Desert blues and dance at Abu Dhabi book fair

The book fair’s Discussion Sofa was transformed into an impromptu stage, as Moroccan musician Hassan Boussou and his ensemble delivered a euphoric set of Gnawa tunes.

Hassan Boussou (in green) performs with his group at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. Ravindranath K / The National
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The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair was feeling the blues on Monday. After nearly a week of literary discussions and panel conversations, the book fair’s Discussion Sofa was transformed into an impromptu stage, as Moroccan musician Hassan Boussou and his ensemble delivered a euphoric set of Gnawa tunes.

With a pedigree so renowned that he is labelled a “maâlem” – or master – by his peers, Boussou and his accompanying six-piece delivered a near one-hour set full of the groove and clacking percussion that characterises the spiritual north-African music form.

The heart of Gnawa music – also referred to as desert blues – lies in the strings of the gimbri, a three-stringed, skin-covered lute that delivers a unique bass tone that’s deep, fat and heavy.

Augmented by castanets and wailing vocals, the droning tracks – some of which stretch to an epic 15 minutes – created a sound that is trance inducing.

It didn’t take long for the venue to be packed with crowds of families, booksellers and a growing contingent of the UAE’s Moroccan diaspora.

It was the latter who got the party started and the show evoked the spirit of Womad Abu Dhabi, with groups of young people breaking into dance, joined by some of the percussionists and a contingent of beaming kandura-clad Emiratis.

It was enough for the normally stoic-looking Boussou to break out in a large grin that stayed put throughout the ­performance.

“Yes, it is a book fair, but I am not surprised by the crowd reaction to us,” he said after the show, as he graciously responded to the clamour for selfies with him from the crowd.

“At the end of the day, what these events do is exchange culture and ideas, and Gnawa music has a deep and sacred culture. I hope we can return and perform again – in any kind of festival.”

• The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center, ends today. For details, visit www.adbookfair.com