Ouled Bambara - Portraits of Gnawa (Twos & Fews) Keith Boyd 8.8.09
When was the last time you had the demons driven out of your head? We’ve all got them. They boil around in our brains at night, keeping us up through the raw stinging hours, whispering and shouting. “Not good enough!” they shriek. “Eat this! Buy that!” they cajole. “It’s all your fault!” they taunt. We needn’t watch The Exorcist to get a dose of the infernal. All we need to do is look in the mirror.
I suppose it’s a part of our human nature to feel beset by dark forces (both internal and external). It is also a part of our nature to seek out ways of keeping them at bay and driving them out. Go where you will in this life and you’ll find any number of personal and cultural methods of dealing with the devil. Some Pentecostals speak in tongues and handle snakes. Huge festivals in India are centered on engaging in intense methods for purification and renewal. Some folks find it in exercise, others in meditation. Some cultures send people on vision quests to seek out answers and direction. In the U.S. we are generally so bereft of effective rights of passage and exorcism that many people turn to drugs or alcohol to find relief. In Morocco, North Africa, an entire caste of people exists who use music and singing to accomplish the aims of mental and spiritual well being. This group is the Gnawa, and Ouled Bambara: Portraits of Gnawa, the new album from Twos & Fews (a new boutique label from Drag City) provides a beautiful and clear entry into their world.
In Morocco, magic is everywhere. This is not meant to be as poetic or picturesque as it seems at first. From charms and curses to divination, people from all tiers of society engage with the supernatural world on a daily basis. It is part and parcel of their lives and is deeply entangled with their Islamic faith. I have traveled some in Morocco, and in most cities have found that troops of the various types of musical healers can be found plying their trade in every possible venue. You’ll find them in markets, at festivals, and even in private homes. Certain areas are known to be the heartland of these brotherhoods and sects. Essaouira is a city particularly associated with the Gnawa; however, traveling groups are instantly recognizable where ever they may be. Members of the group wear a woven dreadlock and cowry shell-encrusted headpiece. This, along with their robes and instruments, make their appearance distinctive. Although not all are so, most Gnawa tend to be dark-skinned Black Africans. Their forbearers came from sub-Saharan Africa, and were brought to Morocco as slaves. Their unique appearance and the intensity of their purpose lend them a shamanic aura that in some senses speaks to their function in Moroccan life and society.
Although many recordings of Gnawa music are available, this is the first one that combines a quality recording with amazing background information. The excellent liner notes that come with this project go a long ways towards explaining the cultural, historical, and practical aspects of the Gnawa. A track-by-track breakdown further clarifies the specific rituals and musical modes on display. While this context is thoroughly engrossing and vital for understanding what is a complex phenomenon, it isn’t needed in order to be overwhelmed by the lush, intense sound of the music. Perhaps it’s best just to know that the “tagnawit” (the craft of the Gnawi), results in the participant’s entering an altered state in which the symbolic power of music and sound assist in negotiating life’s disparities. As the accompanying essay notes, Gnawa is, “rooted in uprootedness, imbued with Islamic cosmology, moving in rhythm by the grace of God and the authorization of the saints.” People experiencing a Gnawa ritual move through darkness and emerge revitalized and empowered into the light of the day.
So, what does it sound like, and what artistic relevance does it have for the Western listener? The three main elements of the music are derived from vocals, guinbri, and qaraqueb. The trance-inducing interplay of these three elements makes for a heady and delightful experience. The music comes on like rolling thunder. It rumbles and echoes with the rubbery thwack of the guinbri. This is then offset by the metallic, train-chug fizz of the qaraqueb. Call and response vocal chants ride these ebbing and flowing waves of energy. I think most modern ears have been attenuated to this kind of hypnotic repetition via the good graces of electronic music in all of its various forms. So perhaps this link and entranceway may allow for a kind of parallel understanding and enjoyment. The sheer energy and exuberance of the sound will surely capture the imagination of any music lover. The disk was expertly recorded and has a crisp vibrancy that snaps like an active presence in the room. The music is intensely rhythmic, and as such, reads as a primal and earthy FUNK with the relentlessness of an earthquake. By using their cache within the independent and arty underground, Drag City is doing everyone a favor with this release. Hopefully this disk will help dispel the “museum piece” aloofness and academic quality that much African music gets entombed with. These sounds should open a few ears and inspire some exploration. Who knows? They might even drive out a demon or two.