Middle Eastern / North African and sub-Saharan West African musics come together in “Gnawa Music of Marrakesh: Night Spirit Masters”

Various Artists, Gnawa Music of Marrakesh: Night Spirit Masters, Germany, Zehra, zehra006 180 gram vinyl (reissued 2022)

A very interesting and intriguing example of fusion music, long before the term was subsumed into World Music as a commercial category, the music of the Gnawa people in Morocco combines elements from the sub-Saharan West African music they brought with them as slaves, and from the Arab / Berber music they were exposed to in the Maghreb. This compilation album, recorded in Marrakech and originally released by US producer Bill Laswell on his Axiom label in 1990, captures the sounds, rhythms and melodies performed by local Gnawa musicians in that city. Brought to Morocco in the 16th century by slave traders, the Gnawa converted to Islam but retained many of their traditions which include a complex ceremony lasting several hours that recreate the birth of the universe through seven manifestations of the divine as represented by seven colours. The ceremony is led by a master and the music performed during the ceremony is very repetitive in its rhythms and trance-like. Much of the album features such hypnotic music, strong on beats and rhythms, which can continue for what seems like ages to induce a transformation in the consciousness of those taking part in the ceremony.

The album opens with “Baba L’Rouami”, a short song sung in Arabic that combines North African / Middle Eastern instruments with the beats and structures of West African music. After this track the music gets down to the serious business of playing trance music with its repeating melody on the sentir (a stringed guitar-like instrument) that sounds like a double bass, backed by drums and finger cymbals made from sheet metal on tracks like “Mimoun Mamrba” and “Chabako”. On and on it goes, the details of the music changing and speeding up gradually and really forcing you to take notice of the subtle changes. Singing is done in a call-and-response format that encourages public participation in the ceremony led and moderated by the master. Several tracks in the album are dominated by call-and-response singing interactions backed by sentirs, drums and cymbals, while other tracks feature music on drums or sentir, either as solo instruments or as lead instruments backed by other stringed and percussion instruments, and solo singing.

The strong tonal contrasts between the slightly trashy-sounding and clattery finger cymbals on the one hand, and the smooth velvety unassuming sound of the sentir on the other, overlaid by the singing, are something to be heard and experienced, especially against what seems to be a sparse and airy background behind the performances. The music does seem a bit muted and smooth for what I imagine was much more raucous and raw performances in the streets at night, attracting many keen listeners of whom some might have been invited to perform in the ceremony and falling into trances while dancing and singing. Apart from this observation, the songs boast energetic and impassioned performances, especially in the singing, and the music can be light and airy in its melodies as it is often heavy in its beats.

Altogether this is a very good collection of music, a great example of hybrid Middle Eastern / North African and sub-Saharan West African music elements and structures, and all of it easy on the ear while being very brisk and richly layered with melody, rhythm, beats and voice.