Hamid El Gnawi: Saha Koyo

Hamid El Gnawi
Saha Koyo

Of all the music genres produced in Morocco, it is Gnawa that has gained most circulation in the West. Jazz luminaries like Randy Weston, Pharoah Sanders and Don Cherry have recorded with master Gnawa musicians, as have Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, most notably on No Quarter. A stream of albums by gnawa musicians continues to be released; probably the most well known of the lot is the Bill Laswell-produced Night Spirit Masters (1990).

The appeal of the Gnawa is apparent from the first listen. The distinctive sound of the central Gnawa instrument, the three-stringed guimbri, resembles that of the acoustic bass. The music, moreover, is based on a pentatonic (five-note) scale, and hence is more readily accessible to the Western ear than other North African music, mostly based on Other-sounding Oriental modes. Finally, the most important point of attraction is that the Gnawa has the same origins as African-American music, for it is music played by the descendants of slaves from West Africa who began to settle in Morocco in the medieval period.

It is the similar origins of the blues and Gnawa music that have inspired the collaborations between Western and Gnawa artists. When a Gnawa master plays his guimbri, it is fairly easy for blues-trained Westerners to play over him. But only seemingly so. In fact, Randy Weston and Pharoah Sanders’ recordings with Gnawa do not really work all that well. Such collaborations frequently turn out to be not a dialogue but extemporaneous playing while the Gnawa do their thing. In effect, the Gnawa provide the “natural” base and the Western musicians provide the (supposedly) “creative” juice. This mode of engagement has become so popular, in fact, that it forms the basis for the annual Essaouira festival, a three-day musical extravaganza held since 1998. Every year the festival in Essaouira attracts more Western and “World” musicians, who jam on stage with the major Gnawa ensembles from around Morocco. I attended in 1999, and found the experience both invigorating and frustrating. By themselves, the Gnawa groups were simply awesome. But when the “guest” musicians jammed with them, the results were, at best, mixed. Great musicians (these included the likes of Archie Shepp, Reggie Workman, Doug Wimbush, and Susan Dayhem) frequently came in over Gnawa vocals, regularized the beat in a way violated the usual Gnawa flow, and sometimes turned the overall sound into a muddy mess.

On occasion, Gnawa collaborations do work, usually as a result of sustained ensemble practice rather than just jamming. The work of Don Cherry, Adam Rudolph, and Richard Horowitz with Hassan Hakmoun on Gift of the Gnawa is a stellar example, and Plant & Page’s collaboration with M’allim Brahim on “City No Cry” from No Quarter is surprisingly satisfying.

But the singular contribution of Hamid El Gnawi’s Saha Koyo is that it shows that the Gnawa don’t need outsiders to “help” them develop and modernize their music. Saha Koyo is the result of a collaboration between Gnawa musician Hamid Faraji (a.k.a. El Gnawi), who sings and plays guimbri, and producer and jazz keyboard player Issam-Issam. The result is a kind indigenous Gnawa jazz. Unlike most of the collaborations with Western jazz or rock players, here the fit between the playing of the guimbri and the jazz keyboards is just perfect. The keyboard work is faithful to the spirit of the Gnawa, and yet turns it into something new. Issam-Issam’s playing on the organ and the Rhodes piano not only meshes, but also manages to capture the mood of the Gnawa songs, which are sometimes joyful, sometimes redolent with dread. The spirits (known as muluk) the songs are meant to propitiate are capricious, neither wholly good nor evil, and they can bring blessings, or harm.

The overall sound is rich and full, although produced by only keyboards, guimbri, and the distinctive Gnawa percussion, metal castanets known as qaraqeb. Issam-Issam’s playing, especially when he’s on the Rhodes piano, reminds me of 1970s Creed Taylor/CTI vintage jazz-only funkier. Hamid Faraji has chosen to sing well-known numbers from the vast Gnawa repertoire, and each one receives a fine treatment. My favorite, however, is “Merhaba”, a song that welcomes and calls the spirits to the healing ceremony. (The true function of Gnawa music is to propitiate the spirits at healing rituals.) “Merhaba” demonstrates the funky side of Gnawa, moving at a fast pace, with booming guimbri basslines. The album might seem, on the first few listens, to have a certain sameness, but repeated listenings will reveal the distinct beauty of each of the songs.

When I visited Essaouira in summer 1999, I found two cassettes from this group (known in Morocco as Saha Koyo and not Hamid El Gnawi), and I heard these cassettes played all over town-in restaurants, shops, on the street. Hamid El Gnawi not the only example of indigenous experimentation with the Gnawa form. Gnawa master Mahmoud El-Guinea (who recorded with Pharoah Sanders) has released some “experimental” Gnawa cassettes in Morocco, and there are other local examples of Gnawa jazz groups. I hope that even more examples of these indigenous experiments will become available here. It’s time that the music of the Gnawa stop being treated as raw material for outsiders to play with, and be regarded as dynamic, creative and experimental in its own right.