New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: moroccan music

3MA’s Superstar African Improvisers Blend Their Hypnotic Powers

3MA – the trio of Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko, Moroccan oudist Driss El Maloumi and Malagasy valiha harp player Rajery – are an African supergroup. Their popularity and influence stems from how the three – each a popular solo performer and highly sought out collaborator – have developed a distinctive, hypnotically intertwining group sound. Their new album Anarouz is streaming at Spotify. It’s music to get lost in,

Although there are places on the album where the melody edges toward the Middle East, or the Sahara, or East Africa, it’s seldom genre-specific. These guys aren’t the African Dead Weather: individual voices typically take a backseat to collective improvisational genius.

The album opens with the title track: listen closely for how artfully El Maloumi takes a simple riff in the blues scale and develops very subtle variations beneath the rippling interweave overhead. There are jaunty exchanges between Sissoko and Rajery, each leaving plenty of space for the other’s tantalizingly brief solos.

Hanatra, a vocal number, has a suspenseful, insistent pulse and is also grounded in a catchy blues hook. The trio use that same minor-key riff as a springboard for solos in Lova, a magical acoustic duskcore number that suddenly hits a pulsing crescendo fueled by Rajery’s delicately incisive solo.

Samedi Glace – “Saturday ice Cream” – is a brisk, strolling vamp, the trio in perfect sync with their catchy, dancing phrases. While Rajery takes the first spiky solo in Anfaz, there are flickers where the oud pulls the music subtly toward edgy Arabic modes. Yet when it’s El Maloumi’s turn to solo, it’s mostly with voicings from sub-Saharan kora music.

Sissoko’s spiraling lines take centerstage early in Moustique, an allusively gorgeous, Middle Easten-tinged number, El Maloumi edging toward proto-blues amid the trance-inducing thicket of notes.Mariam is a gorgeous, hauntingly rising and falling nocturne with a long, suspenseful El Maloumi solo at the center – it’s the high point of the album. Aretina is the catchiest track here, raising the question of whether music like this is the roots of African-American soul music, or a refraction of it back from the old country.

El Maloumi’s misterioso opening taqsim kicks off the joyously bouncy Jiharka, the group running the catchy chorus in unison. The album concludes on a raptly peaceful note with Awal, a twinkling deep-desert nocturne. This is the kind of magic that happens when borders get broken down. 

Fun fact: the bandname is a pun on the word “trauma.”  Say “3MA” in French.

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La Mar Enfortuna Lead a Haunting Guided Tour of Sephardic Music at the Jewish Museum

There was a point last night at the Jewish Museum where La Mar Enfortuna guitarist Oren Bloedow, playing a gorgeous black hollowbody Gibson twelve-string, hit an achingly ringing, clanging series of tritones. Violinist Dana Lyn answered him with a flittingly menacing couple of high, microtonal riffs. It was like being at Barbes, or the Owl, except on the Upper East Side.

That good.

For four years now, the Bang on a Can organization has been partnering with the Jewish Museum for a series of concerts that dovetail with current exhibits there. This time out, La Mar Enfortuna’s starkly beautiful Sephardic art-rock and reinventions of ancient Jewish themes from across the Middle East and North Africa were paired with the ongoing Modigliani show.

Since the 90s, Bloedow and his charismatic chanteuse bandmate Jennifer Charles have been the core of similarly haunting, sometimes lushly lurid noir art-rock band Elysian Fields. Likewise, this show built a dark but more eclectic atmosphere. At their quietest, bassist Simon Hanes – who otherwise looked like he was jumping out of his shoes to be playing this material – switched to acoustic guitar, for a spare duo with Bloedow on an ancient Moroccan song whose storyline was a possibly hashish-influenced counterpart to the Sleeping Beauty myth.

The band slunk through a salsa-jazz verse to a ringingly otherworldly, anthemic chorus on an original, Charles singing a lyric by Federico Garcia Lorca in the original Spanish. Bloedow, who was in top form all night as sardonically insightful emcee, noted that the band had played that same song just a few yards from where the fascists had taken Garcia Lorca into the underbrush and then shot him in the back.

