias Canetti, who visited in the first half of the century, but as a modern space which sets its own terms – Berber, Islamic, Maghrebi – for the kind of experiment and re-evaluation of values that we normally associate with the modern.
Around midnight the crowds begin to drift off home. It is at this point that the sounds emanating from the periphery of the square catch your attention. You had already noticed the picturesque costumes of the Gnawa musicians, sitting in groups so far towards the edge of the square that they are almost run down by traffic. But the qrakech, the iron castanets that the Gnawa play make a quiet wash of steel sound that requires you to enter the circle for it to make it’s effect. Similarly, the three stringed bass guitar, the guimbri, which the leader plays, is inaudible until you’re close up. But by 1 am, the square is empty except for the Gnawa groups who attract a ragged selection of night owls to their circle. A four year old boy sits on a rag next to me, while a bald hunchbacked man nods to the bass and the chanting. A disturbed man joins the circle, jabbering to himself, smoking compulsively. The castanets set up rippling rhythms until they’re something like a sea of beats, inside of which the guimbri moves, and the chants grow. The Gnawa grow curious about the disturbed man, the music seems to tighten, to focus. They giggle to themselves. His hat falls to the ground, and he takes out his lighter and puts it to his forehead, not, apparently, to set himself on fire, but as though he was trying to illuminate his skull, see through it. The Gnawa are known for their ability to work with the mentally ill during all night lilas, similar to the vodoun ceremonies of Haiti. This is not a ritual in the square, but some small act of exorcism appears to take place. The castanets keep on going. All night long.
The Gnawa, who call themselves “the sons of Bambara” trace their ancestry back to sub-Saharan Africa, from where they were brought by Moorish slave traders in previous centuries (Marrakech had a slave market until 1912). Although they are at the very periphery both of the square and of Moroccan society, in recent years, Gnawa has become a part of the global music scene, and its key features – supple castanet rhythms, looped double bass-like guimbri sounds, trance and chant – have mutated into increasingly novel forms. Like reggae, the sound of Gnawa is easily appropriated. A music of gaps, spaces, extended durations, it lends itself to remixes, fusion experiments which “fill in” the “gaps” in the music with dodgy synth washes, Santana-style guitar solos and secular words. The Essaouira Festival of Gnawa, one of a series of annual summer music festivals that includes the Rabat Rhythm Festival and Fes’ Sacred Music Festival, has become the focus of much of this fusion activity. A free and freewheeling event that takes place in venues and on the street around the beautiful coastal town, the festival has hosted guests like Archie Shepp, Susann Deihim, the Orchestre de Barbès jamming with Gnawa groups from around the country. Over 200,000 people attended the most recent festival. Perhaps it is evidence of the Gnawa’s famed ability to manipulate time that cassettes of the 2002 festival were on sale in the square in Marrakech weeks before the festival itself took place.
Collaboration between Gnawas and American jazz musicians in Morocco has a long history. Pianist Randy Weston lived in Tangier on and off from 1969 to 1975, and ran a club there called African Rhythms, where, along with other jazz musicians, he played with a Gnawa master Abdellah El-Gourd, at that time an electrical engineer for the Voice of America radio station in the city. El-Gourd’s home is now both shrine and school for Gnawa in Tangier and photos of Roland Kirk and old Hammond organs intermingle with vintage guimbris and photos of Gnawa masters like Ba Hmid. Weston’s The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco (1996) brought together a group of Gnawa elders from around the country including the great master Ahmed Boussou. Meanwhile, Pharoah Sanders has collaborated with Essaouira’s gnawa master Mahmoud Ghania on The Trance of the Seven Colors (1994), a recording produced by Bill Laswell, who lent his hand to a variety of key recordings of Moroccan music, including Night Spirit Masters, a set of recordings of the Gnawas, made in Marrakech featuring the incomparable Mustapha Baqbou. Laswell also produced the more tripped out sounds of Aisha Kandisha’s Jarring Effects, released on the excellent Switzerland-based Barraka el Farnatshi – a label that continues to pursue strange hybrid musical forms like Argan’s fusion of heavy metal and Berber music on South Moroccan Motor Berber, or the doped out Chaabi-meets-trance sounds of the recent compilation Imperia Consequential.
A number of Moroccan musicians have been producing experimental gnawa. The originators, back in the 1970s, were Nass El Ghiwan, whose Chants Gnawa du Maroc, with its strange sludgy Can-style prog rhythms and intense vocals, still sounds totally fresh. Hassan Hakmoun, who cut his teeth performing as a young man in the Djemaa el Fna and at ceremonies is the best known of the Marrakechi Gnawa explorers. He performed and moved to New York in the 1987 and charted much of the fusion territory back in the early nineties, making the impressive Gift of the Gnawa (1991) with Don Cherry and Richard Horowitz. He was involved in the downtown New York scene, producing funky Gnawa-Hendrix discs like Trance (1994), with his group Zahar, before returning to a more traditional style. A more conventional but equally euphoric funk groove drives Gnawa Diffusion, a Paris based Moroccan-Algerian collaboration that mutates gnawa into 80s club soul. Casablanca’s Dar Gnawa (“House of Gnawa”) rap in Arabic over Gnawa rhythms because “we’re Moroccans, but we’re Africans too”. Most promisingly, Saha Koyo is a collaboration between Hamid Al Kasri and Issam-Issam, two Moroccan musicians playing Gnawa songs on 80s style synthesizers and drum machines that sounds like lo-fi electro jazz.
But again, the most important revisions of Gnawa tradition are not necessarily sonic. In recent years, a small Women in Gnawa scene has developed. One of the great successes of the Essaouira festival has been Hasna el Becharia. Born in the desert town of Bechar on the Algerian side of what is now the border with Morocco, Becharia plays the guimbri and sings. On her first CD Djazair Johara, released last year on Indigo, she plays electric guitar that sounds like a spikier version of Khalifa Ould Eide’s work with that other Saharan diva Dimi Mint Abba. Then there’s B’Net Marrakech (“the women of Marrakech”), five Berber women residing in Marrakech who mix Gnawa with Rai and Chaabi styles. Their newly released first CD, Chama’a features a repertoire of songs that runs the gamut from love to demonic possession to the heroic Moroccan World Cup soccer team. “Gnawa music is only for men, and it takes a lot of courage to break that taboo,” observed one of the group in a recent interview in Globalvillageidiot. “We’re women who love the night time. Something to smoke, something to drink, and we can play for hours.”
Thanks to Gwen Brown, Pat Jabbar at Barraka and Magali Bergès.
Hasna el Becharia’s Djazair Johara is out on Indigo, B’Net Marrakech’s Chama’a is out on L’empreinte Digitale and Dar Beida 04’s Impiria Consequential is out on Barraka el Farnatshi.