MASTER GNAWA MUSICIANS OF MOROCCO
The spiritual energy
and sheer force and power of African traditional music has been mostly
forgotten, lost to dreams of long ago or simply ignored. Randy Weston,
pianist/composer and cultural ambassador decided to explore this most
powerful layer of African culture many years ago. He decided to recapture
this spiritual energy and force on this recording, "The Splendid Gnawa
Masters". He has spent nearly four decades on this exploration and
rediscovery of the journey of the spirits of our ancestors. You will
rediscover, as I did, as Randy did, the divine elements missing from much
of modern day music, as well as a rediscovery of our true connection with
God, because in its true form, untainted, what is music but the voice of
God? What are musicians but God's instruments? Perhaps this recording will
remind us all that we have to get back to listening to the voice of God,
that we may quiet the noise of man.
by Randy Weston
This recording took place on September 17, 1992 in Marrakech, Morocco, It
was kind of a dream of Abdellah El Gourd and myself of getting the masters
(M'Alems) together to record, because a lot of the elders were dying. A
long time ago we had talked about that and we finally had the possibility
to do it.
So what happened was I spoke to Jean Philippe Allard of Polygram Jazz
France the producer. The whole idea, though, came from Abdellah of
Tangier. He was the first Gnawi that I met to put together the great
masters of the hejhuj (hag'houge), also called a guembri, a three-stringed
lute made of goat gut, to put together a recording. And we talked to Jean
Philippe about the idea because we had a successful tour with the Gnaws in
Europe. We also agreed that I would do a piano solo date, in addition. ("Marrakech
in the Cool of the Evening"
CD released February,
I spoke to Mr. Akoun of the Grand Atlas of Marrakech, Morocco, to see if
we could get permission for use of the La Mamounia Hotel. La Mamounia is
still one of the top hotels in the world and I knew that it had several
fantastic grand pianos. So, I went to see Mr Hammoudi to ask him whether
or not we could do the recording at the hotel. He took me around and
showed me a big space under the ground which was almost soundproof with no
noise. Nothing! Silence! He said to me, 'Listen . you can have the whole
place for 4 days free. I won't charge you anything.' So, I said, 'That's
I told Jean Philippe and he was happy and I introduced him to a man named
Vincent Blanchard. I had discovered him through Jean Jacques Beryl, the
filmmaker. He recommended Vincent. He said that Vincent was an inventor
and that he had invented a new microphone, which was constructed just like
a face but cone shaped. Vincent and Jean Philippe got in touch and they
both agreed and everybody came to Marrakech.
We were at La Mamounia for 4 days. We were in Marrakech for about a week.
We recorded on September 17, 1992. Anyway, getting back to the Gnaws, we
contacted through Abdellah, he was the key, the master players (M'Alems)
from Sale, Rabat, Casablanca, from Marrakech, from Tangier, from Essouira,
all from various cities in Morocco. We got together 9 masters and it was
really wonderful because they spent 3 full days together. Some of them
hadn't seen each other in 40 years! We had them in a wonderful hotel, a
simple hotel but very nice with good food and it was really fantastic.
Of course, to get the sound right it took a lot of work because Vincent
had his new equipment and had to get the sound of 9 different hag'houges (guinbres)
and also to add the piano to the piece called, "Chalabati." So,
most of the time was spent getting the proper sound.
We lined the 9 masters according to age. We had the elders and it was a
magic evening because, to their knowledge, never in the history of their
culture have there ever been 9 hag'houges (guinbres) together with 2
percussionists. And each master sang his own song; after each one finished
another continued. That's how you will hear it on the recording. For all
of us, it was an historic moment. This never happened before.
One month later, the eldest master, he died, and 4 months later, the
second eldest died. So, we were blessed to have them on this recording
before they left us. We had cut out all the lights. We only had candles.
It was a very spiritually and historically powerful moment for all of us.
Some of the songs are about certain saints, some (Sound Playing) are about
the Bambara, the ancient civilization that the Gnawa have lost memory of
but they continue to sing the history of Bambara.
'Chalabati', is a song of their slavery and in the song they sing for God
to help them, to help free them and at the same time they're asking for
the spirits of the ancestors, the musicians who lived before them. It's a
very deep, a very moving piece."
M'Alem Ahmed Boussou drew an even clearer picture when he described
Randy's connection to the Gnawa music during an interview which was held
in 1987 during a week long Gnawa Festival in Casablanca. He said during
the interview: 'Randy Weston's music is related to Gnaws music, by virtue
of its African roots; the exodus of Black people during the age of slavery
transported Gnawa ritual both to America and to the North African Maghreb.
Such ritual, after its development in America, was lost in concentration
on sheer rhythm. while the influence of the Church gave rise to the 'Negro
The Gnawa is an honorable calling. I trust and hope that Gnaouism will
continue to flourish and gain respect of the public, which is often
uninformed about it. Then, there is the guenbri we must get to know.
Meeting Randy Weston has done much to promote the instrument and its
music, in general," the great master ended.
