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The Mawazine sessions - Part 7: Gnawa music

We speak to the Gnawa master Hamid El Kasri and the Algerian group Gnawa Diffusion about the rise of the genre.

The Gnawa master Hamid El Kasri. Photo Courtesy Manfred Scweda
The Gnawa master Hamid El Kasri. Photo Courtesy Manfred Scweda

Gnawa has grown to be respected in world music events. At Morocco’s recent Mawazine Festival, Saeed Saeed speaks to the Gnawa master Hamid El Kasri and the Algerian group Gnawa Diffusion about the rise of the genre

From its initial beginnings as hymns and freedom songs of West African slaves, Gnawa music has grown to encompass spirituality and artistic expression.

The development was recently showcased in this year’s Mawazine Festival in Morocco, which brought together an eclectic range of Gnawa artists.

Performing in Arabic and Berber, artists such as the Moroccan Hamid El Kasri and the Algerian group Gnawa Diffusion illustrate how the genre today commands respect in both spiritual gatherings and the world music stage.

Despite his homeland fame, El Kasri has never been bothered by success. As a teenager, the artist used Gnawa music to reach for something higher than the top of the charts.

“It is something deeply personal and spiritual,” he explains. “You are singing about deeper subjects such as God and you are referencing the prophets. When you are doing something like that, it is not just a light entertainment thing.”

Indeed, Gnawa music was born out of intense suffering. Tracing its roots back to more than 500 years, the music arrived in Morocco through the West African slave trade, with each community bringing their own musical traditions.

Once set free, the former subjects – known as the Gnawa people – spread across Morocco and intermarried while maintaining their musical traditions, the songs serving as a reminder of their dark past.

Over the years, the genre evolved to include spiritual elements from the Islamic Sufi tradition and went on to be performed in religious ceremonies and rituals.

The development also spread on the musical front. The a cappella performances of old made way for more rhythmic arrangements including signature instruments such as the qraqab (iron castanets), a large drum called the tbel and a gimbri – a droning, three-string lute. The latter instrument is mainly responsible for the genre’s otherworldly vibe.

With methods of documentation unavailable during the early years, the genre was passed down from one generation to another, thus preserving its essence and at the same time developing to reflect the present.

El Kasri encountered the genre through the traditional route.

After some time spent as a child performer in a Gnawa street-band in Rabat, the 14-year-old El Kasri then moved to Tétouan, a northern Moroccan city considered as the hub for Gnawa education.

Under the tutelage of Abdullah Al Wazzani and Abdul Wahid Stitu, El Kasri spent his early 20s performing across Morocco before setting up a private performance in front of Gnawa masters to obtain their final blessing. El Kasri, now known as mualem – the Arabic term for a Gnawa master – explains his journey was more than simply perfecting the notes.

“The training was both spiritual and musical,” he recalls. “What I learnt from the mualem was that you had to know yourself. You have to be in touch with your spirituality first before focusing on the music. It has to be done in that order as opposed to the other way around, if so the music doesn’t have the depth.”

Gnawa Diffusion take a different approach to the genre. The Algerian collective use Gnawa music as a launching pad to explore different styles including reggae, rock and blues. The esoteric sounds, however, are undercut by the fiercely political lyrics spat out by the vocalist and gimbri player Amazigh Kateb.

Over the course of seven albums, including last year’s Shock El Hal, the group dealt with various hot-button issues, from poverty and corruption in their native Algeria to American military and cultural imperialism.

Kateb admits the group faced criticism from Gnawa purists for wandering away from the genre’s spiritual roots, but he argues that Gnawa is big enough to straddle both dimensions. “I don’t think the essence of Gnawa is spirituality,” he explains. “I totally respect those musicians who view it that way, but for me, first and foremost, Gnawa is about freedom. Even the artist performing with a spiritual purpose – at the end of the day, what they are really talking about is freedom.”

The son of Kateb Yacine, hailed as the founder of modern Algerian literature, Kateb says he has always been interested in exploring alternative views.

It is this curiosity that led him to form Gnawa Diffusion in 1993. Through performance and travel, he explains, he realised Gnawa music shares commonalities with other leading genres.

“We mix a lot of reggae and blues in our music,” he states. “It is actually not that difficult because it all comes from the same family. I remember going to Cuba and playing with some musicians and they saw some similarities between their music and Gnawa. Especially the Cubans with African ancestry, they recognise some of the influences in our music. It was during such moments I realised that we were crossing cultures.”

While flattered at the notion that Gnawa Diffusion could be a welcome starting point for those wanting to explore the genre, Kateb says it is not the band’s intention.

“We just want to make people think and be aware,” he says.

“I think we give people a perspective on the music of north Africa and give you also an insight into what’s happening to society there. We want people to listen to the topics we are discussing and then be free to make their own opinion.”

• Next week: we conclude the series with the Ghanaian hip-hop artist Blitz the Ambassador

sasaeed@thenational.ae

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