Monday, November 23, 2009 By Maryam
To build a truly deep understanding of Gnawa music, its history, the story of the people who play it, and the religious and superstitious beliefs that inform it and determine its structure, you'd probably have to read a few books or live your whole life in Morocco. I'll give the digest version here. There, Gnawa are practitioners of a musical-spiritual tradition rooted in Sufism, a mystical strain of Islam. The Gnawa tradition has its deepest roots in the Arab slave trade, in which sub-Saharan Africans were kidnapped and brought north over the desert to the Maghreb, in modern-day Morocco and Algeria, though today there is no ethnic dimension to it. Gnawa musicians, mystics, and dancers provide a communication conduit between people and the jinn, unseen beings of smokeless fire that are important not to anger. The word is the source of our "genie," and one particular type of jinn, the mluk (literally, "the owners") is said to possess people who cross its path. One of the purposes of Gnawa ceremony is to negotiate with the mluk and send it packing-- it dovetails with the Sufi quest for spiritual purity.
An "Ouled Bambara" is a suite of Gnawa songs played during the Fraja, or entertainment, phase of a Gnawa ceremony. This set of field recordings made in Marrakesh by Caitlin McNally offers samplings of both this phase and the actual mluk phase. The recording carries the sonic flavor of the courtyards in which it was made, and the musical ingredients are simple. The singing is essentially a series of solo and group chants, and it doesn't follow any song forms familiar to Western ears. The whole body of music evolves as one, pushed along by hand claps on some tracks, and iron castanets or shakers on others, and at the heart of the sound is the guimbri, a three-stringed, guitar-like instrument with a large, closed rectangular resonating box. The instrument has loose, thick strings and plays in a bass register, and the musicians frequently drum on the resonator while playing.
While it provides a harmonic outline, the primary function of the guimbri is rhythmic, and the musicians favor gradually shifting patterns, changing tempos and rhythmic emphasis as the song suites unfold. The CD offers about an hour of recorded ceremonial music, and it's very transporting. Even without the extensive liner notes, it's an interesting experience to sit in on a ceremony so different from any of our own. The accompanying half-hour DVD adds a visual dimension, showing the playing techniques for the guimbri and castanets, giving us a glimpse of the dances and trance states, including one somewhat frightening moment where a trancing dancer collapses. It includes interviews with each performer and brief insight into their lives. Mohamed Hamada, the same dancer who collapses, works a day job stoking the flames of a furnace, while Brahim Belkani shows off photos of himself with Dizzy Gillespie, Robert Plant, and Jimmy Page.
It's hard to rate a recording like this in the context of a bunch of indie rock and hip hop records, because it comes from a different angle entirely-- music in this world is spiritual currency, not a product or a showcase, and it's important not to go into listening to it expecting something catchy or straightforwardly funky. It's a genuine field recording and makes no concessions to pop convention or avant-garde ideas. Of course, that's also what makes it a fantastic document of a unique and thriving cultural tradition, one that has a curious place in Moroccan society as neither mainstream nor outcast. Come to listen with the right mindset, and you'll learn a lot about it.
— Joe Tangari, November 23, 2009
OULED BAMBARA IN PARIS 2007:
OULED BAMBARA – PORTRAITS OF GNAWA CD + DVD
You can Listen to the songs’s previews Here