Mildred Pitts Walters, a renowned African-American author, observed and
experienced the connection when she attended a Leila, a Gnawa healing
ceremony, in Tangier, recently. She and her daughter-in-law, Johari, and
friends, Estella and Louise had been invited to attend by Randy Weston. At
this time, she had met Abdellah and participated in the ceremony. Later,
she wrote. "When we said goodbye to Abdellah, his family and friends, the
sun was shining on the blue Mediterranean Sea. Abdellah's family lives in
Old Tangier, walking distance from the Hotel Rif, not too far from the
sea. We walked back to the hotel through the streets noisy with merchants
opening their shops and people beginning their day. We were silent,
savoring the long night. I recalled the ring games, and circle dances of
my childhood; the music and dance in the Pentecostal Church; the dancing
to drum beats in Haiti, in Nigeria, in the Gambia and Senegal, and I knew
that the mysteries of that music were connected to what I had just heard
and seen there, in Morocco."
THE HISTORY OF THE
These Black healer
musicians of Morocco called Gnawa (G'na'ua) were brought there hundreds of
years ago from Sub-Sahara Africa (Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Niger)
Western Sudan, as slaves and also used as soldiers in 1591, at the time of
the conquest of Mali, by the sultan of Marrakech, Ahmed El Mansur. Mulay
Ismail (1672-1727) in Meknes and Mulay Abdullah (1757-1790) in Essouira
did the same, later. They were all converted to Islam and formed a
brotherhood. They unite under the protection of the holy marabout, Sidi
Bilal, a Black slave freed by the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Sidi Bilal
became the first muezzin (caller to prayer) of Islam.
The Gnawa musicians are master musicians who believe that everyone has a
color and a note to which he or she vibrates. Each individual responds to
his or her chosen color and note as the healer musicians play the
hag'houge (guinbre), in particular. The karkaba's or qraqeb, which
resemble castanets, are used to heighten the effect of the hag'houge (guinbre)
although the latter instrument is often used alone, if necessary. In
public, the drum, called the T'bel or T'bola, a large round instrument, is
added for effect. The ultimate goal of a Gnawa M'Alem or master is
perfection in playing lest he play a wrong note and destroy the healing
power of the music for those who are listening. This music is also used to
extol God and the spirits of the saints.
The Gnawa are noted for their healing ceremonies, called the Leila. It was
at such a ceremony, many years ago, that Randy Weston responded to the
color blue, which is the color of the saint, Sidi Musa (Blue Moses). Randy
has made his adaptation of the Gnawa spiritual, "Blue Moses," a staple
composition at all his live performances.
These healer musicians are often hired for purification ceremonies, and
they are also known for their ability to treat scorpion stings and psychic
disorders, mostly by the sheer power of the Gnawa rhythms. It is
worthwhile to note that these rhythms, however, can be heard in other
forms of modern music, most typically in the blues, jazz, calypso, Latin
and Brazilian music. Randy Weston recognized this connection nearly 30
years ago when he first heard the Gnawa play while visiting Morocco. He
has been captivated by them ever since as evidenced by taking residence
Morocco and by his adaptations and creative compositions influenced by the
Gnawa and their culture, such as "Tanjah," "Gnawa in Paris," "The
Healers," "Blue Moses," "Chalabati Blues," and others.
I, Rhashidah E. McNeill, first joined Randy Weston in the documentation of
these master healer musicians. Gnawa, their music and their culture in
1987. It was the first of many trips that I would continue to make up to
the year 1992, in order to understand Randy and his cultural mission with
What I learned about, among other things, is more deeply my own spiritual
connection with Africa, my own African roots. While helping to document
the Gnawa and other groups of people in Africa, I feel like I'm
documenting myself, at the same time. I have Randy to thank, and I thank
him wholeheartedly for these many wonderful opportunities.
M'Alem M'Barek was the first Gnawa I met. I was instantly attracted to the
music and he treated me like a sister whom he'd known all along. That was
in January, 1987. Also, very warm was M'Alem Abess who also embraced me as
a sister. Later that year, in June, 1987, I met the grand elder M'Alem
Ahmed Boussou, a very respected master who originally gave me and some
other journalists some of the history and customs of the Gnawa in an
interview during the week-long Gnawa Festival in Casablanca, in which
Randy Weston played a major part by bringing it together.
Then. in June, 1988, I met M'Alem Abdellah El Gourd
during the filming of 'Randy in Tangier." In September, 1992, he helped to
expand our contact with Gnawa masters from all over Morocco. He also gave
Randy and me an oral history of the Gnawa musicians and their customs and
meanings. This happened while Randy was co-producing video-documentation
of the Gnawa M'Alems of the various cities in Morocco. Abdellah also
treated me very kindly and like family. So, this documentation, on my
part, has been taking place over about 5 years. It is an experience I will
These experiences have made me whole because they have elevated me so
spiritually high. The oneness with God that I feel and the spirits of our
ancestors that I feel is at a height that I know would not have occurred
without these particular connections and trips to Africa. In fact, I've
come to need them as nourishment for my soul!
Thanks again, Randy.
And I thank Monsieur Jean Phillippe Allard, and the Polygram team; Mr.
Allal Akouri, of the Grand Atlas of Marrakech; Royal Air Maroc; Air
Afrique; and the many other people who were directly responsible for my
transportation, food, housing and warm hospitality which made my trips
possible and comfortable.
YOU ARE ALL FIRST CLASS!
Not least, I thank my African family for welcoming me home with open arms!
by Rhashidah E. McNeill