During our recent visit to the 23rd annual World Sacred Music Festival in Fes, Morocco, we saw a dazzling variety of music from across Morocco’s musical landscape. We saw young Moroccans cheering to both pop musicians and Sufi dhikr and Gnawa musicians carrying on old traditions as well as pushing boundaries in fusion projects.
After our the trip, I caught up with our old friend Samir Langus of the New York-based band Innov Gnawa. Innov Gnawa, led by Langus and Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, has been invigorating Gnawa in New York, carrying on the songs and traditions of the music while also innovating and allowing it to evolve. They recently have collaborated with electronic music producers Bonobo and Nickodemus, performing on the big stages at Coachella Music Festival and Red Rocks in Colorado with Bonobo.
I reached out to Samir to get his perspective the complex contemporary Moroccan music scene–we talked on the banks of the Hudson River, in a Manhattan park where Innov Gnawa was about to put on a free concert. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Sebastian Bouknight: What are young Moroccans listening to?
Samir Langus: Especially now the young generation, they are into the…old school music. They want to learn from the masters and just experience it. Because now, as we say, if you run away from your roots, one day your gonna look for them. You know? That’s what’s happening now. That’s why you see the young generation, they are into anything, they are into tradition, the fusion, into pop, Sufi, everything, hip-hop, everything. Then you see them in a Gnawa lila, and they’re getting trance, and you’re like, what? They’re like, yes! We were hip-hopping and we came to get some Gnawa now—to get some spirits.
So they listen to everything, as long as it’s Moroccan?
Anything! It doesn’t mean that it has to be Moroccan, it can be anything.
So, Gnawa has kind of become a pop music in Morocco.
In Morocco, we have different types of people so we have different types of music. Gnawa music–people are into it, wherever you play to, they’re gonna dance, feel in love with it, ’cause of the drums, ’cause of the castanets [qraqeb], ’cause of the bass, the guembri.
You can hear traces of Gnawa in lots of other music too.
You can hear it everywhere! And there we have different types of music that have inspired by Gnawa: Aissawa, Hamedcha, daqqa Marrakchia. Which is usually used in the weddings. It’s [dance music], usually from Marrakech, that’s why we call it daqqa–which is the head–from Marrakech, daqqa Marrakchia. Its very good, it has these funny lyrics that you sing in the wedding just to get money.
Are there popular daqqa Marrakchia artists?
Yeah! There is a great maalem too–Gnawi Maalem. His name is Abdelkebir Marchane–this guy has an amazing voice and he learned from both traditions, the daqqa Marrackhia and the Gnawa style. And he sings really good, plays really good, he’s amazing. Have you checked out chaabi?
No doubt. Who do you like in chaabi?
I like Hajib, this guy he sings the old school chaabi. Its very hard, now because…it’s like there’s commercial chaabi and there’s traditional chaabi–the traditional chaabi is very hard. It’s not easy to play, like the Gnawa. You can easily do a commercial band, but if you have a traditional band that plays the lilas, it’s very hard to have. But to just have like a fusion Gnawa, you can have so it’s the same for the chaabi. There is like deep chaabi and there are the commercial ones. There’s some great masters that play the chaabi–there’s Hajib, there’s Stati, there’s some women too.
Like Zina Daoudia.
Yeah, she used to sing raï, it’s a different style, but now she sings chaabi. There’s the very old women who’ve been in the business for a long time, like Hajja Hamdaouia, she’s an old woman–oh my God, you have to check her out. She plays the bendir [frame drum] and sings.
Very cool. What would you say about malhoun?
Malhoun is the classical music–classical Moroccan music. Really classy. If you travel Royal Air Maroc, they have it in the plane–my dream is to have Gnawa music in the plane! Just a song. Come on! They play malhoun–like you’re waiting in the plane and there’s just Andalusian [malhoun] music. Come on, let’s have a Gnawa song! There’s great maalems who have good recordings! Hamid Lksri, he has great recordings. Just put it on! It’s nice!
Of course! But actually, some people are concerned that Gnawa is becoming more commercial and thus losing some of its spiritual potency and meaning. What are your thoughts?
I agree and I don’t agree. O.K., the Gnawa music back in the days, it wasn’t open to the public. First of all, if you were not Muslim, you would not enter and you would not be allowed to enter the lila. The second thing, if you are white, not black…you are not accepted into the Gnawa community. Third of all, you have to give up everything to get Gnawa music. You have to give up everything, your school, your family, your study, everything. You have to be focused just with Gnawa music and with the musicians. With the masters–which is maalem–to learn from them. I like [how it is] now, because I learned the music from YouTube, O.K.? And without that I wouldn’t be into the music. Because I was at a point where I couldn’t give up everything for the music…I was studying at school at the same time and I was listening to the music, to YouTube and buying recordings and tapes and just listening. So that helped me and the younger generation.