Charles also sang in Farsi, Ladino and Arabic. The early part of the set featured more minimalist, lingering ballads; drummer Rob DiPietro sat back from his kit and played a hypnotic dance groove on daf frame drum on one of them. Matt Darriau began the set on bass clarinet; by the end, he’d also played a regular-size model and also bass flute, fueling the songs’ moodiest interludes with his sepulchral, microtonal, melismatic lines.

The closest to an over-the-top moment was when the band danced through the original Sephardic melody of a big Vegas noir ballad that’s been used umpteen times for Hollywood approximations of exoticism. The night’s most hypnotic song was another Moroccan number that strongly brought to mind Malian duskcore rock bands like Tinariwen. The high point was a slowly crescendoing original that rose to a mighty peak, fueled by Bloedow’s majestically resonating chromatic chords.

The Bang on a Can series at the Jewish museum continues on February 22 of next year at 7:30 PM with similarly otherworldly Czech violinist/composer/vocalist Iva Bittova and her ensemble; tix are $18 and include museum admission.

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.

Innov Gnawa and Amadou & Mariam at the Peak of Their Psychedelic Powers at Prospect Park

“It’s hot all over,” guitarist/singer Amadou Bagayoko remarked to the Prospect Park Bandshell crowd last night in his heavy-lidded, Malian French drawl. On the hottest night of the year so far, one of the other things he noticed that was all over the place was weed. See, Amadou is blind. His other senses are working overtime.

But it hardly took a sensitive nose to pick up on what was wafting from the slope out back: this was a show for the smokers. And the place was packed: from personal experience and a survey of random concertgoers who’ve seen multiple shows here recently, the only act who’s drawn as much of a crowd as Amadou & Mariam was Jamaican dancehall star Chronixx. Psychedelic music has never been so popular as it is in 2017.

Which is no surprise. Amadou & Mariam are arguably the world’s most individualistic psychedelic rock band. Over the years, they’ve inched further and further from their original mashup of sprawling two-chord Malian desert rock jams and bouncy central African pop, to a much more western sound rooted in the 1960s. And they’ve never sounded so interesting, or eclectic as they are now.

Mariam Doumbia – Amadou’s wife and childhood sweetheart – sang in her enigmatic, uneasily bronzed, sometimes gritty delivery in both French and Bambara, often harmonizing with Amadou’s balmy croon, going through a couple of costume changes in the process. Behind them, their drummer alternated between stomp, slink and funk while their bassist played tasteful, serpentine riffs and countermelodies, their keyboardist adding lushness and lustre on organ and several synth patches.

They opened with Bofou Safou, their driving, biting new single, sending a message that this show was going to rock pretty hard. From there they made their way methodically through a couple of leaping dance-funk numbers that brought to mind mid-80s Talking Heads, a starry nightscape with majestic Pink Floyd echoes, several similarly mighty blues-based anthems and a deliciously creepy detour into late 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia.

It was on that allusively menacing number that Amadou took his longest, wildest, solo of the night. While his playing sometimes brings to mind the feral icepicking of Albert Collins, the twangy sparkle of Mark Knopfler and the machinegunning hammer-ons of Vieux Farka Toure, he doesn’t seem to be influenced by any of them, and with the exception of his countryman and younger colleague Toure, may not have even heard those guys. Winding up and down and around, he brought his long trails of sixteenth notes home to a final comet tail and wild applause. The band have a new album due out next month: if this concert is any indication, it’s going to be amazing.

Brooklyn’s own Innov Gnawa, whose career has taken a meteoric rise recently, opened and got a full hour onstage, a rarity at this venue. The sea of fans they’d brought to the show might explain why. Fresh off a Coachella appearance and a marathon series of New York club gigs, it’s hard to imagine a hotter band in town right now.

