Meet Asmaa Hamzaoui, Morocco’s first female gnawa musician

Taught by her esteemed father, Hamzaoui is breaking barriers with her sound

When Moroccan artist Asmaa Hamzaoui made her stage debut in 2012, the crowd in Casablanca didn’t know what to make of her. By being the first female to perform an official gnawa concert in Morocco, Hamzaoui was breaking a whole set of established societal rules.

For one thing, she was only 16 years old and performing an indigenous musical form that revered experience and wisdom; secondly, a female gnawa musician playing a public concert was unheard off.

It all made for a relatively tense gig.

Speaking to The National from Oslo World music festival, she recalled how the crowd were initially bemused.

“Look, they were respectful and I can say that honestly,” she says. “But there were a few people wondering what I was doing up there. I think it was down to people just never seeing that before. It was hard for them to even compute what was going on."

However, experience carried her through.

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.

Powered by her gimbri (a three stringed lute), Hamzaoui’s debut gig stuck to the original otherworldly sounds of the genre and before the long the crowd surged to the stage and grooved along.

That assured performance, which will surely be recorded in future books on the history of gnawa, was down to the teaching Hamzaoui received at home.

The music instruction was both intensive and traditional. The former was down to Hamzaoui’s father being the acclaimed ma’alem (Master) Rachid Hamzaoui, while the latter was down to the fact that she kept her talents confined to the living room of her home.

She describes her burgeoning talent as a bittersweet experience for her dad.

“He wanted a son,” she states matter-of-factly. “Because it is in the gnawa tradition that the ma’alem passes on his knowledge to his sons and they do the same. Instead, he would teach me and my older sister Aicha the art form, but he was just as happy with that.”

Hamzaoui’s describes her father, who still performs across Morocco, as both forward-thinking and a lover of the arts.

“He cared about how you applied yourself to the music,” he says. “He was not concerned too much that we were women. He took great pride and joy in seeing us excel in gnawa.”

Hence, when Hamzaoui approached her parents for their blessings to perform solo live, she wasn’t too surprised by their approval.

With a kind laugh, Hamzaoui partly attributes their nod down to her father wanting to make history of his own: “He may have not have a son, but he loves the idea of being the first Moroccan gnawa master to transmit his teachings to a female performer,” she says.

Well, the great ma’alem’ perhaps got more than he bargained for. For Hamzaoui’s debut album – her solo work has appeared in a few Moroccan local compilations previously – she enlisted her sister, Aicha, and child hood friend, Soukaina Elmelyjy (who are both 27), to be part of her backing band, Bnat Timbuktu (The Daughters of Timbuktu)

Titled Oulad Lghaba (The Children of the Village) and released last month, the album is an intoxicating collection of original gnawa tunes that stays true to the aesthetics.

Rebi Ya Moulay is a plaintive prayer to God and the Prophet Muhammad. The song's intensity derives from Hamzaoui's nimble grooves and the growing urgency of the qraqebs (iron castanets) played by her band.

This topic of devotion is omnipresent throughout Oulad Lghaba, particular in the delicate Soudani Mama and the most desert singalong that is Alal.

“I am doing this because I am trying to break the stereotypes that some people - particularly in Morocco - have about gnawa,” Hamzaoui says.

“People have these faulty assumptions that the music is about conjuring up spirits and such. That is not the truth at all. A lot of gnawa music is about devotion to God.”

The only modern touch in the album is the production, with the band recording the songs in state of the art facilities in Stockholm with the Swedish label Ajabu.

That is as much as Hamzaoui is willing to compromise. With it has becoming increasingly fashionable to meld gnawa music with rock and reggae, Hamzaoui says she is not interesting in updating her sound.

In words that could have come straight out of her esteemed teacher’s mouth, Hamzaoui says gnawa 2.0 is not that interesting to play.

“The difference is that when you play gnawa fusion you share the work load with the band. You do your traditional bit while others do their other styles. It is a balance,” she says.

“While in traditional gnawa, the band leader is the boss. The band looks at you to dictate the rhythm of the song. Traditional music is all about the ma’alem.”

Does Hamzaoui hope to reach her father’s stature?

“That is not up to me,” she says.

“There are too many people calling themselves ma’alems these days, when they are not. That cheapens the art. I feel that there should be an institution set up of real masters, who can then grade these artists and give them the title. I am a long way from that and I am just happy that I am out here performing.”

Oulad Lghaba is out now through Ajabu.