The image immediately associated with the Gnawa is exemplified by Schuyler's vivid description of Marrakech's Djemaa el Fna in the evening “Out on the triangle...a group of Gnawa...perform dances to the polyrhythmic accompaniment of big bass drums and metal clappers." (Schuyler, 1996) Although this image is an accurate description of a public presentation fails to see the entire picture of the Gnawa and their music.
Gnawa music is characterized by instrumentation. The large heavy iron castanets known as qraqab (or krakebs) and a three -string lute known commonly as a hajhuj (or gimbri) are central to Gnawa music.(Schuyler, 2008) The rhythms of the Gnawa, like their instrumentations are distinctive. Particularly Gnawa is characterized by interplay between triple and duple meters. The “big bass drums” mentioned by Schuyler are not typically featured in a more traditional setting. (Schaefer, 2005)
Traditionally Gnawa music is performed not publicly in a marketplace like Marrakech’s Jamaa el-Fna. Rather it performed at a lila. The lila ceremony is to “heal those afflicted with spirit possession” by placating “the spirits with music, incense, colours, and animal sacrifice.” (Kapchan, 2007) Tim Fuson describes the lila ceremony as occurring over the course of a night and employing music, dance, song, costume and incense. (Fuson) The sections of the lila follow a set order, each section is dedicated to a mluk and is also associated to a colour. (Kapchan & Fuson) Journalist Sia Michel notes that Gnawa music is “designed to bring listeners into a mystical, trancelike state.” (Michel, 2007) By employing music, colour, and scent the Gnawa lila create a multi-sensory experience that induces trance and trance-dancing in propitiation of the mluk. The music is part of the propitiation of the mluk and therefore possesses substantial power.
As music is central to the lila and the Gnawa experience of life, changes in the presentation of it could be potentially perilous. Anthropologist Deborah Kapchan describes her concern at the performance of sections of the Gnawa lila in a Parisian theatre, “Why was I shocked? Because I had been told that the music had such power that it would be dangerous to play it outside its ritual context at least those songs that invoked the jnun.” (Kapchan, 2007) This new Parisian setting was explained to her as being acceptable, because the mluk understood the Gnawa's intention with the music. (Kapchan, 2007) In this case, according to these Gnawa performers, the music was not intended to be part of spirit propitiation, and therefore it did not carry the same powerful significance. The power ascribed to music according to Kapchan delineates music as a central element of the lila ceremony.
Examples of Gnawa Music
Bearing in mind the power that music carries in the Gnawan belief system. It is surprising the number and variety of Gnawan fusions that have emerged. However the Gnawi have established a fairly “rigid distinction between the two types of performance, the ceremony and the concert.” (Schaefer, 2005) In essence, like stated by the Gnawa themselves, the music’s power concerns the performances intentions.
In the second half of the twentieth century interest in the Gnawa has grown rapidly. Ted Swedenburg explains the growth of the consumption of Gnawa by attributing it to the skyrocketing American market for anything and everything spiritual. (Swedenburg, 2001) Kapchan also notes the popularity of the Gnawa on the world stage. The Gnawa have achieved success and prominence in their collaborations with “African American jazz musicians, American rock and roll musicians, and French recording artists.” (Kapchan, 2007)
The links that the Gnawa have established through their collaborations are what can be termed Gnawa Fusions. Of particular interest is the tie between the Gnawa and African-American jazz musicians. Possibilities abound for how, when and why this connection was forged. Fuson illuminates the interesting fact that the terms “Gnawa” and “African -American” refers “to a group of people whose ancestors came from diverse regions of Africa but took on a collective identity in exile.” (Fuson) Chouki El Hamel takes Fuson's idea another step further. In a discussion of the textual content of Gnawa songs El Hamel notes: “These are also songs dealing with the Gnawa's assimilation in their new environment where they sing and dance to ease the pain just as Black Americans did when they sang to deal with their plight. In this regard, Gnawa is very similar to the Blues.” (El Hamel, 2000)
This extension that runs between African-American Jazz and Blues to a variety of current African genres was noted by Samuel A. Floyd a musicologist. For Floyd the similarity of jazz improvisation and African dance possession, a category containing Gnawa music, is “too striking and provocative to dismiss.” (Kapchan, 2007)
American jazz musician Patrick Brennan draws similarities between Gnawa and 1960s John Coltrane, for him the qraqab link to the role of the cymbals and the guimbri to the string bass. However, the inter rhythmic complexities that dialogue in Gnawa allows the giumbri to enjoy a much more melodic roll than the jazz string bass has. Brennan found this new bass role intriguing and began incorporating it into his own work. (Nickson, 2001) The Gnawa have become a part of Brennan's musical heritage just like he has become part of theirs.
