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Gnawa, Spiritual Music of Morocco

Kasbah – the Music of Morocco is not just a glimpse into musical tradition, but part of a global project that puts ethics, respect and creative cooperation right at the heart of things. 

By Valerie Grove

Kasbah – the Music of Morocco is a series of 17 short films documenting three traditional music cultures in Morocco. Each episode contains a live performance by musicians from different communities or regions, filmed in a place relevant to that tradition.  

The films were made by Remix ⟷ Culture, a non-profit organisation based in New York and founded by multi-instrumentalist, multi-media performer, filmmaker and inspirational good guy, Hatim Belyamani. Hatim, also known as HAT, grew up in Morocco and started Remix ⟷ Culture in 2012 both to celebrate his own musical roots and as a way of bridging cultures and generations by combining traditional music with the art of digital remix.

The Remix ⟷ Culture team research and find often marginalised musical cultures and traditions all around the world. They establish relationships with the musicians who keep their community’s musical heritage and history alive and then advertise for local staff and aspiring filmmakers to help record performances. In the process each separate video project not only produces a library of musical forms that would not otherwise be accessible, but trains and gives experience of filming, editing and screenwriting to a new generation of creatives on the ground.

HAT’s multi-media performances are a live remixing of these videos with experimental acoustic trance and electronic dance music seamlessly blending the traditional with the contemporary in a unique audio-visual journey. All materials that are filmed or recorded are then available for free to other artists and musicians under a creative commons license, meaning that there is a constant flow of new international mixes and creative exchanges. Remix ⟷ Culture also puts many of these remixes out on its own record label. This removes another source of potential third-party loss for the artists and keeps the virtuous circle flowing in-house. All musicians are paid and any profit goes back to co-creators or into new aspects of the collaboration. It is a model of what everyone back in the day, thought the internet could be before it became such a launchpad for commercial carpet bombing instead. The message is clear:

“We forge lasting relationships based not on remote consumer culture but on personal interaction and mutual respect. Participants of diverse backgrounds engage with each other with curiosity and empathy in a cultural and technological call and response helping build stronger, healthier and more just communities.”

A Group Of Men Playing Music

The 17 films streaming on Alchemiya are a delight in themselves, but knowing that these musicians will also be so widely appreciated, respected, shared, remixed and paid is incredibly powerful.

Six of the episodes feature performances by Innov Gnawa, an ensemble led by Ma’alem Hassan ben Jaafer. Now based in New York but born in Fez in 1962, his title of ‘ma’alem’, or master, signifies his ancestral lineage in the Gnawa musical tradition. Often referred to as ‘sufi blues’, Gnawa originated from West African slaves brought to Morocco from the 16th century onwards. To help preserve the traditions and folkloric music of their ancestors, they created a hybrid musical form of infectious rhythms integrated with Islam and the indigenous culture of Morocco. This fusion is apparent throughout and the songs are often lyrical prayers, particularly in performances like Hammadi and FatHa & La ilaha illa Allah.

We meet Innov Gnawa in Episode One of Kasbah – The Music of Morocco, where they perform Bangara, a wonderful introduction to the deep bass of the three stringed guembri, the insistent percussion of qraqeb, or metal castanets, and the unbroken harmony of voices in perfect alignment. I love that the focus in these films turns so often to the instruments themselves. This means we get a sense of how the guembri is played by ben Jaafer and how it is constructed. We can also see the beautiful hand-worked decoration on the body of the instrument itself.

Seven episodes are solo performances by Mourad Belouadi, a multi-instrumentalist and photographer based in Sale’ in Morocco, where he was born and raised. The Gnawa tradition had been in his family previously and he took it up again. He studied and travelled with Gnawa masters before then  embarking on a solo path steeped in that tradition, but embracing an ever-growing world of new musical influences. 

In Episode Two, Belouadi sings Mawama. This is a story from a slave brought to Morocco from Sudan, and is therefore a part of Gnawa musical history. It is a beautiful performance of a deeply moving song and one in which Belouadi’s virtuoso playing makes the guembri seem so much more than a single instrument – almost a storyteller in its own right. In Episode Eight, his improvisational playing of the hand-held kalimba, or ‘finger harp’, immerses you first in a sublime world of pure sound and then seamlessly merges into the environment in which it is being filmed. It is absolutely beautiful.

His two other kalimba improvisations are entirely different experiences – the variety of sounds, tones and emotions in Kalimba Improv #2, make it a mini symphony while Improv #3 is like listening to falling rain. It’s no wonder the Remix ⟷ Culture team call him ‘Magic Fingers’, a name further justified in two further improvisations on the Djembe, a West African skin-covered, hand drum.

The remaining four videos in this series feature traditional Amazigh songs typical of the Souss Massa region in Morocco. Amazigh is the more accurate and preferred term for the people and culture more usually (and lazily) referred to as ‘Berber’. The songs are performed by the Symphonie Lahcen Idhamou, a virtuoso ensemble led by ‘Rays’ Lahcen Idhamou, who has dedicated his life to the celebration and transmission of this culture, also called the music of the Rways. While primarily a poet, a Rays or Raysa (feminine) is also a musician, composer and choreographer. There is a vast repertoire of Rways texts, melodies, rhythms and dances but each performance is affected by the sensibilities of context, event and place which means that no two performances are ever the same.

The performances of Symphonie Lahcen Idhamou are filmed in the open air, against the spectacular backdrop of the Atlas Mountains. This is a high altitude party and a joyous celebration of culture, musicianship and multiple instruments. There are several ribabs (single stringed violin) and lotars (four stringed lute) while the percussion section includes bendir and tamtam drums and the naqos, a welded bell struck with metal sticks.  

In Episodes Nine and Twelve respectively, the songs Ayeh Ayeh Aya Margi and TallouHt, have a female lead vocalist. She wears a ‘crown’ that is said to have inspired Auguste Bartholdi, the Frenchman who designed the statue of liberty. He visited the Souss region and met the Amazigh in 1871, and as well as the singer’s crown he was perhaps inspired also by learning that the plural of Amazigh is Imazighen which means ‘the free people.’

It is amazing to think that these performances exist not only in their own right, but also as multiple remixes and constant sources of inspiration for new musical forms all across the world. What’s more this is done openly, freely, ethically and in a way that enables traditional music to flourish as a living, breathing part of the global present rather than something consigned to a folkloric past. Remix ⟷ Culture works:

“ …. to set in motion an ever-growing web of positively connected humans offering a picture of what harmony, exchange and resilience in the 21st century might look like.”

What’s not to like?

With thanks to Hatim Belyamani and remix-culture.org

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