Moroccan folk band holds audience in a trance

On Monday, Apr. 8, the Moroccan folk band Innov Gnawa graced Harper Hall with their renditions of the gnawa music tradition. The band was led by their music master (or Maalem) Hassan Ben Jaffar, who played the sintir, while the other band members played percussion. The other musicians were Samir LanGus, Ahmed Jeriouda and Amino Belyamani, who all played the qarqaba (castanets), endlessly clattering out fast-paced beats that put one in a trance. The cajon drum was also played to add some more exciting percussive flavor.   

Gnawa is often described as a trance. It was brought to Morocco by slaves and soldiers from Northern Mali and Mauritania and is considered the ritual trance music of Morocco’s black communities, the “Moroccan blues” as they are described by some. 

Jaffar began the performance by playing a bass drum slung over his shoulder as he sang and chanted ritual phrases, while the other three men played the qarqaba, repeating in harmony the phrases that Jaffar sang for them. The hypnotic power of the music was immediately apparent as I found myself almost without thought while watching the performance. As I glanced around the audience, this didn’t seem to be the case for everyone, though. Many people were bobbing their heads up and down, carried along by the rhythm and the energy of the performance. 

The performers themselves clearly love playing this music, as one could notice that they incorporate little dance moves and are quite expressive. At around the halfway point in the show, founding member LanGus said a few words about the group and the music. He shared that they are based out of Brooklyn and are dedicated to bringing gnawa music to a wider audience, which they have definitely succeeded in—they were nominated for a Grammy in 2018, and have played in some of America’s most prestigious music halls including Lincoln Center, Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn Bowl and Brooklyn’s Barbès. They are also dedicated to bringing their particular form of traditional ritual African music to the West to expand the knowledge of the various cultures and styles of music played throughout the continent. 

There were moments when the performers would break the trance and have the audience clap along with them and even had the crowd on their feet at the very end of the night. There was a good mix of Lawrence students and Appleton residents in attendance, which shows the considerable draw this music and this group has when it comes to attracting a wide audience. 

It was truly a privilege to watch these musicians perform and to hear a style of music one doesn’t get to hear very often, if ever. This was my first time attending the World Music Series, and now I know that there is no excuse to pass up the opportunity to see and hear musicians from all over the world express themselves and their culture so graciously.