New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: Ahmed Jeriouda

Innov Gnawa Bring Rare Moroccan Jewish Ritual Healing Trance Grooves to Baltimore

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.

Moroccan Trance Band Innov Gnawa Make History

Innov Gnawa are the only group playing Moroccan gnawa trance music on this side of the Atlantic. You could call it the ultimate, fat bass-and-drum music – or Moroccan gospel. Its origins are in sub-Saharan Africa. It was brought north primarily by slaves and was regarded as ghetto there until fairly recently. It is 100% acoustic, otherworldly, and primeval, but hardly primitive. The call-and-response between maalem (bandleader) and kouyos (chorus) can be hypnotic for minutes on end, then impassioned and explosive, with intricate polyrhythms to rival the most ambitious jazz. The majority of gnawa melodies are based on the blues scale; the lyrics, in either Arabic or Bambara, celebrate Islamic themes. Moroccan expat Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, one of the world’s great masters of the three-string sintir bass lute, leads the group. They’re one of the funnest bands in town to dance to.

They’re making their Coachella debut this year; in the meantime, New Yorkers have a chance to catch their leader this week as part of a historic collaboration between Lincoln Center and this year’s inaugural Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde Festival Tour. This Thurs, March 16 at 7:30 PM, the game plan is for Ben Jaafer to jam with his old buddy Maalem Hamid El Kasri, who he hasn’t seen in seventeen years. Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane,  who represents the southern Moroccan style of gnawa, is also on the bill at the atrium space at Lincoln Center. It’s a major moment in global music history, the first-ever performance by three of the world’s greatest virtuosos of Moroccan music. Innov Gnawa are also opening for Malian guitar shredder Vieux Farka Toure at Bric Arts in downtown Brooklyn on April 6 at 7:30 PM; $15 advance tix are highly recommended

Ben Jaafer is revered in his native Morocco much like his mentor, Mohammed Sam, one of the most important figures in the history of gnawa and a great innovator in the 1960s and 70s. The rest of the group comprises the chorus. Founder Samir LanGus (who also plays sintir onstage) and Dawn of Midi’s Amino Belyamani are joined on vocals and cast-iron qraqab castanets by Said Bourhana and Nawfal Atiq, in addition to Ahmed Jeriouda, who also plays cajon. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number is a benediction of sorts used throughout much of Morocco to open a lila – the delirious allnight parties that do double duty as mystical Sufi trance rite. As the steady, misty rain of the chorus’ qraqab castanets shuffles behind him, Ben Jaafer is already working very subtle permutations on a similar but not quite rhythmically identical blues bassline. Beyond the central riffs and choruses, Gnawa is eighty to ninety percent improvised: this band won’t ever play this number this way again.

Ben Jaafer’s rugged baritone grows more insistent on the tune after that, over a circling 6/8 rhythm that brings to mind the wheel-like cadences of qawwali music. Bass players and fans of low-register tonalities will love how Ben Jaafer conceals the occasional, unexpectedly booming chord within his riffage.

His pouncing introduction to the third number offers no hint at how the circling three-on-two rhythm from the qraqabs will return – or how fervent the voices of the chorus will grow alongside him. As the album goes on, Ben Jaafer takes one sudden, unexpected, syncopated detour after another; every time, the band turns on a dime and follows suit. The final number is also the most anthemic and dynamically shifting one. There are six tracks in total, as close to the actual experience of hearing a genuine lila in North America as millions of listeners will ever get.

 

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.