Volume 21 Issue 22 2013-06-14
Album: Izenzaren, Akal (2012)
Well I’m Goin’ to Souss, Morocco, With a Banjo on My Knee
Gnaoua music developed when members of black sub-Saharan tribes were forced to assimilate as slaves in urban post-colonial Morocco. The word “Gnaoua” refers to both a specific black Muslim spiritual sect and its music, and was derived from the medieval Maghreb belief that their slaves originated in ancient Ghana.
The Gnaoua genre brings with it sub-Saharan musical modes, a whiff of pre-Muslim Arab paganism, a Sufi predilection for inducing trance states, and a sense of alienation from centuries of being uprooted, disenfranchised, and oppressed.
None of these elements can really be separated from Gnaoua music, although different groups will sometimes emphasize one element over the others. The Master Musicians of Joujouka, for example, tend to centre their performances around the chanting and trance rituals, while Izenzaren, like Nass El Gawain, focus on the political sensibility.
Izenzaren (Berber for “ray of sunshine”) is part of a more recent tradition of Gnaouan-influenced Moroccan popular music, a tradition that includes the iconic Nass al-Ghiwane and Jil-Jilala. But Izenzaren sings not in Arabic but in Berber, the language of the large ethnic group indigenous to Morocco and portions of Algeria.
The Berber language is one in which words have the stronger, magical significance one finds in ancient tongues. Berber is concrete and poetic, the expressions full of tenderness. A mother will call her son “my liver” as a term of endearment. The word henna is a Berber word meaning “sweet,” “gracious,” or “loving,” and on this album lead singer Igout Abdelhadi sings “Immi henna”—“gracious mother.”
The word “Akal” means “earth,” and the songs on this album express a tenderness for nature. At the same time, it serves as a metaphor for indigenous peoples, or people of the earth; in one of the songs, Igout sings (with a sidelong glance at the plight of marginalized peoples of the Maghreb), “All the trees are being removed; those that are not burned are thrown in the river.”
If you wanted to find a comparable genre in North America, the closest match would be early gospel and blues music. For one thing, there is much stylistic common ground: call-and-response, a loose but salient rhythm structure, repetition, soulful delivery, coexisting spiritual and secular subject matter, expressions of intense emotions, crude and rustic instruments, and often illiterate musicians. There are also spiritual similarities. Like blues, Gnaoua has roots in pagan mysticism but at the same time upholds monotheism, paying homage to the Abrahamic God.
Musically, Gnaoua is closest to the blues of North Mississippi, also a throwback to the modal roots of the sub-Saharan slaves brought to America. Like the blues singers forced to sing in the language of their captors, the Gnaouan slaves traditionally sang in Berber, French, and Arabic, the languages of North Africa.
The members of Izenzaren aren’t descended from slaves; they’re Berbers from the village of Tazanzaret in the Souss region of southern Morocco. Like the rest of Morocco, the region has its own style: Ahwach, a celebratory genre to be played at weddings and other special events. The Tazanzaret style is a further specialization of that.
Recently urbanized young Berbers, the musicians of Izenzaren adopted the Gnaouan musical tradition to form their own unique pop sound in much the same way that white American youth adopted black blues and rhythm-and-blues to develop rock-and-roll—and for mostly the same reasons. Youth in patriarchal cultures tend to feel hopeless and excluded and often identify with marginalized groups, which also helps them to break away from their own cultures and form new identities. Under these conditions, groups as culturally vibrant as African-Americans or Gnaouans seem very attractive.
The musicians of Izenzaren met in the ’60s but officially formed in 1972 and began performing, recording, and even making television appearances. After a disagreement the group split; there are currently two groups laying claim to the moniker, Izenzaren Igout Abdelhadi and Izenzaren Shamkh. The first is the better-known, and is named after its iconic lead singer and banjo player Igout Abdelhadi.
Igout is a renowned master musician who makes the banjo sound like a combination of mandolin, sentir, and gimbri. He’s also an utterly engaging singer, delivering the songs in a throaty, homespun tenor. The rest of the band is a mix of traditional and modern instruments. The musical structure is in keeping with African and Middle Eastern music in general; it’s highly modal with mounting repetitions of musical motifs that end in thrilling crescendos.
In addition to sharing some of the historical origins of blues, Gnaoua has had the same leavening influence as blues, galvanizing the development of many other genres. Gnaoua informs rap in Morocco, and Moroccan rap is among the best in the world. It also uses blue notes (the third note of the scale is flattened slightly to make that soulful dissonance).
An important difference is that Gnaoua has strictly spiritual origins, whereas the blues can be seen as profane but with a nod to religion and an anxiety about fate which readily embraces superstition. For example, the common blues song subject Johnny Cockaroo refers to the use of a magical root called High John the Conqueror to bring good luck.
A good listen to this marvellous set of tracks will convince you of one thing: as varied as it is, the music of the African diaspora is all of a piece, a testament to the remarkable enduring power of African culture.
This article would not have been possible without the assistance of Abdellah Hazzam of Taghjijt, Morocco and Driss Akjij of Meknes, Morocco. Chokran jazeelan.
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