The only gnawa band in the world west of Morocco, they play the original drum-and-bass music. With roots in sub-Saharan, pre-Muslim central Africa, transplanted to the north, many of their hypnotic, pulsing, crackling themes date from over a thousand years ago. It’s party music, for sure, but it has even more cultural resonance for healing and spiritual purposes. With limited time (for them – this band can jam for hours) and a big stage to work with, they clanked and boomed and snapped their way through a dynamic mix of straight-ahead dance jams and trickier, turn-on-a-dime rhythms, winding up with frontman/sintir lute player Hassan Ben Jaafer running his basslines faster and faster as his chanting choir of bandmates whirled their cast-iron castnets, encircling him and bringing the show to a peak that would have been daunting to most headliners other than Amadou & Mariam.

Amadou & Mariam continue on US tour; their next show is on July 24 at 6:30 PM at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago; admission is free. Innov Gnawa are uptown at Ginny’s Supper Club on July 27, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30  PM; your best deal is standing room at the bar for $15.

The next show at Prospect Park Bandshell is tomorrow night, July 22 at 7:30 PM and opens auspiciously with Innov Gnawa percussionist Amino Belyamani’s similarly innovative, mesmerizingly rhythmic dancefloor minimalist trio, Dawn of Midi. Jury’s out on the headliner: are Mashrou ‘Leila the Lebanese Cure, or just another lame corporate dance-rock act?

High-Voltage African and American Sounds From Central Park to the River

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.’s first song this past evening at Central Park Summerstage was Expensive Shit. As a literal, graphic condemnation of wretched capitalist excess and status-grubbing, it has few equals. Fela Kuti’s son and principal heir to the family Afrobeat legacy probably spat the word “shit” more times during the roughly ten minutes it took for the band to bubble and rise and finally bring the relentless underlying vamp to a close, than any other act has done at this venue in many years.

Kuti has been fortunate to sidestep the kind of brutal repression his father faced, but he’s no less fearlessly political. His second song, a defiantly triumphant pro-ganja anthem with a fervent refrain of “Lemme see your lighters,” was a red herring. The younger Kuti shares his dad’s withering sarcasm. He welcomed the audience into the era of fake news – “News that’s for profit,” he explained – by reminding that Nigerians knew all about it before it became part and parcel of White House correspondence. A little later on, introducing African Dreams – a broadside against western cultural imperialism – he snidely commented that “Conscious capitalism doesn’t exist.”

Leading an endlessly undulating fourteen-piece band, he took a quick turn on piano and then showed off a bracing, bitingly metallic tone and a no-nonsense, modally tinged sensibility on alto sax. The percussion section emerged stealthily from a quiet thicket and grew toward a stampede as the brass blazed, the electric piano rippled and the two guitars – one a tenor model for extra upper-register tingle – ran jaggedly circling melodies along with a similarly purposeful bass player, throughout what would become an unexpectedly abbreviated set.

Many people in the crowd – especially those who showed up to see the advertised headliner and consequently missed the guy they came for – were surprised not to see Roy Ayers headlining. He’s certainly earned that respect. He also didn’t get much more than three quarters of an hour onstage, leading his four-piece band through expansive takes of Red, Gold and Green, Everybody Loves the Sunshine and finally, Searchin’.

While he saved his most high-voltage playing for a long solo with Kuti’s band, the iconic vibraphonist who more or less invented noir psychedelic soul put on a clinic in purist, seat-of-the-pants tunesmithing, whether with endless volleys of bluesy triplets, rapidfire chromatics or playing against the beat. His band stayed pretty much on low-key, glimmering point, although they lost the crowd when they went off into warpy keytar spacerock and a snapping, popping, faux Bootsy bass solo. They won them back again with a tight drum solo where the guy behind the kit played the whole thing one-handed, then with both sticks behind his back, finally flipping them forward over his shoulders, and kept going without missing a beat.

Hometown opening act Underground System justified the ambition of sharing a bill with two more-or-less iconic acts through the afternoon’s longest set, a mix of original Afrobeat with a more straight-up funk tune or two and also a whirling Italian womens’ rights anthem. Frontwoman/flutist Domenica Fossati really worked up a sweat with her dance moves; if she was a sheik, her last name would be Yerbouti. Guitarist Peter Matson and keyboardist Colin Brown pinged and rippled and threw off a few clouds of toxic noise, drummer Yahoteh Kokayi and percussionist Lollise Mbi held the beast to the rails while the horn section – including baritone saxophonist Maria Christina Eisen and trumpeter Jackie Coleman – smoldered and sputtered and bassist David Cutler ran simple, emphatically circling riffs that would have made Fela proud. Their high point was the brassy Rent Party, something Fossati said the band knew a little something about. From there they segued into their most ominous, dynamically shadowy number of the afternoon.

