Innov Gnawa Pack the House in the East Village With Their Intoxicating, Ancient Dance Grooves
Friday night, Ilhan Ersahin’s swanky Nublu 151 club was packed with a crowd of dancers representing just about every ethnic background and language spoken in New York. They’d come to get down to Innov Gnawa, who sing Muslim devotional chants in Arabic and Bambara over grooves which are as sophisticated as they are ancient. Gnawa is commonly used throughout Morocco as part of a healing ritual, and is unsurpassed as dance music. Its roots go back centuries before Islam.
Bandleader Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer opened by pounding out an indomitable, insistent beat on the big bass drum slung around his neck, summoning his choir of percussionists: Samir Langus, Amino Belyamani, Said Bourhana, Nawfal Atiq and guest Ahmed Habibi. Then the seven-piece group launched into the first hypnotically shapeshifting number of the evening, the mesmerizing clickety-clack of the chorus’ cast-metal qraqab castanets balanced with the fat low end booming from Ben Jaafer’s three-string sintir lute – it’s the godfather of this era’s funk bass. His tersely bluesy riffs lept, and pounced, and bounced off the walls as the qraqab players suddenly shifted to doublespeed and then back, drawing a chorus of whoops from the women in the crowd. In the far right corner, Ahmed Jeriouda boosted the low end with his circling beats on a cajon.
For awhile it was a lot of fun trying to figure out what the rhythm was: there were a couple of grooves in 6/8, maybe another couple in 12/8, a couple of triplet beats that brought to mind Malian desert music, and some straight-up 4/4 shuffles. Polyrhythms were everywhere, whether in the call-and-response between leader and chorus, between the sintir and the qraqabs, or in an implied beat left for the dancers to fill out themselves.
Ben Jaafer passed the sintir to his protege Langus to open the second set, a rare occurrence in this kind of music. Traditionally, a master doesn’t share the stage with an apprentice, but Langus held up his end seamlessly with a similarly slinky, kinetic drive. Then he went back into the chorus. The night’s most intense and gripping interlude might have been when Ben Jaafer left the world of gnawa for a bit to sing a hammadcha number, his voice taking on added grit and enigmatic growl as the melody introduced some similarly uneasy Middle Eastern microtones.
It was both a mecca and medina of the mind: visions of olives, and pomegranates, and harissa wafting in on a balmy Mediterranean breeze. Up on the balcony behind the stage, a silhouetted, undulating couple put on a sexy shadowplay. Back by the door, a couple of fratboys jumped around randomly, testament to this music’s ability to grab just about anybody. A little further to the front, a nightcrawler still nursing a nasty injury to the lower extremities joined the dancers, glad to be pain-free for the duration of the set. There definitely is something to this music’s curative power.
Innov Gnawa have a couple of enticing shows coming up. Jan 7 they’re at Drom at around 10 on a ridiculously good multiple-act bill starting at 7 PM with all-female pan-latin group Ladama, otherworldly Tuvan throat-singing ensemble Alash, legendary Ethiopiques jazz artist Girma Beyene with psychedelic Ethiopian groove orchestra Feedel Band, haunting Puerto Rican bolero revivalists Miramar, latin rockers the Battle of Santiago, African dance-rappers Janka Nabay, and Afrobeat band Underground System. Cover is a measly ten bucks. Then on Jan 21 Innov Gnawa are at C’Mon Everybody in Crown Heights with the Pogues of populist Veracruz folk music, Radio Jarocho.