Jazz, Blues and Gnawa music share veins of similarity. The similarities may be apparent in the social groupings and identification, either self or other imposed, or it could be an aesthetic connection. These connections are as varied as the musicians creating them. As connections are created and developed from and react to its surrounding. The change that has happened specifically with regards to Gnawa, is demonstrated by the performance venues of the Gnawa. Most prominently a shift from private to public, from the lila to the Jmaa el-Fna.
Hassan Hakmoun is a musician born in Marrakech in 1963.(Schuyler,1995) He comes from a family inundated with Gnawa belief and practise. According to the liner notes to his album “The Fire Inside” Hakmoun's mother presided over the lila ceremonies and as a youth he experienced the power of Gnawa music in an incident concerning his younger sister. When she was two, Hakmoun’s sister was afflicted by burns that covered her entire body. A m'allem was contacted a lila arranged and his sister was cured by the morning. This incident “reinforced his belief in the ritual magic of the Gnawa.” (Schuyler, 1995)
Deborah Kapchan investigated how Hakmoun is understood by the Gnawa in Morocco. Within one community of Gnawa Hakmoun was acknowledged both as a local boy and “not a [real] Gnawi.” (Kapchan, 2007) This identification of familiarity was tempered by a designation of authenticity. Perhaps Hakmoun is not considered authentic Gnawi because he had never been considered m'allem in any traditional Moroccan context. Or perhaps Hakmoun's perceived lack of authenticity is derived from his exploration of Gnawa fusions. Ted Swedenburg describes Hakmoun's forays into music recordings as running “the gamut from austerely authentic to the wildly syncretic.” (Pareles, 1988) Regardless of how the Moroccan Gnawi view Hakmoun, he is viewed as one of the principle practioners of it in the world. This makes him an authentic representation of the western perception of Gnawa, even when this is not true to the Gnawa's understanding of self.
Hakmoun has worked to promote himself to the world as the face of Gnawa. In 1988 he took part in a series entitled “Music Around the Mediterranean” held at a New York folk arts center. In this concert Hakmoun was a solo performer, journalist Jon Pareles for the New York Times in attendance at the performance noted that “If there had been a Gnawa crowd, there would have been more cross-rhythms, from call-and-response singing and from dancers with qaraqeb.” Hakmoun was promoting the Gnawa culture, by presenting it even if necessary as a soloist; with this performance he demonstrated a deep dedication to the Gnawa.
This commitment to the Gnawa is also evident in the fusions he has created with Gnawa as the central figure of cultural interaction. From this base Hakmoun redefines the genre and strives to popularize the music. Kapchan’s description of Hakmoun's involvement with recordings and the popularization of Gnawa emphasizes his desire to promote Gnawa. He “has perhaps more than any other Gnawi, has marketed Gnawa music to the West, combining Gnawa music with jazz and American pop.” (Kapchane, 2007) This suggests that by fusing Gnawa with these other genres Hakmoun is creating a hybrid that is somehow more palatable to western sensibilities.
Another reviewer, Sia Michel described a 2007 performance by brothers Hassan and AbderRahim Hakmoun's, as an energetic evening, in which Hassan possessed the “charisma of a rock star,” ... “like the Eddie Van Halen of the sintir.” (Michel, 1988) This demonstrates evidence of a fusion. A traditional Gnawa lila taking place in Morocco would not conjure images of western rock stars. The Hakmoun brother's performance slid into the fusion genre at least partly because of the transformation of the performance venue.
