Aziz Sahmaoui’s poetic new album is a celebration of African music

The Moroccan singer and musician speaks to Saeed Saeed about the power and spirit of gnawa music

Aziz Sahmaoui and the University of Gnawa performing at the Jazzablanca Festival in Casablanca, Morocco on July 6, 2019. Courtesy of Jazzablanca Festival.
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Marrakesh has always been a hive of activity. From its mysterious red clay alleyways and the loud haggling of the market stalls to the squalling horns of the snake charmers at the famous Jemaa El Fna Square, the Moroccan city doesn’t stroke the senses as much as pummel them to submission. This is the way Aziz Sahmaoui loves it.

He describes his home city as a heaving melting pot both mysterious as it is welcoming; one dictated by the hard realities of trade while also deeply spiritual. "But the thing I love about it the most is that it has a rhythm," he tells The National before his recent performance in Morocco's Jazzablanca Festival. "The city has a got a groove, man."

For Sahmaoui, this is more than a metaphor. What began his journey to becoming one of Morocco’s most acclaimed practitioners of its traditional musical form, gnawa, was listening to the notes of local musicians plucking stringed instruments such as bendirs, loutars and guembries in public jam sessions.

“That sound found me like the truth,” he says. “I needed to find out what created these sounds and rhythms. I need to understand how I could also communicate it in the way it did for me. That has been the way forward ever since.”

Sitting down at the feet of local masters across Morocco, Sahmaoui went on to learn the intricacies and depth of gnawa music. Deeply mystical, the genre is the original trance music. Born across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, the name comes from a North African community whose people are said to be the descendants of West African soldiers and slaves who used music as the principal form of expression.

Through Sufi-inspired ceremonies involving dance and costumes, not to mention channeling otherworldly spirits, original gnawa music was made up of songs that were, in reality, prayers set to music. With fans such as Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, the genre gained international prominence over the years and now has its own annual festival held in Essaouira every June.

However, as international culture-lovers flock to the Moroccan coastal city to soak up the vibes, Sahmaoui does the opposite. Now based in France, he is intent in showcasing the beauty of the music to a global audience. And his latest album, Poetic Trance, is another gorgeously produced collection that can function as the ideal gateway.

"What I always wanted to do with the music is to create a bridge to the other," he adds. "My last album, Mazal, was about me getting closer to my Arabic roots. Now I want to reach out to the world and show people the beauty and the mystery of some of the music coming from Africa."

Aiding Sahmaoui in the project is his backing band, the University of Gnawa, an eclectic group of crack musicians hailing from North and West Africa and Europe, who are equally adept in playing myriad traditional African music forms as well as western rock and jazz riffs.

With Sahmaoui leading the group as both singer and lute player, the sounds in Poetic Trance is true to its name. In true gnawa fashion, the songs here don't arrest you through sheer melodic hooks, but, instead, through repetition. However, each variation of the central melody is slightly altered. Coupled by the raising intensity of the percussion, which ranges from sturdy drums to clanging castanets, the songs eventually burrow deep inside you.

Sahmaoui, a poet in his own right, matches these grand sonic landscapes with equally evocative lyrics. From the lament of war victims in Coquelicots (Poppies) to an ode to community in Entre Voisins (Between Neighbours), the songs in Poetic Trance provide vivid snapshots of Africa, both modern and mystical.

The heroic opener, Janna Afrikia (African Heaven), is a celebration of the motherland, with Sahmaoui and different band members hailing their 'African heaven' in various languages, from classical Arabic to the Berber dialect of Tamazigh and Wolof of Senegal.

In Gang Sound of Mbrikia, Sahmaoui updates a gnawa standard. Led by the genre's signature instrument, the gimbir (a three-stringed lute), the track evolves from its introductory rustic sounds to a full-blooded blues jam. Sahmaoui says the song's touching lyrics, however, remain pretty much unaltered. "It is about a man named Mbrikia who falls in love with his cousin," he says. "He keeps thinking of ways where he can get closer to her. Then he hears this strange rhythm and he urges her to join him and explore where it came from."

In Soudani Ya Yemma, Sahmaoui forays into Sudan's rich folk music tradition, which is characterised by it is circular melodies and call-and-response refrains. "That music style bewitches me," he says. "I haven't encountered music like that. You really can't compare it to anything else. It has its own tones and spirit. It is so beautiful to sing."

More than just about the exploration of a genre, Sahmaoui says the message of the album is connection. From family members to nations, it is only through communicating with each other that understanding and empathy is born. And to do that, forgiveness is key.

This key message is beautifully rendered in the haunting Absence. Led by the plaintive notes of an accordion and accompanied by a lute, Sahmaoui lays plain the reality of our existence: "Life is short and maybe we will soon depart."

Considering the expansive ground covered, both lyrically and musically, Sahmaoui doesn't view Poetic Trance as his commentary on Africa. He views the continent's struggle, from conflicts to the migrant crisis, as part of the grander scheme of history. To address this, he recalls an allegory that deeply affected him. It is about an elephant that was trapped by hunters. When the group came to find the animal, they were dressed in blue and fed him. They disappeared, only to return moments later. Dressed in red, they punished the elephant. "This happened on and on until the elephant didn't know who was which," he says. "And that's real life. From governments to our own family members, people have the capacity for both good and evil. This is how history is written. This is not an African story, but a story of all of us."