Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Cuban Project ~ Review

Aziz Sahmaoui carried the audience across the Atlantic and back on an Afro-Cuban heatwave for final concert at Jnane Sbil

Aziz Sahmaoui 
(Click on images to enlarge)

Aziz Sahmaoui's musical career seems to have been guided by a series of fortuitous encounters. His University of Gnaoua group was created in Paris through some chance encounters at the back of a cafe with African musicians of a similar philosophy: to explore the roots of Gnaoua from West Africa through Morocco. In turn, their meeting with Cuban musicians at the Havana World Music Festival led back across the Atlantic to the extraordinary concert witnessed in Fes this afternoon. And, if Sahmaoui's enthusiasm and gratitude at today's opportunity are anything to go by, the 23rd Fes Festival of Sacred Music was yet another link in a serendipitous chain of events.

Adhil Mirghani

But the pleasure was as much ours, the audience. Over almost two hours, Sahmaoui sang, played both guembri and oud and coordinated a trans-Atlantic jam of joy involving 6 musicians besides himself. On stage were no less than three drum kits (two standard ones and a set of congas) as well as a piano, electric guitar and bass guitar. The musicians, including piano protégé Harold Lopez-Nussa, were from Morocco, Cuba, France, Togo and Senegal. Their common thread, the five-beat tempo which hails from West Africa and travelled with Africa slaves up through the Sahara, across the ocean from Essaouira and elsewhere to the Caribbean island of Cuba.

Harold Lopez-Nussa

They began with a jazzy piano solo by Lopez-Nussa while the band got themselves into place. Then Sahmaoui kicked off a Gnaoua classic and from that moment on the audience was captivated. People clapped in time, then jumped up to dance and didn't sit down, despite the raging heat of the afternoon. In true Gnaoua style, Sahmaoui addressed the audience throughout this number and several from his most recent album, Mazal (2014), calling out to Fassis and lauding their city and the beautiful day. He also presented new material in Darija and Spanish, songs presumably composed specifically as part of the Cuban Project.

Carlitos Sarduy

By about 5 songs in, we were wondering when the Cuban sound was going to come from the background and into the fore. Then it did with a vengeance, as Carlitos Sarduy's Habanero trumpet rang out across the gardens. There they were, the five syncopated beats of Cuban salsa and Son, before the tone shifted to a kind of Rachid Taha-style Arab rock track. Then everyone left the stage except Sahmaoui and Lopez-Nussa and we were treated to a premiere of a new composition, Coquelicot, with the oud sounding as delicate as the guitar in Sting's Shape of My Heart. Then the group came back together for the Gnaoua Classic, La Ilaha ila Lah, which brought any folks still seated to their feet. The Gnaoua style of call and response continued in Sahmaoui's composition, Kahina, with the response being the name of an ex. rather than that of Allah or a Sufi Saint. The penultimate song was a Cuban Buena Vista classic, Mandinga, followed by a Gnaoua finale, by the end of which all seven band members were on percussion alone.

Amen Viana

From start to finish, the energy of Sahmaoui and his crew had the audience captivated. The collaboration between artists of different but intertwined traditions of the same original roots gave them - and us - a great deal of pleasure. The arrangements - bringing a Cuban piano into a Gnaoua favourite or the darbouka into a Cuban salsa track - were slick and entertaining. There is a whole lot more mileage in this fusion and one could imagine a deeper exploration of those common roots and a greater exposure of the Afro-Cuban sound in a future joint initiative. This was a fantastic conclusion to the Jnane Sbil series this year and a great example of how sacred music of different cultures can be brilliantly spun together to make something new and exciting.

Review and photographs: Lynn Houmdi


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