Many years ago while trawling the pirate CD market in Ho Chi Minh City I picked up a strange item, which is the focus of today’s musing. It was a CD, entitled, Le Meilleur De Nass El Ghiwane. I don’t speak French but I knew it was music from the Islamic world. Probably North Africa, I deduced with Holmesian acuity! I bought it mainly for the incongruity of the circumstance (North African music in SE Asia) and half expected it to be a mislabeled ABBA disc. Indeed, I didn’t listen to it for several weeks, but when at last I desultorily popped it into the player I was blown away. And not by Dancing Queen!
I was hit by a wave of driving acoustic intensity that immediately brought to mind the ineffability of qawwali and Fela Kuti’s unrelenting fierceness. Those were days before Google and Wikipedia and all I managed to find out about the performers was they were Moroccan. They sang in Arabic but there was no way I could miss they were singing political lyrics. Palestine came up a lot as did Sabra and Chatila sites of the horrific 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Phalangists.
Nass El Ghiwane are a group of musicians who came together in the 1960s out of the poor industrial areas of Casablanca, Morocco. Turning their back on the prevalent Arabic pop music culture they chose to perform in the gnawa tradition. Their instruments are entirely acoustic and traditional as is their singing style. Their innovation was to add political commentary and subject matter to this essentially mystical form of music. In Morocco and throughout North Africa and indeed, across the oceans in North America and Europe, from whence rock and jazz musicians came to sit at their feet, their influence and impact has been deep, immediate and enduring.
The gnawa tradition, which they brought to the attention of the wider world is a distinctly Moroccan form of deeply mystical Sufi trance music used for celebration, healing and worship. “The term Gnawa has three important meanings. First, it refers to black people who were enslaved in West Africa. It is commonly believed that Gnawa of Morocco were originally black slaves and who over time had become free under various historical circumstances. Historians believe that the Gnawa population originated from black West Africa - from Senegal to Chad and from Mali in the north to Nigeria in the south. Many of these enslaved people are thought to come from Old Ghana (a kingdom north of Mali) in the 11th through the 13th century. These enslaved groups were called ‘Gnawa.’ There is also some historical evidence that a large enslaved population came from the great market of Djenne in Mali, and that Gnawi is a slight deformation of Jennawi. The term Gnawa is thus a color designation. It historically means ‘the black people.’
“Second, it defines both a religious/spiritual order of a traditionally Black Muslim group. The Gnawa are traditionally a mystic order which marks their exclusiveness within Islam and the religious and spiritual components of Gnawa practice incorporates references to their origin and their enslavement.
“Third, it denotes the style of music associated with this order. The ancestral memory (turath) of the displaced and enslaved people that were brought to Morocco is preserved mainly in their songs and dances.” Quote from: The Gnawa Music of Morocco by Dr Chouki El Hamel
To hear Nass El Ghiwane’s rocking version of gospel protest music click here.
1. El Maana
2. 2. Mahmouna
3. 3. Sabra et Chatila
4. 4. Zad Alhame
5. 5. Saif Albatar
6. 6. Alkassam7. Palestine
Gnawa music has played a major role in the assimilation of Islam among the peoples of North Africa in a way that is not dissimilar to qawwali and sufiana music has in South Asia.
Qawwali, especially, is culturally, spiritually and musically an integral and unique part of the Indian subcontinent. Essentially a form of worship and way to spiritual ecstasy, qawwali has been ‘secularised’ and ‘dumbed down’, especially by the film makers of Bollywood, but it still a widely accessed form of mystical spiritual expression. Indeed, there are few experiences more moving and mighty than a late night mehfil-e-sama (traditional name for a qawwali performance) in which the ‘party’ (performers) sing, clap and drum ever more intensely for 30-40 minutes at a stretch.
I’ve included two examples here. The first is by the very interesting Wadali Brothers who are Punjabi Hindus deeply committed to the Sufi tradition. Strange as this may seem at first blush, the Wadali Brothers are the very personification of the Sufi Way, which fundamentally refuses to recognize any religious categories/labels. The qawwali I’ve selected is in a slightly more polished style, called
Bulleya Ki Jana Main Kaun (Baba Bulleh Shah).
The second selection is from the inimitable Shahenshah (Emperor) of qawwali Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It is a qawwali with a very traditional subject, Allah, Mohammad Char Yaar (Allah, Mohammad and the Four Companions).
Finally, I conclude this entry with a song by Fela Kuti, Water No Get Enemy. Definitely not a Sufi, but his music, like that of Nass El Ghiwane and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is spiritual in its own way, and full of protest.