big chief in morocco

donaldbig chiefblog.jpg

Oh, how I wish I'd been in Morocco last week. Saxophonist Donald Harrison, who is also Big Chief of the Congo Nation, a tribe in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, made the trip to Essaouira, Morocco, for the 12th annual Gnaoua & World Music Festival.

 This must have been some melding of spiritual power and rhythmic drive. Here's how Willard Jenkins, who organized the trip along with Snug Harbor's Jason Patterson, described it (you can also find some excellent background on the Gnawa archived at Willard's Independent Ear blog):

For two performances - one midnight event at the Chez Kebir club space with Gnaoua musicians from Agadir, Morocco, the other a grand collaboration on the big stage at Moulay Hassan Square with a Gnaoua ensemble from Essaouira before approximately 100,000 celebrants - Donald Harrison's Congo Nation ensemble, with percussionist Shaka Zulu masking in stunning green, performed an uproarous concert with the Gnaoua ensemble of Maalem (master) Mohamed Kouyou.  Donald characterized their connection as "profound" and his having been "transformed" by the experience of bringing his Black Indian traditions to this unique partnership.  
The Gnaoua (or Gnawa as the spirit music brotherhood is variously known) were equally blown away by the experience, enthusiastically embracing Donald and Congo Nation following each performance and exclaiming that throughout their years of collaborating with Western musicians - as is this festival's custom - never before had they experienced such a beautiful synergy as they did with these New Orleans musicians and their deep Louisiana musical customs! Donald says he felt the connections almost immediately upon seeing the Gnaoua and how so much of what they are about is from the same cultural root that the Mardi Gras Indian customs sprang up from.  He also expressed regrets that he had not brought one of his suits to mask during the festival's annual grand processional of Gnaoua ensembles through town on opening night - an occasion where it really hit home with Donald just how deep the ancestral connections are between the Gnaoua (black Moroccans who ancestrally come from the same regions of Africa as the majority of African Americans' ancestors) and Black Indian traditions. --Peace, Willard



Here's a piece I wrote about the Gnawa Festival in 2003 for Jazziz magazine:

Morocco is a crossroads of cultures that has long drawn Western musicians of all genres. The most well-known of these expeditions is documented by a recording of the Master Musicians of Jajouka made by Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones in the late 1960s. The Jajoukans have collaborated widely in the decades since, with musicians including Ornette Coleman and pop star Peter Gabriel.

Yet the allure of the Gnawa (sometimes spelled Gnaoua) musicians is something special. Descendants of black Africans who came to Morocco in 16th century, the Gnawa arrived as slaves and, more recently, as migrant workers. The central ritual of their musical culture is the trance ceremony, which is said to heal or purify participants. The music is based on chants, the insistent polyrhythms of qaraqebs (large plated castanets), and most of all, on the hypnotic power of a three-stringed instrument bass-like instrument, the hajouj (also referred to as a sintir or giumbri). In the hands of a gifted maleem, as the Gnawan spiritual leaders are called, the hajouj can be manipulated to move from a gentle guitar-like sound to a deeply pulsing bass effect, emphasized with fingers beating on the instrument's skin-covered face.

"Everyone talks about Brian Jones going to Jajouka and making a recording," said producer Bill Laswell, who brought saxophonist Pharoah Sanders to Morocco to record with Gnawa masters for 1994's The Trance of the Seven Colors (Axiom). "They refer to that as the first real world-music album, since Jones was a star at the time. But Brian Jones went to Marrakech first to record Gnawa music, with the idea of dubbing rhythm-and-blues over their music."

The intense spiritual impact of Gnawa music is, for many musicians, not far removed from that of the blues. When ex-Led Zeppelin partners Robert Plant and Jimmy Page invited Gnawa musicians to play on their worldly  release, No Quarter (Atlantic) -- also put out in 1994-- they began the sessions with Delta blues tunes and field hollers. according to Plant.

Jazz pianist Randy Weston, who has lived in Morocco on and off for some 40 years and who has recorded and performed with Gnawa musicians on many occasions, heard a connection between Gnawa music and classic jazz right away.

"When I first heard Gnawa music," Weston says, "I thought of Jimmy Blanton." While most jazz critics credit Blanton with revolutionizing the role of the bass while a member of Duke Ellington's orchestra, Weston heard history differently. "I was always fascinated by the switch on string bass from Water Page and concept with Count Basie to Blanton and his concept with Ellington. Whenever I heard Ellington, Blanton's bass always blew my mind. When I heard Gnawa years later, I realized that Blanton was doing something very old, that it was an African approach."

The Gnawa are proud of the intrigue their music holds. In Essaouira, a picturesque port city with a lovely beach bordered by towered forts, there are signs to show you precisely where guitarist Jimi Hendrix used to hang out when he came to visit the local musicians.

I had heard Gnawa music in many forms before I visited Morocco. I'd heard field recordings of farmers celebrating a harvest. I'd heard recordings of the acknowledged master of Gnawa music, Mahmoud Ghania, in collaboration with Weston and Sanders and others. I'd heard fine recordings of Hassan Hakmoun, a Morrocan-born musician who lives in New York, and who plays in both traditional styles and in contemporary fusion bands.

Little, however, could have prepared me for The Festival d'Essaouira, in June of 2002. The population of this quiet town of 70,000 swelled to nearly a quarter-million for the festival, now in its fourth year. Tourists who stayed in the lovely riyads (palaces-cum-bed-and-breakfast hotels) and teenagers who slept on the beach were drawn by the nearly nonstop concerts, many of which offered free attendance. Mahmoud Ghania was in residence, along with many more Gnawan masters. There were concerts by artists from some dozen countries -- Malian diva Oumou Sangare, for instance, or the intense and lovely music of the Bauls of Bengal. But the real story, the focus of it all, was the rapturous sound of the Gnawa, which could be heard in all variety of contexts. Late at night, there were performances that mimicked a traditional leela, or trance ceremony. In the evenings, maleems improvised wildly with free-thinking musicians such as trumpeter Graham Haynes and percussionist Jamey Haddad, both Americans. At the two main stages, the maleems plugged in their traditional axes, and fronted loud, arena-style shows.

Were they rock stars or spiritual leaders? Why not both. 

July 5, 2009 9:04 PM |


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