Monday, September 10, 2012

Nass El Ghiwane ~ Enduring Moroccan Music

For decades now, Nass El Ghiwane have fascinated audiences with their individual stylistic blend of Gnawa trance music and social protest songs. Their popularity is such that they've been dubbed the "Moroccan Beatles". In the edited extract, Andreas Kirchgäßner profiles the group.

Troubadours of the Old and New Morocco

The stadium in Agadir is rocking. Long-haired youths tear off their T-shirts, waving them to the music like flags. People dance in a crush, pushing against the lines of soldiers and policemen trying to force them back. A girl slips bravely through the cordon, jumps between the musicians. She dances with them for a moment before the marshals pull her off the stage. But after the final chord, there's no holding them back. The youngsters storm the barriers, grab instruments, fly at the musicians. The plump Moroccan girl is back, and stands in front of Larbi Batma as he's leaving the stage, tying her scarf around his neck…

Those impressions are from the wild 1970s. And indeed, with their Beatles-style haircuts and flared trousers the Moroccan musicians looked just like contemporary rock stars. But listen closely and something doesn't seem quite right: there's no howling electric guitar, no huge drum set. The instrumentation was sparse, some pieces were only sung and accompanied by rhythmic clapping.

Religious and inflammatory

Then the musicians again brought out traditional instruments: the harraz, the cup-shaped drums of itinerant musicians and beggars, the tbila drum of the Sufi brotherhoods, covered on both sides, the framed drums of the Jilala and Aissawa and the gembri, the percussive bass of the Gnawa musicians.

They did indeed use these instruments to play the music of the traditional Sufi brotherhoods, the Jilala, the Hmadcha, but above all the trance music of the Gnawa. But they had composed new lyrics, partially in the style of religious Sufi poetry, but always infused with courageous directness and social brisance.

In the educated Morocco of the 1960s and 70s, which had its cultural centre in Fez, this music was regarded as primitive and backward. After all, it was often used to conjure up spirits in healing ceremonies developed by popular Islam.

Instead, Moroccan radios broadcast overblown emotional music or the noble tones of zither and violin. It was already a sensation in itself that four musicians played their own songs and lyrics on traditional instruments – an approach that soon packed the biggest venues and stadiums in Morocco.

In June 1971, they were the warm-up act before a performance by the Radio Orchestra at the National Theatre in Rabat. But the audience didn't allow the orchestra – with its classical Arab and western orientated repertoire – onto the stage, celebrating instead the music of Nass El Ghiwane. They were henceforth hailed in the Moroccan media as "the Moroccan Beatles".

The "Ghiwane" musicians that gave the group its name were the troubadours of old Morocco, members of traditional Sufi brotherhoods who used music to convey the latest news, religious messages and entertainment to the people.

Not long after independence, in the midst of the worst economic crises and harshest political repression, the group mixed popular Sufi music with their own texts. Nass El Ghiwane was the first-ever Moroccan group to denounce the misery of the young and disenfranchised, despotism and omnipresent corruption:

"Oh, what a miracle! Our summer has become winter … The rulers' tyranny becomes all the more oppressive, their despotism more brutal." (Excerpt from Nass El Ghiwane: "Subhan allah")

This is only a short extract - the full article can be found here

Andreas Kirchgäßner  © 2012

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