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Paris, Essaouira, and Timbuktu

Tyour Gnaoua is not a person—it is a performance collective based in Morocco. Like all gnaoua (or gnawa) groups, it consists of musicians, dancers, fortunetellers, and their students—all the descendants of former slaves from all over the sub-Saharan region. This scene is very mystical and intense; the closest parallels with gnaoua here on this continent are santería, voodou, and candomblé. Tyour Gnaoua is the best known of these deep-rooted clans, which can be found all over Morocco from the rural towns to their unofficial capital of Essaouira. Look at Essaouira on a map sometime—it’s a port town that serves as the gateway to Timbuktu, and from there to all of the rest of Africa.


When Tyour Gnaoua was invited to play at a large musical festival in Paris, that most international of European musical cities, the mayor of Paris himself asked them if they wouldn’t mind being joined onstage by Ray Lema to give them some name recognition. Lema is a native of Zaire who is one of the best-known African musicians on the scene; he has released several successful solo albums combining African musical styles with Western influences and instrumentation, and collaborated with everyone from Stewart Copeland and Jackson Browne to Angelique Kidjo and Manu Dibango. To get ready for the show, Lema flew out to Essouira—Tyour Gnaoua’s home base—and learned their styles by jamming with them. The subsequent performance went so well that Lema’s longtime European label, Buda Musique, asked them to make this record.


Which is, as you might imagine, very good on many levels. The gnaoua style isn’t radically different from other West African musical approaches; with a little more kora thrown in, it might be a great record from, say, Baaba Maal or Youssou N’Dour. The trademark sound of gnaoua seems to be a punchy and insistent bassline over which float many percussive sounds, keyboard stabs, and call-and-response vocal lines from Abdeslam Alikkane, the group’s leader, and the five other members, along with Lema. Alikkane, who as Tyour Gnaoua’s mââlem gets to play the three-stringed lute called the guembri, has a nice piercing voice, the grooves are fairly funky if a little tamey, and it’s a really nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.


But this CD begs the question: Is this really authentic gnaoua music? One might think that we are getting the real deal straight outta Africa—but how much did Ray Lema really have to do with this record after all? We can assume that he’s not just there for window dressing; since most of the songs here are labeled “traditional”, isn’t this just pretty much what the group would be playing in the public market of Essaouria? Well, I’m just not sure. The instrumentation sounded pretty familiar to me, so I ran downstairs to the vinyl vault that is supposed to be my music room and grabbed my copy of Lema’s Mango debut, Nangadeef, and danged if some of these sounds weren’t just pretty much anagram versions of “Pongi” or “Hal99” off that album.


It’s all there—the chiming electric guitars in “Sidi Hammou” and “Mimouna”; the slight but definite emphasis on electronics as an African form; the sense that we are dealing with forces beyond our control. So what’s Ray Lema’s role anyway? Is he there to make this traditional group sound more like himself? No, his heart seems to be in the right place, and it doesn’t seem like we’re looking at an African Paul Simon thing. Therefore, what we’re listening to is a cleaned-up, commercialized version of gnaoua more suitable for our poor westernized ears. In that case, why not some better liner notes? Or why not another CD where we just get to hear Tyour Gnaoua wail with no Ray Lema there at all? Now that would help us poor reviewers out … but no! Foiled again!


I think there’s something fervent but open-hearted about these songs, which I couldn’t understand in the least. There might be a future for Tyour Gnaoua on the shelves of American CD shops—let’s just hope in the future that we are able to hear this group when they really get into things.

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