It’s not clear if Innov Gnawa are the first American band to play the slinky, trance-inducing ritual healing grooves of Moroccan percussion-and-bass gnawa music. But there’s no question that they’re the only band in this hemisphere currently playing it. True to their name, they’re taking an ancient sound rarely heard outside of Morocco to new places, whether with their own mesmerizing improvisations, or with repertoire never before heard outside of North Africa.
What’s clear is that their April West Village performance of extremely rare Jewish gnawa repertoire was the first time that’s ever been heard on this continent. Even by Innov Gnawa’s standards, this was a pretty wild show: Moroccan Jews know how to party! Lucky Baltimoreans can hear these otherworldly sounds for the first time when Innov Gnawa play this Saturday night, Oct 21 at 8:15 PM at Temple B’Nai Israel at 27 Lloyd St. Cover is $15, and you don’t have to speak Hebrew, Arabic or Bambara to get lost in this music.
Innov percussionist David Lizmi – one of New York’s most in-demand bass players, and a Karla Rose collaborator – opened the evening with a benediction in Hebrew and added a hopeful 1940s rabbinical poem mid-set. Beyond that, the group meshed their hypnotic cast-iron qraqab castanets behind bandleader Hassan Ben Jaafer’s resonant low-register sintir lute for a revealing facsimile of a traditional Moroccan lila healing ceremony, but one played in the Jewish tradition.
Jewish communities have been a vital and formative part of Moroccan culture for centuries; this show celebrated both the earliest Jewish traditions there as well as those dating from the wave of immigrants who found safe ground there from the terror of the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s. Gnawa music is pre-Judaic, and was brought to Morocco mainly by slaves captured south of the Sahara, but Jews were an important cultural force beyond the music’s expatriate origins to embrace it before it essentially became the Moroccan national sound in the 80s and 90s.
A gnawa ceremony typically begins with an evocation of the saints, and Ben Jaafer led the group through a hypnotic call-and-response of the Jewish pantheon in his gritty, impassioned voice, playing variations on a leaping, catchy bass riff as the qraqabs built a trancey, metallic mesh behind him. From there the rhythms shifted into an almost disco groove, to a circling triplet beat, to a brisk, insistent four-on-the-floor pulse as the passion of the vocals rose toward fever pitch. A shuffling train-track ambience built to a couple of rapidfire interludes that contrasted with stark, snaky, suspenseful sintir passages.
The sintir riffs were catchy to the extreme; there’s a persuasive argument among musicologists that this three-string lute is the forerunner of the funk bass. Sometimes Ben Jaafer would climb an octave or more, other times he’d stay close to the ground with a catchy hook, hanging within the blues scale. How does this repertoire differentiate itself from the many hundreds of non-Jewish songs, sung mainly in Arabic in praise of pre-Islamic Central African deities? Mainly with the lyrics. Either way, one lasting gnawa tradition is that it’s employed for the sake of healing whoever might be in need of psychic or physical repair. Bring your dancing shoes and get ready to banish any mischegas you might have at this one.