Innov Gnawa: Entrancing Music from Morocco

I had the pleasure of hosting an in-studio visit by members of the group Innov Gnawa earlier this week at KCRW, and I was entranced by the powerful rhythms and chants. Gnawa is Moroccan trance music, a form that that seduced many famous visitors to Morocco, including the beat poets, longtime resident author Paul Bowles, as well as Brian Jones and the Rolling Stones. Those of you fortunate enough to attend the annual Gnawa Festival in Essaouira know how beguiling this ceremonial music is.

Gnawa music started over 600 years ago, as sub-Saharan African slaves (mostly from the Sahel) were brought to medieval Morocco, bringing their music and rituals with them. Gnawa is a hybrid form filled with Islamic Sufi, Jewish, and animist influences. The main instruments include theguembri (also called sentir), a 3-stringed instrument, as well as the krakeb, a pair of metal clappers. The rhythms change constantly and fluidly, going from 4/4 to 6/8 and back again to 4/4. The tempi can be extremely fast.

Innov Gnawa has an upcoming show in Los Angeles on Saturday, February 4, when they will perform a mystic ceremony called a Lila. Gnawa groups are directed by a maâlem (master); the maâlem for the February 4 concert is Hassan Ben Jaafer, originally from Fez, Morocco. Artistic director of the show is Fehd Benchemsi, while actor, musician, and gnawa expert Bob Wisdom will co-host the evening with Fehd. Both Bob and Fehd performed in-studio for this week’s Rhythm Planet show, introducing and demonstrating the guembri and krakeb.

The February 4th event takes place at Wanderlust Hollywood, a center that offers a fusion of yoga, nutrition, meditation, film screenings, wine tasting, and jewelry making. For the Innov Gnawa event, Spirit of Gnawas: A Lila in Los Angeles, the room will be decorated Moroccan style with rugs and floor cushions, and participants will be invited to dance (shoes removed) to the entrancing rhythms of this most amazing of musics. Click here for information and tickets. If you mention KCRW at the door, you will receive a $25 discount.

Innov Gnawa’s latest self-titled CD will also be available at the event. We hear three tracks from it this week:

Bangara“—originally from ancient Mali, this song is an invocation of saints and genies.

Hammadi“—this song invokes general blessings for the Prophet Mohammed. Remember, however, that gnawa music is inclusive and references several religions, including Judaism, with songs that conjure both Moses and Mohammed, who are both considered prophets in Islam.

Toura Toura“—another incantation of saints and genies. The late Algerian musician Cheb i Sabbah recorded a nice version of this song years ago.

Innov Gnawa are also featured on the new Bonobo album, Migration, on the track “Bambro Koyo Ganda.”

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Tom Schnabel