Gnawa (or Gnaoua), is a musical and spiritual lifeblood of Morocco. The origins of this trance-inducing music are with the people, also referred to as Gnawa, taken to Morocco as slaves from the Sahel beginning in the 12th century. Although enslavement stripped them of liberty, they kept their musical knowledge and animistic traditions, which eventually morphed into Gnawa, only in recent decades recognized as a central part of Morocco’s cultural heritage. One can hear traces of these origins by listening to music made by hunters (donsow) in Mali. Gnawa music is made with the three-string guembri (akin to a larger, deeper version of Mali’s ngoni), played by the maalem (master) and hypnotic, rhythm-keeping metal qraqeb (similar to large castanets). In Morocco, Gnawa is something of a national music, maintained in a more traditional form by maalems and blended with globalized music like rock, reggae and hip-hop to create some beautiful, contemporary Moroccan sounds (e.g. the band Hoba Hoba Spirit). Since the early 20th century, Gnawa has been gaining recognition beyond North Africa, from Jamaican-American writer Claude McKay’s promotion of the music during the Harlem Renaissance, to the many jazz and blues musicians who have been inspired since, like Randy Weston, Ornette Coleman, Peter Gabriel and Robert Plant.
This week, Gnawa comes to New York City. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the world-renowned Gnawa and World Music Festival in Essaouira, Morocco, the musicians are embarking on a “Gnawa World Tour.” The tour kicks off at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center on Thurs., March 16, with the U.S. debuts of renowned Maalem Hamid El Kasri and Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane, joined by NYC-based Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer. This performance, which is assured to be an excellent one, is free to all, but seating is limited and available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
There’s more! In case you miss the show at Lincoln Center, on Fri., March 17, there will be a free concert at the New School featuring traditional Gnawa from Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane. The next day, March 18, there will be a performance in Washington, DC featuring the same Gnawa masters, Maalem Hamid El Kasri and Maalem Abdelslam Alikkane, joined by Afghan singer and composer Humayun Khan and Iranian guitarist Shahin Shahida for an evening of cross-cultural collaboration. Closing out a busy weekend, the Gnawa masters will be back in Brooklyn on March 19 for a Gnawa-jazz fusion concert at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. The maalems will be joined by rock drummer Will Calhoun and musicians Marcus Strickland, Marc Cary and Jamaaladeen Tacuma.
Following these performances, on Mon., March 20, the New School will be hosting “Marhaba: An Introduction to Moroccan Gnawa Music.” The event features a panel discussion led by moderator Meera Dugal and local Gnawa musician Samir Langus of Innov Gnawa, joined by panelists Hisham Aidi, an ethnomusicologist and political scientist, journalist and ethnomusicologist Tom Pryor, and Marc Cary, renowned jazz pianist and Chair of Jazz Improvisation at the Juilliard School. They’ll explore Gnawa–its history, connections to jazz, and the global impact of the Gnawa Festival in Essaouira. There will also be a brief performance by NYC’s own Innov Gnawa, and an exhibition of photographs from Gnawa Festival taken by Sabir El Mouakil. Moroccan refreshments will be provided. This event is also free.
At Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, eminent jazz pianist and composer Randy Weston will be giving a lecture and demonstration about the influence of various African musics in his work, particularly Moroccan Gnawa and Senegalese styles. He’ll be joined by Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, Innov Gnawa and several artists from Senegal. This event was slated for March 15, but postponed until further notice due to the weather.
Words from the co-organizer of the U.S. leg of the Gnawa Festival Tour, Meera Dugal: “Having followed and presented artists from the growing international and New York City-based Gnawa music community, we wanted to go to the source and spotlight some of the greatest practitioners of this vibrant, hypnotic music, which has taken its place as a recognized national music of Morocco. It’s an honor for Lincoln Center to partner with the celebrated Gnawa Festival which has championed this important music—in its ancient and contemporary expressions—for the past 20 years.” We hope we’ll see you there for these historic events!