Every year, at the end of June, the Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde – the world’s largest performance of North African music – takes place in the coastal city of Essaouira, Morocco. Literally millions of people gather to watch dozens of the world’s most exciting and innovative acts in Moroccan and Middle Eastern sounds, to discover new bands, to dance or to be whirled into a trance state. By all accounts, Essaouira is a safer city than New York. With the strong dollar, it hasn’t been this inexpensive for Americans to visit in a long time. If you can afford to, you should go – in this political climate, your chance might be now or never, at least for the next few years.
This past weekend, three concerts in New York and one in Washington, DC celebrated the first-ever collaboration between the festival and Lincoln Center. Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal and Samir LanGus, founder of the only American gnawa band, Innov Gnawa, came up with the idea while at the festival last summer, and the rest is history. And historic as well: this series of shows marked the first time three of the great maalems (masters) of Moroccan gnawa music, Abdeslam Alikkane, Hamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa, have ever appeared on the same stage.
About the music: gnawa was brought to Morocco by black slaves from sub-Saharan Africa. Gnawa music originated in pre-Islamic society as a healing ritual, fueled by the well-known calming and curative powers of low-register sonics. It’s typically sung by a maalem who plays a sintir bass lute, accompanied by a call-and-response chorus who add an often mesmerizing series of polyrhythms with a rustle and whirl of cast-metal qraqab castanets. The music’s migration north brought the invocation of Islamic saints and liturgy into the fold along with the traditional ancestral and nature spirits. Like American hip-hop or blues, it was considered ghetto for years before becoming Morocco’s best-known global music export over the past decade or so.
Thursday night at Lincoln Center was the big debut event. It’s safe to say that space was as packed as it’s ever been, an ecstatic, multicultural crowd that drew heavily on the Moroccan expat community, one of the many immigrant cultures that New York’s cultural mecca has reached out to in the recent past.
Alikkane was the first to take the stage, backed by a seven-piece qraqab choir. Rustic, tersely catchy, purposefully propulsive midtempo phrases flowed from his sintir while individual chorus members would spin out into the crowd, further energizing the audience. Would this hypnotically traditional performance be his signature style throughout the US tour? That answer wouldn’t reveal itself until the second night’s concert at the New School.
The atmosphere was electric when Ben Jaafer took the stage. Word on the street is that while audiences in Morocco miss him, there were some musicians who breathed a sigh of relief. At the moment he left for New York, seventeen years ago, he’d become such a popular touring artist that his departure opened up numerous opportunities for his fellow gnawis: he’d left big shoes to fill. Although the three New York concerts didn’t turn out to be cutting contests, per se, each maalem seemed fixated on taking his performance to the next level, and in this case, Alikkane had given Ben Jaafer a launching pad for some of the festival’s most exhilarating bass-string firepower.
Frequently interspersing unexpected, booming chords into his sinewy, serpentine volleys of notes, his strings crackled with ancient, blues scale-based riffage ornamented with contrastingly subtle, microtonal shades. His rugged baritone took on a regal resonance: the most powerful spirits of the night were definitely being invoked.
In his North American debut, El Kasri had a hard act to follow but ended up earning his headliner status. His sintir is flashier and has a grittier, more cutting tone than his colleagues’ models, closer to the sound of an overdriven bass guitar at times. Vocally, he turned out to be every bit the rockstar that Ben Jaafer is. By now, the crowd was amped to the point where they were making requests. With a triumphant grin, El Kasri seemed glad to give his people what they wanted: a chance to see one of the Essaouira festival’s most intense performers conquer a new continent.
The Friday night show at the New School was closer to the atmosphere of a lila, the ritualistic all-night trance ceremony and communal feast. Incense was burned and a platter of delicious dates made its way around as the room grew to capacity. Alikkane led the ensemble this time, a mix of Moroccans and expats, airing out his vast repertoire as the rhythms shifted from punchy and bouncy to a mystically shuffling hailstorm of qraqabs. He sent numerous shouts out to past masters of gnawa, made ancestral homages and kept the waves of reverent Sufi call-and-response going for about an hour and a half. At the end of the show, the great gnawa funk pioneer Hassan Hakmoun stepped in as translator, impromptu emcee, and took a turn on the sintir as well.
That this tour was able to sell out the big Pioneer Arts Center in remote Red Hook, of all places, on the final night speaks to how devoted the gnawa subculture has become. This wasn’t just an audience of expats: there were as many curious American kids, and couples, as there were Moroccans in the house. Alikkane again got to open the show and quickly picked up the pace as he’d done at the New School. He and the chorus were joined eventually by a crew of American jazz players including drummer Will Calhoun, bassist Jamaldeen Tacuma, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and multi-keyboardist Marc Cary. Main themes aside, approximately eighty to ninety percent of gnawa is improvisational, key to its ongoing popularity with jazz musicians. To the credit of everybody onstage, there was cordial camaraderie rather than egocentricity, Alikkane setting up a friendly, low-key rhythmic framework that made room for Strickland and Cary to waft and weave their way through as Calhoun and Tacuma bolstered the simple, purposeful groove.
El Kasri took centerstage for the second set of the night: several of the cognoscenti in the crowd, who’d been to all of the New York shows, agreed that this was the high point of the tour. It wasn’t long before he introduced a number with a long, ominous, enigmatic taqsim, moving beyond the traditional modes that had dominated the show so far, toward Middle Eastern microtones. He shifted back and forth between the two idioms from that point forward: when the jazzcats joined him later, it turned out to be fertile terrain. Tacuma embraced the uneasy, moody modes while Cary added mystital ambience via string synth and echoey electric piano, while Strickland contributed a broodingly gorgeous, slowly crescendoing solo, reminding of Kenny Garrett’s late 90s work. By the end of the show, both Alikkane and Ben Jaafer had picked up their qraqabs and joined the melee onstage, a welcome evocation of North African sun on an unseasonably grim New York evening.
For New Yorkers who might have missed these historic events, there’s are a couple of enticing gnawa events coming up soon. This Saturday night, March 25 at around 9, Innov Gnawa – the only gnawa group on this side of the Atlantic – are playing a benefit for at Littlefield. The rapturous guitar/piano duo of Rafiq Bhatia and Chris Pattishall open the night at 8; members of long-running second-wave Afrobeat faves Antibalas headline at around 10. Depending on what you’d like to contribute, you can get in for $12, or more if you choose. And on April 20 at 8 at Greenwich House Music School in the West Village, Innov Gnawa are playing an extremely rare set of Moroccan Jewish gnawa tunes.