At first listen, Northern African Gnawa music has nothing really at all to do with West African Afrobeat and highlife music. The latter styles are related in both style and intent; they are both exuberant, funky, and explicitly political. Gnawa, on the other hand, is mystical desert music, rooted in religious trance rituals. Combining these two styles would seem to be a fool’s errand. But, as so often happens in music, the fool’s errand turns out to be the correct path. Fanga is a music collective specializing in West African music. Although based in Paris, they are named for a Liberian dance/music style, and their vocalist, Korbo, lived in Burkina Faso until he was 10 years old. Fanga has been together for 15 years, and maintain an impressive record of collaboration.
Last year, Fanga was part of an interesting experiment. A musical festival invited them to collaborate with Maalem Abdallah Guinéa, a Moroccan master of Gnawa music. Guinéa is a vocalist who also plays a sacred three-stringed lute called the gimbri. Guinéa temporarily joined Fanga, bringing his trademark mysticism to some of their songs. This album is the result, and it is an unabashed triumph. From the very beginning, the twisty and funky 14-minute slow-burner “Noble Trees”, it is clear that Guinéa and Fanga bring a special respect for each other’s work. The groove is locked in from the beginning, sounding like James Brown’s “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing”. After a while to set this up, Korbo starts to declaim in a Fela-meets-hip-hop style, inviting us to follow along with his gentle metaphor. But things really kick in when Guinéa begins his vocal section; his long Arabic-sounding vocal lines are then answered by Fanga members, call-and-response style. A long organ solo, a major feature of Fela Kuti’s work, brings it all back home.
This collaboration goes some very interesting places on subsequent tracks. “Kelen” introduces a fascinating minimalist jazz beat and rides it for the song’s first three minutes, with the vocalists tossing phrases back and forth. Suddenly, it bursts into full flower with horns and a stuttery bassline. Fanga knows how to do the little things, like drop out the bass in order to give Guinéa a chance to drop in an excellent small solo before going back to singing. And Guinéa, working with a completely different band than he’s used to, is not afraid to adapt his vocal style when Fanga ups the tempo and starts to throw in some dub effects.
Other tracks, like “Kononi,” are much more Gnawa-inspired. Here, things simmer slowly, with Guinéa controlling the tempo as well as the microphone. This song is so meticulously constructed that even the slightest change seems huge; by the time we get to the halfway point, it seems like there have been seven or eight of these shifts, but the basic rhythm remains steady. Things get strange towards the end, with psychedelic flourishes and some gimbri/guitar back-and-forth dueling. It’s stirring stuff.
There are some other nice touches here. “Dounya” – the shortest track by far at three and a half minutes – is all percussion-based trance and give-and-take vocals; “Wouarri” brings some metallic guitar solos to go with its disco heat. “Gnawi” lays in spectacular atmospheric production work behind its solos. The last three minutes of “Gnawi,” where the tempo keeps increasing until it all sounds like a Philip Glass piece, is the most amazing stretch of the record. Overall, this is more than just a successful collaboration between two different musical entities. It opens the door for both Fanga and Abdallah Guinéa to start expanding both their styles a bit more, both with each other and on their own.