From the cover photo onward, Nass Marrakech’s Sabil ‘a ‘Salaam is a transcendentally beautiful album. It is also a dangerous album. The photo of cracked, dried earth, a natural mosaic of subtle tans and browns left perfectly pieced together by the flight of water, evokes, inevitably, all of the Western stereotypes of the desert and of Africa. What springs to mind might be seen as a kind of updated (though no less intellectually vapid) Orientalism: Africa—a space of untold spiritual richness in inverse proportion to its material poverty. If you want to make sense of this music, this is a step in the wrong direction. Nass Marrakech’s music is alive with spirit and soul, but not in contrast to or in spite of the harsh climate of Morocco. The desert doesn’t have to be seen as a void, but can also be seen as a space of pure possibility not beholden to the limits that the fates have imposed on more liquid empires. There is danger lurking here only if one chooses to think of North Africa as camels, souks, spice markets, oases and little else. Let it speak to you in its native (though not exotic) language of sintirs, tablas, Udu drums and karkabas, and you’ll find yourself in the midst of something extraordinary.
A voice cries out, alone. Soon, it is surrounded by a panoply of instruments, strings and percussion following the rhythm and cadence of the voice. The voice stops, and the instruments take off on their own, flying faster and faster with each passing measure. Here is a soundtrack for dirvishes that whirl. The voice breaks back in, higher and faster, hard and sinuous, challenging us, prompting us to listen. We are listening: how could we not be? But in our literalism, we’re not yet listening in the right way. Abdelkibir Bensaloum is the singer, the youngest Gnawa Maestro in all of Morocco. He is backed up by his colleagues, who play a vast array of drums and stringed instruments that we wouldn’t recognize as such. This is meant to be healing music. The maestro sings in his high voice to induce everyone into a trance—into the floating dispersal of one’s sentient energy so that both body and mind can attend to their open wounds and transform them into scars before their reunion.
The Gnawa came to Northwest Africa as slaves or soldiers. Uprooted from their home in the Gulf of Guinea they nevertheless remain intact as a people. Nass Marrakech’s music reflects this passage across the desert. Their music is a blend of African styles, from traditional Moroccan sounds to Senegalese poly-rhythms. It is a generous, open music, and on Sabil ‘a ‘Salaam they have added Spanish guitars and Japanese flute music (among other things) to produce a hybrid that remains true to the spaces they now find themselves in. Nass Marrakech work the other side of waffer-thin musical and geographic divide separating Spain and Morocco which the band Radio Tarifa has so brilliantly mapped over the past few years. This is fertile territory in which Nass Marrakech have grown a bumper crop. One can’t but imagine that there’s still more to come. Let it feed you. Let yourself heal. And if you do go into a trance while listening to this, make sure to e-mail them, just like they ask you to.