But of course, the old generation, they are not happy with this because they sacrificed a lot to learn the music and when they see the young generation now getting it easier they don’t like it. [They say,] “I used to be hit by the maalems to learn, I used to do everything for them, but look at you now! You’re just learning from YouTube, you’re at home with your [guembri] just listening and learning, everything is easy.” No, they don’t want you to give it that way, they want you to get it the hard way, just like they got it, but I don’t agree with that. It is very complicated–you see people in Morocco; they’re still not happy with the [Gnawa] festival, not happy with the fusion, they’re not happy with the music being on TV. There are some masters that, if they see you are recording them, they stop playing. If they see that you have a machine, they stop playing. Why? C’mon, what are you going to do? Take that talent to the grave? [They say] “Yeah, I’d rather take it with me than give it to you.” Yeah, it’s this bad.
But thanks to the masters like Hamid Lksri, Mustapha Baqbou, to Abdeslam Alikkane, to Abdelkebir Marchane to Abdelkader Amlil, these masters, they give a lot to the music, so that’s how we have it. You go to YouTube now, you [type in], “I want to listen to Hamdouchia,” you’ll find it. “I want to listen to the whole lila,” you’re gonna find it. But back in the day, no, you have to meet with the masters, you have to hang out with them, and in order for them to accept you, you have to do what they do and it’s not easy. But now I’m very happy with the festival, very happy with the commercialization because it’s all good for the music, O.K.? It’s all good for the music. Beside the people that don’t want to share it with the others, they just want to keep it for themselves, and that’s not good.
So it’s kind of been democratized as well. That seems to be the case with many kinds of traditional music.
Yeah…With all the respect to the old masters in jazz, in Gnawa, every type of music, but [some of them] are very closed to themselves. They’re not open, they’re not willing to teach, they’re not willing to help, they just want to keep it for their own, and I don’t agree with that.
That’s a complicated situation. So you took up Gnawa later in life — you were born into an Aissawa family, right? [Aissawa is a Sufi order in Morocco]
Yeah, I was born into an Aissawa family and then I got into Gnawa. Because people they were calling me in the hood, “Hey, what’s up Gnawi,” and I was like “hey, everyone’s calling me Gnawi, so let’s try it. So I bought this sentir [guembri] and I started listening to Maalem Hamid Lksri–he was the first Maalem that introduced me to the Gnawa world and I just fell in love with it because of him.
And then you got to meet him. And play with him!
Yeah, and play with him!
So cool. Why were they calling you Gnawi?
Just because of my color, because I was dark-skinned, like dark brown, so they were calling me Gnawi. So, I was like O.K., if you guys want me to be Gnawi, I’m gonna be Gnawi, I’m gonna become a Gnawi [Laughs].
So, there are a lot of famous Gnawa maalems, like Hamid Lksri, that are lighter-skinned, who you wouldn’t perceive as being descendants of the Gnawa [brought as slaves from the Mali and Ghana empires].
Yeah, you know, nowadays, you see Hamid Lksri’s generation, they grew up in a very dark-skinned Gnawa community. [He] grew up into that and he tried to learn from them–he was doing whatever they asked him to. “Go do shopping for me, come clean the home, go do this and go do that.” You have to do everything. That’s how he learned, that’s how he became a maalem. And for him, when I meet him, he’s a very helpful person–he has a good heart, you know? And he’s willing to teach whoever wants to learn. He asked me to come and stay with him for a couple months to learn. He wanted me to learn more and more. He’s like, “Samir, you’re very welcome anytime to come and stay with me and I’ll teach you anything you need.” I’m going to do it one day.
Very interesting. I’m also wondering about Amazigh [or Berber] music and identity. Many Moroccans are part Amazigh, part Arab, part Gnawa, but then there’s also a strong Amazigh identity, particularly in the Atlas Mountains. To what extent are Amazigh and Arab and Gnawa music distinct, or is it flawed to draw lines between them?
First of all, the Gnawa name is a Berber name. Gnawa means the person that you don’t understand. It’s because when the slaves came to Morocco, they were speaking their own language, they were not speaking Arabic. And the native people of Morocco [the Berber], they couldn’t understand them so they said “Oh you are the Gnaou,” like, “I don’t understand…what you’re saying, so you have a Gnaou.” So Gnaou is one, Gnawa is plural. That’s how the name came. A lot of people [argue] about the name, [saying] the Gnawa name came from Guinea. O.K., well if you’re gonna say that the Gnawa name came from Guinea, why, in Algeria, the same music has a different name? In Algeria they call it Diwan and in Tunisia they call it Stambali and in Morocco we call it Gnawa. ‘Cause in every country there is a history behind the name–the Gnawa name is a Berber name.
