Gnawa and Moroccan Mystical Musics at UCLA

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From a March 5, 2011, concert at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall featuring Abdenbi El Fakir, Abdelah El-Yaâkoubi El Kababi, Fattah Abbou and Mohamed Aoualou. The concert was sponsored by the Moroccan American Cultural Center of Los Angeles and UCLA's G.E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Historians locate the origins of Morocco’s Gnawa population in Africa’s Western Sahel region or in present-day countries such as Senegal, Chad, Mali, Mauretania, and Nigeria. In Morocco, the Gnawa are often considered both an ethnic group as well as a mystical Sufi order whose religious and spiritual components are often expressed through songs and dance that may draw on their ancestral memory and origins. Gnawa spiritual and religious communities are located mainly in the Moroccan cities of Marrakesh, Essaouira and Fez.

The Gnawa possess a rich and complex liturgy and set of ceremonies and practices. Among their many religious practices, it is the Gnawa trance ceremonies that captured the imagination of outsiders. Through musical ceremonies and trances, the Gnawa are sought for their powers to cure spiritual and mental afflictions by freeing victims from malign influences. People from all walks of life who suffer from acute illness, infertility, or depression ask for the spiritual intercession of the Gnawa order.

A lila ceremony (the word also means “night” in Arabic) begins after sundown and lasts all night, and may take place inside a home, at a shrine or a center of a Gnawa family or group. The first part is called al-‘ada (custom), as if a warm-up exercise for what is to follow and may be accompanied by dates, milk, candles and incense, a task usually reserved for women. The session that follows is called kuyu or Awlad Bambara and opens with the invocation of blessings upon the Prophet Muhammad. Next, the ftuh ar-rahba opens the repertoire of songs linked to a central ritual surrounding the seven supernatural entities or mluk (singular melk). The traditional Gnawa ceremony includes seven sections with each section representing seven saints or ancestral spirits. Each section is associated with a particular color (white, light blue, dark blue, red, green, black and yellow) and symbolizes a particular function in nature and in the spirit world.

To the outsider, the ceremony is characterized by specific rituals and musical exchanges, notably short verses sung, answered by a response chant and accompanied by dance. Participants may enter into a trance through which a particular spirit may express a wish for an appropriate tune and the preferred color. The lila continues until the goal is achieved, the trance over, and the participants cleansed of afflictions.

The Gnawa orchestra has many musicians: the ma’alem (master or lead musician) plays the guembri (three stringed lute), and other members of the group play tbel (heavy drums or ganga) and qarqaba (metallic castanets). In recent decades, Gnawa music has inspired the development of popular Moroccan music and internationally Gnawa musicians are now well known public performers. As a result, many musical collaborations occur between Gnawa musicians and famous jazz and blues artists. Currently, the largest Gnawa World Music Festival takes place annually in Essaouira, Morocco and attracts over 400,000 fans.


Abdenbi El Fakir
Maalem Gnawi (master or lead musician), guembri (3-stringed lute)
Abdenbi El Fakir, alias El Meknassi Abdenbi Maalem was born in 1960 in Meknes (Morocco). Son of the deceased Maalem Laarbi, noble Gnawi from the 40's to the 60's, Abdenbi is now married with three children. Abdenbi grew up in a typical Gnawa social and family environment (grandmother, mother and father were all Gnawis). He witnessed those rituals since his youth to his initiations with different Maalems (Maalem Boukhris, Maalem Mly Omar Maalem Kacem, Maalem Zenfar ...). He has performed in numerous concerts and festivals around the world including the Gnawa Festival of Essaouira and "festival des Nuits Metis d'Auxerre"...). Maalem is a pioneer in teaching Gnawa art at universities in Morocco. Several TV programs on the Maalem Abdenbi El Meknassi have been produced in collaboration with French and Moroccan TV channels. In 2009, he produced his latest album with the French Mystikal Production studio (MKP) in Paris.

Abdelah El-Yaâkoubi El Kababi
lead vocal for Issawa, percussion
Abdelah El-Yaâkoubi El Kababi (born 5.08.1974 in Fès) is a Moroccan Melhoun singer and a musician. He was raised in a family that is deeply rooted in the cultures of Issawa soufi brotherhoods. Abdelah spent the first twenty years of his life learning the Coran and the teachings of the Sufism especially the Tarika El Hamadouchiya and the Tarika El Issawiya. Some of his renown teachers include Baba Ahmed chaoui and Haj Driss Amrani Marrakchi. Abdellah has recorded several albums at Fassiphone since 1996 and has taken part in many television programs and international festivals.

Fattah Abbou
lead vocals, traditional string instruments, percussion
Fattah Abbou was born and raised in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco, where he began playing traditional Berber music at the age of seven. He is proficient on several string instruments, including banjo, lotar, oud, sintir, ribab and an array of percussion instruments. Recognized as a master of North African music, Fattah has studied and performed Tamazight (Berber) music, as well as other North African musical styles, for over twenty-five years. He recorded several CDs in Morocco with his former band Imdiazen, and has collaborated on recordings with many national and international artists. He is also a producer of several cultural events, and the recipient of multiple grant awards for traditional arts and the preservation of indigenous culture. Fluent in English, French, Arabic, and his native tongue, Fattah is also a sought-after music and cultural educator who has presents at schools and universities throughout the United States, in addition to performing nationally and internationally with AZA.

Mohamed Aoualou
vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, percussion
Mohamed Aoualou is from Ouarzazate, Morocco. He grew up listening to different styles of music: Traditional Moroccan,Modern Moroccan, Middle Eastern, and some western music as well. Mohamed mainly plays guitar for AZA, but he also plays Oud and percussion. Before moving to the United States, he performed and recorded with the band Imdiazen (with Fattah), and with Mallal, a Berber musician. Mohamed is a prolific songwriter with a gripping vocal style that helps define the dynamic energy of AZA.

Duration: 34:57

Published: Monday, March 21, 2011