Afterward, many faces n the crowd went west to the Hudson, where Innov Gnawa – the only Moroccan drum-and-bass trance band in this hemisphere – played what amounted to the afterparty. In more than ten years of concerts at Pier One at 70th Street and the river, it’s impossible to think of another show that had so many people dancing, from toddlers to oldtimers.

And they did that to ancient animist and Muslim themes originally dating from thousands of years ago in sub-Saharan Africa, sung in Arabic to the hypnotic pulse of sintir bass lute and cast-iron qraqab castanets. This was a slightly smaller subgroup of the band, Moroccan master Hassan Ben Jaafer taking turns with his similarly agile protege Samir LanGus riffing on the low strings. Some of the songs worked a tension between octave notes, others bounced and swayed along with crescendoing call-and-response choruses. As the night went on, Ben Jaafer subtly introduced all sorts of tricky polyrhythms and suspensefully allusive chromatics hinting but never quite crossing into Egypt.

Qraqab player Amino Belyamani sauntered into the dancing melee midway through the show and taught everybody some snazzy moves, complete with a split-second squat in the middle – and by the end of the show, a lot of people had all that pretty cold. Innov Gnawa’s next gig is at Prospect Park Bandshell this Friday night, July 21 at 7:30 PM where they’re opening for wildly popular, microtonal psychedelic Malian band Amadou & Mariam. The next show at Summerstage is tomorrow night, July 17 where 90s noiserock icons and occasional cinematic soundscapers Yo La Tengo hit at around 8. Be aware that there’s an opening act; doors at 6 for those not willing to take chances.

Manhattan’s Best Venue Stages a Thunderous Benefit for Their Brooklyn Counterpart

The Barbes benefit concert at Drom Friday night wasn’t sold out, but the East Village venue was close to capacity. Big Lazy headlined. By then the dancers had been on their feet for the better part of four hours, yet didn’t seem the least bit worn out. So the shadowy, cinematic trio of guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion played their slinkiest stuff. Ulrich shifted eerily between desolate big-sky tableaux, furtively chromatic crime jazz, a wryly strutting go-go theme or two and red-neon roadhouse scenes while Hall spun his bass, supplying a tight rubber-band low end in tandem with Lion’s thicket of textures from every part of his kit. Gato Loco trombonist Tim Vaughn and Balkan Beat Box baritone sax player Peter Hess added extra careening, elusive textures at the end of their tantalizingly brief set, whose centerpiece was the title track from the band’s latest album Don’t Cross Myrtle, a muted bump-in-the-night theme that turned completely savage in seconds flat.

Ulrich dedicated the song to Barbes, the band’s embattled Park Slope home base, which serves the same purpose for many other artists, the rest of the night’s bill included. Considering the song’s title and its creepy themes (it’s an instrumental), on face value it seems to address deep Brooklyn nocturnal peril. But this time out, introducing the song, Ulrich alluded to a “changing Brooklyn,” and suddenly another meaning, 180 degrees the opposite, emerged: keep your wrecking balls and other weapons of mass destruction, your money-laundering, your swindler speculators and “luxury” condos, and the status-grubbing yuppies who move into them, out of our part of town. It may be sketchy, but it’s all we have left. There isn’t anyplace else in New York in 2017 where a working class person or an artist can survive.

The brain drain out of New York and the mass displacement of artists to the most remote fringes of the five boroughs aren’t the only reasons that Barbes is in trouble. Their building has been hit with a lien for city services, no fault of the venue; in the meantime, their Indiegogo campaign is almost eighty percent funded. “I can’t believe this place still exists,” marveled one patron under her breath at the bar Saturday night while Sean Cronin’s oldschool honkytonk band played in the back room. If there’s any Brooklyn venue that deserves support or patronage right now, it’s this one.