So, I am Berber–in the house we speak Arabic, with my dad and mom, and in the ‘hood. But then I speak Berber as well. My grandpa is Berber, my grandma is Berber. And there is a Berber style in the Gnawa music. There is the mersawi, there is the shilhawi, and then there is the shameli. There is the northern style, there is the mersawi, which is in Essaouira, Marrakech, Rabat, Casablanca; then there is the shilhawi, which is in Agadir and the south, that’s the shilhawi style of Gnawa. And the relationship between Gnawa music and the Berber culture, it’s very… I can say it’s one, you know? Because, now in Morocco we have Berbers, we have Arabs…it’s a very mixed culture. It’s very mixed.
And if we see the jumps in Gnawa now…back in the days there were no jumps in the Gnawa music, there is only regular dance, simple dance, but now we see the jumps. They are jumping in the air and stretching their legs. That’s Berber style, only in Agadir. These are the ones that do the jump. But the Gnawa, they adopt that dance…that means it’s all one style, you know? If you talk about Gnawa, Berber, Arabs, they’re all one. ‘Cause at the end of the day they’re all Moroccans, so there is no difference.
Then there are also some styles that are very distinctly Berber: ahwach…or the music of Izenzaren and Oudaden–what is that style?
Izenzaren and Oudaden, we call it tabay gont. It’s like, the way how they play the banjo is like tabay gont, it has the “gan-gan-gan” sound. But Izenzaren’s style is inspired by Nass el Ghiwane, ’cause Nass el Ghiwane is doing the Arabic version and Izenzaren is doing the Berber version. Just to mention that Nass el Ghiwane is the first group in the Arab world, in the whole Arab world. The first band. And that’s why if you go anywhere, you will see people listening to Nass el Ghiwane, even today. It’s a lifetime music, it’s like Gnawa music. Nass el Ghiwane is the first band that did the fusion with the Gnawa music. ‘Cause if you listen to some of their songs, they are inspired by Gnawa, they are from the Gnawa music and then they just add new lyrics to it, but it’s the same rhythm and the same melody.
Did you listen to them growing up?
Oh yeah of course! Nass el Ghiwane, we grew up listening to that, we had the CDs.
So they were the first Gnawa fusion band. You talked about people in contention over the Gnawa tradition. People also seem to be in contention over whether Gnawa is a Sufi order or if it is something else. To you, is Gnawa Sufi? Or is it something else?
Yes…we can say it’s a Sufi music, but we cannot say it’s an Islamic music. We are Muslim and we play the music, but anyone can say it. Christians can play the music–we have Jewish songs, you know? Anyone can play the music. It’s like jazz or blues or hip-hop, or anything. It’s a music. I don’t like to include it into a religion. It’s just because we are Muslims and we sing about the prophet, Allah, Muhammad. But I don’t like to say it’s an Islamic [music], it’s a music.
Aha. Gnawa is obviously deeply rooted in pre-Islamic spiritual practices as well as in Islam, but some suggest it’s not a Sufi order because there is no founding Sufi saint, like for other Sufi orders, you know?
Yeah, but you know we have Abdelkader Jilali from Iraq. He’s a Sufi leader. Abdelkader Jilali. We have song about him, it’s the green color [the songs in the lila ceremony are given colors]. The song called “Jilala.” The whole song is about him. [Sings] Moulay Abdelkader Soultan. So we have a Sufi part that we put into the music and it’s inspired by so many other styles. Like we have hamedcha. It’s a totally different style of music but we have it in the Gnawa. We play it all the way at the end, in the black color. Hamdouchia. There wasn’t before. We have soussia, which is the Berber style of dancing and we have it in Gnawa now, it plays all the way at the end. But the new masters, they try to add their own touch to the music. They like to play a song, they just add it to the music. And then the new generation, when they come, will be like, “Oh! That master plays that song, so I’m going to follow him.” So that’s how it becomes a part of the lila.
So Gnawa has always kind of been about fusion.
Yeah! I mean you can adapt anything but it’s hard to add a song to the tradition part–it’s very hard. Because first of all you have to be a master, you have to be very experienced, you have to be old, you have to have followers that stick to your style. And then you can play a new style and you can add it to the lila and people will accept it. But as a new guy, a new person, you just go, “Oh, I came up with this new style, can we play it at the lila?” And they’re like, “Get out, get out, no you can’t.” So it takes a lifetime of experience to add this song to the Gnawa repertoire.
Great. Thanks for taking the time to talk, Samir!
No problem, thank you!