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V/A - Ouled Bambara: Portraits of the Gnawa

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Artist: V/A

Album: Ouled Bambara: Portraits of the Gnawa

Label: Twos & Fews

Review date: Nov. 19, 2009

In the opening minutes of Ouled Bambara‘s DVD, a 19 year-old college student from Marrakech, Morocco, named Ismael El Belkani talks about his band. The gigging circumstances — they play at house parties and hotels — sound pretty familiar, and his attire of ball cap and Oxford shirt renders him indistinguishable from thousands of college students you might find in Carbondale, Frankfurt or Singapore. The story turns when he reveals what kind of music he plays. Belkani is a Gnawi, heir to a tradition stretching back at least four hundred years that is stewarded by musicians and dancers who use their art to communicate with a pantheon that includes Islamic saints and West African spirits who are accessed via song and dance for purposes of healing and entertainment.

The Gnawa are either the descendants of sub-Saharan Africans brought to Morocco as slaves or people inducted into Gnawa practice via apprenticeship. Belkani, it turns out, learned his stuff from his dad, Ismael El Belkani, who joins the interview and reels off the names of Western musicians — Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant — who have played with him. He explains that he has been playing for 50 years, and that his repertoire never changes … which brings us to a point to consider.

Gnawa music works within severely circumscribed limits. The players chant invocations, slap out hypnotic hybrids of melody and groove on a three-stringed bass lute called a guinbri (aka guimbri, santir, or sintir), and fill out the sound with metal castanets. The music doesn’t change, and the performances on Ouled Bambara‘s CD and accompanying DVD sound awfully similar to the material available on other Gnawa compilations. Ouled Bambara even shares some musicians with Moroccan Trance Music, which was released by Sub Rosa in the early 1990s, and Night Spirit Masters, which was issued by Bill Laswell’s old Axiom label a few years later.

This unchanging quality is part of the music’s appeal; it sounds like it’s from another time and place, which it is. But at the same time, it sounds familiar enough to co-exist successfully with bluesy rock vamps and bebop chord changes, and you can hear it played by fresh-faced kids at Club Med.

Ouled Bambara distinguishes itself from other Gnawa compilations by making its subjects less exotic without giving short shrift to their situations; while some of the profiled players seem to lead lives that could have transpired at any time since the invention of gunpowder, Belkani comes across as a pretty jolly and approachable guy, and Gnawa practice as something present and meaningful to people with whom you could have a friendly conversation.

The success of this project lies in its multi-media approach and the attention that filmmaker Caitlan McNally and her team have brought to the details. Heard by itself, the hour-long CD would just be another strong collection of Gnawa music, somewhat better recorded than the Sub Rosa and Axiom sets, but otherwise not that different. But the half hour-long video of interviews and performances, which is produced according to fairly professional documentary standards, accords the music a presence that the audio alone would not. And the notes by musician/scholar Tim Abdellah Fuson convey the spiritual and communcal import of Gnawa music without putting the reader into the sort of unwelcome trance so commonly inflicted by academic journals. This collection sets a high standard for the synergistic possibilities of combining vivid sound, moving pictures, and lucid text.

By Bill Meyer

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