And they have a lot of overlap with Drom, their more spacious but similarly friendly Manhattan counterpart, where acts from around the world continue to make their North American debuts, month after month. It’s not clear whether MaracatuNY, who opened the benefit, had played there before; whatever the case, it’s probably safe to say that they’re the loudest band ever to play there. And they did it without amplification. Gathered in a semicircle on the floor in front of the stage, the roughly fifteen-piece drum troupe built a thunderous torrent of intricate Brazilian polyrhythms, turning on a dime as their conductor signaled changes with his whistle and hand signals in the eye of the storm. They’d return later on.

The Jazz Passengers were just as intricate and even more entrancing. Frontman Roy Nathanson played alto sax, soprano sax and on We’re All Jews, their most epic number, both at once, working his polytonal sorcery for extra overtones. Bass player Bradley Jones teamed with the drums for a serpentine groove and lowdown funk as vibraphone star Bill Ware took a rare turn on electric piano. Their first number was the most vividly murky exploration of the noir they’ve become known for; after that, Nathanson harmonized wryly with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes on a smoky take of the 70s soul standard Everybody Plays the Fool.

Romany chanteuse Sanda Weigl – who has a new album due out from Barbes Records this fall – went deep into her powerful alto for a couple of a-cappella Romanian songs. Then a three-piece version of the all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache, New York’s only all-female mariachi band, joined their soaring voices for a harmony-fueled, all-too-brief set that began like a Mexican-flavored Dixie Chicks and then went deeper into the tricky tempos and clapalong vigor of classic south-of-the-border string band sounds, with intertwining violin, cuatro and bajo sexto.

The next two bands each put their own rustic, exhilarating spin on ancient African call-and-response chants. Charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Bulla En El Barrio led her ten-piece choir-and-percussion ensemble through a mesmerizingly kaleidoscopic series of Colombian bullerengue, which sounded like a South American take on African-American field hollers, the guys and women in the band taking turns spiraling and cavorting in front of the upraised voices.

Then Innov Gnawa – who brought the biggest crowd of the night – got the crowd bouncing with their trance-inducing forest of click-clack cast-iron castanets and sintir bass lute, first played by Samir LanGus and then bandleader, Moroccan expat maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer. Their first number kicked off a rousing Arabic welcome-to-the-party jam, with sub-Saharan rhythms from what could be two thousand years ago welded to undulating North African acoustic funk, infused with bracing, sometimes moody allusions to both Arabic music and the roots of the blues.

To keep the dancers on their feet, the massive Fanfare Brooklyn – a mighty twenty-plus piece Balkan brass band comprising most of Slavic Soul Party and Red Baraat – blazed through careening jams packed with some pretty unhinged soloing, drawing from both band’s catalogs of hip-hop-inspired Eastern European brass music and Indian bhangra.

All of these bands play all over town when they’re not at Barbes. Mariachi Flor de Toloache are playing an album release weekend for their new one, with shows on June 16 at 10 and the following night, June 17 at midnight at Joe’s Pub; cover is $25. Bulla En El Barrio are back at Barbes on June 26 at around 9:30. Innov Gnawa’s next big show is at Prospect Park Bandshell at 7:30 PM on July 21, where they open for intense, psychedelic Malian microtonal guitar band Amadou and Mariam. And Big Lazy return to their monthly Friday night residency at Barbes on July 7 at 10 PM.

A Blissful Weekend of Otherworldly, Cutting-Edge Moroccan Trance Music

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.

Magical Moroccan Music Masters Make History This March 16 at Lincoln Center

One of the most important musical events in recent history, with global significance akin to Peter Tosh and Bob Marley sharing the same stage – or Robert Johnson jamming with Howlin’ Wolf – will take place on Thursday, March 16 at 7:30 PM at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. It’s the first-ever performance by three of the world’s greatest masters of Moroccan music. Two of the great maalems (masters) of explosively hypnotic Moroccan gnawa trance music – Maalem Hamid El Kasri and Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane – will share the stage with Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, the only gnawa master this side of the Atlantic, who leads Brooklyn-based ensemble Innov Gnawa.  This first performance on this year’s inaugural Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde Festival Tour marks the debut of a new partnership between the Festival and Lincoln Center. 