Video of Hassan Hakmoun
Randy Weston is a Brooklyn born jazz pianist. His link to Gnawa originates from his participation in a 1967 tour of Africa on behalf of the State Department. He met Abdellah El Gould, a musician who brought the Gnawa musical traditions to light. (Chimen, 2006) Weston's initial interest in Africa was cultivated by his parents. This strong link to African music, Gnawa included is derived from Kolb's view that, “Music started in Africa. If we experience Africa, we experience the very beginning of music. This music is past, present and future. You can't improve on this music, only learn from it because it's so deep in spirit, love, ancestors, all those things that are kind of missing today.” (Kolb, 2001)
Randy Weston approaches fusion in an opposite way to Hakmoun. Rather than emphasizing the western element, for example a saxophone solo and diminishing the backing tracks, which could be a rhythmic chant-based one. Weston pulls “African rhythms” into the foreground. For Weston “the music that is called jazz...for me is really an extension of African culture.” (Kelley, 2001) This approach to fusion implies that the two genres of Gnawa and jazz are not actually being melded. Instead the genre of jazz and Gnawa are really derivatives of the same music and are therefore very similar, if not the same.
Weston has been both praised and condemned for his Gnawa fusion work. He has been accused of using the Gnawa as a base over which other musicians will perform solos. Willard Jenkins counters this by describing Weston's “frequent interactions with the Gnawa” as one which does not seek “fusion but an interaction that honours the true spirit of Gnawa music.” (Jenkins, 2002) M'Allem Ahmed Boussou supports Jenkins’ statement, “Randy Weston's music is related to Gnawa music, by virtue of its African roots.” (Weston, 1995)
Connections between Gnawa and jazz are aurally obvious, even though the social element is different. “It is worthwhile to note that these rhythms, however, can be heard in other forms of modern music, must typically in the blues, jazz, calypso, latin and Brazilian music. (McNeill, 1995)In describing the hajhuj, Weston says he was reminded of Duke Ellington and Jimmy Blanton’s playing. (Chimen)
Video of Randy Weston
The Sudani project is a collaboration between Americans Nirankar Khalsa and Patrick Brennan with Moroccan Najib Sudani. This particular collaboration is unique because the playing does not reflect a solo and accompaniment dynamic. Tim Fuson's accompanying liner notes to their first recording notes a sensitivity to listening which combines “a willingness to follow each other without being bound by typical genre constraints” that “makes this recording one of the most satisfying and genuinely collaborative Gnawa explorations to date.”(Fuson) Unlike Hassan Hakmoun and Randy Weston, the Sudani project is an integration of jazz and Gnawan elements -with neither genre taking a domineering role. Members of the Sudani project create this reciprocal relationship within the music by building off of the “commonalities of African-American and African-Maghribi music not only at the level of melody and rhythm, but also at a deeper level of interactive structure, each one giving and taking in turn.” Najib and Brennan have made a conscious decision to collaborate as equals. Brennan notes that while each musician has their own respective musical history and style, their focus was not on the maintenance of these idioms but rather on how they “could play together.” (Nickson)
Members of the Sudani project all bring their own experiences to the music. American Percussionist Nirankar Khalsa perceives the connection between Jazz and Gnawa as an “expression of common shared roots, and moreover a manifestation of world cultural solidarity.” (Khalsa) This is in a similar vein to Randy Weston –the execution of this view has a quite different manifestation with the context of the Sudani project. The groups name sake and another of the groups musicians, Najib Sudani is a m'allem from Essaouria. The Gnawa of Essaouria have a significant tradition of cross-culture communication. Najib's father also a m'allem was highly sought after by musicians around the world including Jimi Hendrix. Najib therefore was not unaware of the processes involved in a collaborative foreign recording effort and this allowed the fusion genres to develop further than groups who do not have a heritage of international exchange. (Sudani)
Sound clips the Sudani project
Both Western Artists and Moroccan Artists have achieved fame though recitals and concerts of Gnawa-fusion music. These artists each approach fusion from different angles and the reinterpretations of the Gnawa allows the music to be experienced by a larger audience. The influence has not been a one sided exchange. Because of these fusions Gnawa has been transformed as jazz has. These transformations are evident in the instrumentation, rhythms and even the venues that the music takes place in. Gnawa-fusion music is evidence of an ever increasing global world.