Marcus Miller takes the funk to Gnawa Festival

Marcus-Miller-Maalem-Mustapha
There was jazz: Afro-Caribbean pianist Mario Canonge, in a trio mixing mazurka, zouk and salsa. Lebanese trumpet virtuoso Ibrahim Malouf and an orchestra on everything from electric guitars to Middle Eastern percussion, delivering a you-should-have-been-there set that combined visceral bombast with moments of quiet introspection, outdoors, under a full moon, before a rapt Moroccan crowd.

Marcus Miller – bassist, multi-instrumentalist, one-time Miles sideman – turned in a two-hour performance that variously involving phat acrobatic lines, musings on the likes of Davis’s Tutu and Amandla and thumb-slapping funk excursions marred only by a couple of screechy lead guitar wig-outs.

And then there was jazz: as deployed by Morocco’s Gnawa, the funky hosts of a festival that is now in its 17th year. Having overcome prejudice and terrorism (in 2003 and 2007 it went ahead despite the bombings in Casablanca that devastated the country) and weathered the vagaries of sponsorship (this year the World Cup saw many erstwhile sponsors look elsewhere), the Gnawa Festival is now widely considered the Maghreb’s most exciting and progressive musical celebration.

Back in the 80s and early 90s the likes of Don Cherry, Bill Laswell, Randy Weston and Pharoah Sanders saw the crossover potential in the pentatonic music of these Sufi musicians and healers, whose behind-the-scenes lila ceremonies use ritual, trance and colours to cure maladies and bash down the doors of perception.

Such experimental journeys by Cherry et al went down in jazz annals, helping to spark the onstage fusions that have been pivotal to the festival’s success: Pat Metheny, Maceo Parker, Omar Sosa and late greats, conguero Anga Diaz and keyboardist (and another one-time Miles’ collaborator) Joe Zawinul among them.

The Gnawa Festival has embraced its status as a musical laboratory, proclaiming itself the ‘greatest jam session on the planet’. “It’s a great musical rendezvous,” says director Neila Tazi Abdi, a graceful Muslim woman who founded the festival with a far-sighted aim to create an event that would safeguard and promote the music of the Gnawa, which was then dismissed and endangered.

“The festival is unique,” she says. “The music and history of Gnawa gives it a very powerful African anchor that allows us to bring together Gnawa groups and talented musicians from all over the world. They all say it is an unforgettable experience.”

That the Gnawa are now included on the oral heritage list at UNESCO is down to the hard work of Tazi and her all-female team at the Casablanca-based A3 Communications: even if the artists onstage are largely male – and it would be good to see the Sufi sisterhoods better represented – the festival is driven by women. Their accomplishment was further exemplified this year by the release of a long-awaited 9CD anthology – an initiative hatched with the association Yerma Gnaoua that presents the Gnawa as both as an ancestral oral tradition and a mighty musical force.  

The descendants of traders, craftsmen and freed slaves from the Sahelian region of West and Central Africa, the Gnawa were once shamefully marginalised in the way that, say, Romany Gypsies continue to be today. This annual gathering on the Atlantic coast – the most famous of many annual Gnawa gatherings in the Maghreb – is a meeting of clans, an opportunity to perform before a sprawling tens-of-thousands strong Moroccan crowd. A free, freewheeling festival laced with respect for the Gnawa Maalems, the masters of the guimbri bass lute, who perform their stand-alone sets with groups of musicians who beat side drums, clack giant metal cymbal/castanets called krakeb, and dance and leap like martial artists.

This year local hero Maalem Mahmoud Gania played the beach stage, shifting sand dunes and changing ocean currents with his low-toned guimbri vibrations and undulating chants in Arabic and Bambara (check 1994’s Trance of Seven Colours featuring Pharoah Sanders for a taster). Older now, and slower on his feet, his unofficial mantle as the King of Gnawa was challenged by younger pretenders such as Casablanca’s Maalem Hassan Boussou, whose turn over at the Bastion venue at Bab Marrakech included, unusually, a horn section.  

As the son of (late great) Hmida Boussou and the co-founder of the group Gnawa Fusion, Hassan Boussou is used to travelling between pure, traditional ‘tagnawit’ Gnawa music and the modern forms that are helping ensure its longevity. Boussou’s fusion concert with French electro-violinist Didier Lockwood on the main Moulay Hassan stage opened the three-day event and while impressive, lacked the punch of the previous year’s stunning collaboration with Haiti’s Jazz Racines.

The festival’s music programmers – Paris-based Algerian drummer Karim Ziad, French multi-instrumentalist Loy Ehrlich and Essaouira-based Maalem Abdeslam Alikane – have been rigorous in choosing guest musicians and bands (Will Calhoun, Nguyen Le, Wayne Shorter) on the basis of their risk-taking and openness to other musics. But the festival tends to suffer from an overabundance of French jazzers with a fondness for noodling keyboards and overly slick production – why are there not more British artists? Trumpet-player Byron Wallen, say,and vibraphonist Orphy Robinson are no strangers to Gnawa music.

There were lightning bolts, however, when Marrakech-based Maalem Mustapha Baqbou met Marcus Miller (above) in an encounter that saw guimbri and bass guitar recognise and reconnect. Miller – who, like Ibrahim Maalouf is EFG London Jazz Festival-bound in November – replaced the cover pic on his Facebook page with a photo of Baqbou’s Gnawa brotherhood soon after.

Even more powerful was the official closing concert, which brought together Hamid El Kasri, the country’s Maalem du jour, with the Grammy-nominated ngoni–lute player Bassekou Kouyate, over from Bamako in Mali with a band that included his singer wife Amy Sacko and their two sons, Madou and Moustafa.

Urged on by krakeb castanets, the frenetic cries of the tama talking drum and Sacko’s soaring, soul-griot voice (not for nothing has she been called the ‘Tina Tuner of Africa’), the instruments of both men meshed and duelled as if connected by an invisible silver thread. Spontaneous and spiritual, experimental and groove-laden, this was jazz returned to the source, to Africa, via a festival with peace and unity at its core.

Jane Cornwell

www.festival-gnaoua.net/en/ 

 

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