Taking a brief pause in between rehearsals and the innumerable demands of scheduling an event of this magnitude, Maalem Ben Jaafer, his Innov Gnawa protege and bandmate Samir LanGus, and David Rubenstein Atrium Programming Manager Meera Dugal got together Sunday night to share some intimate details about the event over snacks and a delicious vegan Moroccan stew in the comfortable, lowlit confines of Tagine on 38th Street.

It turns out that this show will be a very heartwarming reunion. Ben Jaafer and El Kasri knew each other as young stars of the lila party circuit, Ben Jaafer from Fez and El Kasri making his home base in Rabat. They haven’t seen each other or even talked on the phone in seventeen years

LanGus was immersed in the music in his native Morocco before moving to North Carolina and then New York to play under Ben Jaafer’s tutelage. Growing up in South Carolina, Dugal didn’t encounter gnawa until moving to New York, where she first met LanGus at a wild Lincoln Center concert by Hoba Hoba Spirit – the Moroccan Clash – in 2014. 

“Samir and I dreamed up this partnership between the two institutions while at the gnawa festival in Essaouira last summer, and this collaboration marks the next step in our mission to share gnawa with a larger audience here in the US. At Lincoln Center, we’ve been listening to our enthusiastic Moroccan community, and they’ve been crucial to our focus on this music, as well as our decision to reach out to the Gnaoua Festival to work together.” 

“If this is someone’s first exposure to gnawa music, it doesn’t get any better than this,” LanGus enthused. “For Moroccans in America, it’s a chance to see something here that wouldn’t even happen in Morocco. For people who know the music, it’s a chance to go really deeply into it and and watch three of the greatest musicians alive. And if you haven’t seen gnawa before, this is as good as it gets.” 

”The Gnaoua Festival also plays a significant role in elevating the status of gnawa music and gnawa people in Morocco,” Dugal explained. Just like Argentine tango, Puerto Rican salsa and American blues, gnawa was marginalized for decades. Gnawa musicians were held in low esteem before a recent resurgence. These days, it’s essentially become the national music of Morocco.

Gnawa’s roots date back to pre-Islamic sub-Saharan Africa. First brought north by slaves and Moorish soldiers, the music slowly gained popularity through lilas, the marathon all-night gnawa celebrations which are part block party and part mystical trance ceremony. There are thousands of songs in the gnawa repertoire; Ben Jaafer and Innov Gnawa have a repertoire of about two hundred. In live performance, improvisation factors in about eighty to ninety percent of the music: the chorus of qraqab castanet players has to be able to follow a skilled maalem’s sudden rhythmic changes on a moment’s notice. 

Ben Jaafer is revered as an innovator just like his mentor, Maalem Sidi Mouhamed Sam, widely considered the greatest gnawa pioneer of the 1960s and 70s. Ben Jaafer made a name for himself on the lila circuit as being one of the most innovative gnawa singers and virtuosos of the sintir, the Moroccan low-register lute. Eclecticism became his signature sound. He incorporates elements of Sufi hammadcha, in addition to the two primary branches of gnawa, marsaoui and chamali, into his phrasing. He quickly made a name for himself as one of the very few maalems adept at each of the various regional styles of gnawa, which differ widely from north to south and points in between.

Alternating between Arabic, French and English, he shared some colorful stories of life on the road as one of Morocco’s most sought-after musicians (he now lives in Brooklyn, leading Innov Gnawa in concerts across the city and as faraway as big festivals like Coachella). He recalled a time in Morocco going from a low-key afternoon lila in a fancy neighborhood, then taking a break for a snack before moving on to an all-night gig  in an adjoining city. There were times when he’d get home early in the afternoon, thinking he’d finally get some sleep, only to be woken a couple of hours later by a client looking to book him. Then there was the time when he was called in the middle of the night to replace another maalem who’d unexpectedly quit a lila at three in the morning. “We were expected to go til eight or nine,” Ben Jaafer explained with a wry grin. 

