The sun goes down Wednesday evening behind Grand Army Plaza, welcome relief from the day’s crushing swelter. Heat is still rising from the stairs and courtyard extending to the gold-embellished facade of the Brooklyn Public Library. Feet stumble, brains fog and people collapse in conditions like this.
All the tables on the north side of the plaza are taken. There are a couple rows of chairs, carefully spaced apart. The area could accommodate many more, but paranoia in this part of town runs as deep as Loch Ness. A woman wears a surgical mask over her hijab. Hopefully she’s remembered to bring along a big water jug.
The PA is cranked up loud as Innov Gnawa launch into an undulating, clattering Moroccan gnawa groove. Six guys in regal robes and caps play heavy cast-metal qraqab castanets, flanking their leader and mentor, Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, who opens the show from behind a heavy drum slung over his shoulders. In his robe, sandals and blue-green reflector shades, he looks like Omar Souleymane.
One by one, the group members take a turn out front, showing off their fancy footwork as they crouch and strike expectant poses, their bandmates shifting between time signatures with split-second precision. Ben Jaafer has coached them well: they seem to know what’s coming, even though a lot of it is being made up on the spot.
The vocals are vigorous and incantatory: Ben Jaafer calls, the rest of the guys respond. He sings in Arabic, with a rugged, slightly raspy voice, saluting the spirits and engaging them to help us in our time of need. We’ve never needed them more than we do now.
Science tells us that low frequencies have healing properties: they calm our stress, lower our heart rate and our blood pressure. When Ben Jaafer pulls off his drum and picks up his sintir – the three-stringed Moroccan bass lute – the effect of his riffage, as he continues to move matter-of-factly from one rhythm to another, is visceral.
Although Morocco is home to a massive annual gnawa festival, the music is typically played at lila rituals. A lila is a lot of things: an all-night barbecue-and-hash party, a big communal jam, but also, perhaps more than anything else, a healing ceremony. This evening there’s exuberance, even triumph in Ben Jaafer’s voice and a hypnotic earth-heart pulse from his anthemic, blues-tinged sintir phrases. Maybe he’s channeling unseen sources, telling us that everything’s going to be all right even though all the earthly signs are pointing in the opposite direction.
Or maybe that’s a purely personal hope, finding solace amid the barrage of low tonalities punctuating the shamanic clank of the qraqabs. Ben Jaafer winds up the group’s first set much faster than he would have in Fes, where he learned his craft from some of the giants of the gnawa world. And then brought that repertoire here. At the moment, Innov Gnawa are the only traditional gnawa ensemble in North America.
The break between sets also affords an opportunity to crack a 24-ounce Modelo, but off the plaza, out of sight of the police cruisers circling the area. The slow walk toward Vanderbilt Avenue, in the shade, offers another kind of welcome comfort. The subway beckons, and at this point, it’s time to answer that call. Calm withstands the descent into renewed hellfire. Thank you for a restorative evening, Innov Gnawa.
The next show on the steps to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is Aug 18 at 7 PM with feminist Guinean folk songwriter Natu Camara.