For those of you new to gnawa, there are other related upcoming events to help you out. On Monday, March 20 Langus and Dugal are convening a panel at The New School Jazz with journalist Tom Pryor, ethnomusicologist and political scientist Hisham Aidi, and jazz pianist and Juilliard Jazz Chair of Improvisation Marc Cary. The event is free and will feature Moroccan refreshments and a performance by Innov Gnawa, who will also be special guests on March 22, as NEA Jazz Master and piano icon Randy Weston wraps up his residency at Medgar Evers College with a discussion about his history with gnawa. Ben Jaafer and LanGus will join him onstage.  

After the Lincoln Center event, the maalems make a stop on March 17 at 7 PM at the New School, where the performance will be more intimate and akin to a lila as practiced in Morocco. Then they’re at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on March 18 before returning to New  York for a 7 PM gig at Pioneer Works in Red Hook on March 19, where they’ll jam with New York jazz artists including Cary, Marcus Strickland, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Will Calhoun; advance tix are $30. 

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.

Deep African Blues Roots in Cutting-Edge Jazz in the West Village This Week

“When I first heard gnawa music, I heard the blues, and jazz, and the Black church,” Randy Weston explained to the sold-out crowd at the New School Tuesday night. The ageless piano sage has made a career of taking jazz back to its ancient African roots and then reinventing them, first inspired by his father and later while living in Morocco, where he immersed himself in innumerable North African folk and classical music styles. Currently artist-in-residence at the university, he brought along his pal Abdellah El Gourd along with a trio of energetic, impressively athletic dancer-percussionists from his group Dar Gnawa of Tanger for an insightful, sometimes trance-inducing, sometimes raptly transcendent performance of both traditional material and some of Weston’s best-loved compositions.

The percussionists supplied a hypnotically polyrhythmic clickety-clack backdrop with their pairs of cast-metal qraqab castanets while El Gourd grounded the music in low, circling, propulsive phrases on his three-string gimbri lute – one of the earliest ancestors of the funk bass. While Weston didn’t mention that particular lineage, he took care to explain that the qraqabs are a descendant of something considerably more disturbing: handcuffs. Centuries ago, in the Berber lands, prisoners in chains would use them to communicate in code.

Since gnawa music continues to serve several roles in the community – as rhythmic backdrop for mass celebration, spiritual ritual and physical healing, among other things – it’s no surprise that the vocals, delivered robustly by El Gourd an the rest of the group, have a mantra-like quality. In conversation with El Gourd along with a younger countryman and New School student, Weston revealed that the music also has a synesthetic connection – different individuals, different songs and even riffs are associated with different colors. Weston took some obvious relish in being someone whose color, predictably, turned out to be blue.

And the blues, along with their ancient, more lingering and slowly unwinding roots, were everywhere in Weston’s solo pieces, which he played in between numbers by the Moroccans. Night in Medina, he told the crowd, was inspired by a trip to the bustling Tangiers marketplace he frequented during the day but hesitated to visit after dark: “You know, being from Bed-Stuy!” he joked. Awash in hushed, low-register, moonlit resonance, saturnine modes and allusive Middle Eastern phases, Weston slowly pulled good-natured postbop out of it. Likewise, he closed the performance with a regal, judiciously crescendoing take of Blue Moses, joined slowly and then joyously by the rest of the group as it unwound out of a gently rhythmic trance groove.

Speaking of the blues, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger has a connection with them that goes deeper than most. His brand-new live album, Pivot, comprises two lengthy explorations of Bukka White classics. Last night at Smalls, he made another live recording with his quartet, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass and Ian Froman on drums. After Preminger and the group had stayed pretty much within themselves, playing their cards close to the vest, very puristically as they do on Pivot, it was a real rush to watch them finally jump and spiral out of control with a pretty wild free interlude late in the set. They went back to dusky and evocative and tersely melodic with their closing number, Mississippi John Hurt’s I Shall Not Be Moved, Palmer anchoring the sound as Froman built toward a steady hailstorm, Preminger finally cutting loose and wailing to the rafters, making the song’s title all the more ironic. Let’s hope this one makes it onto the record as a pure, unedited thrill.