Brooklyn, New York
Brooklyn-based sextet Innov Gnawa envelops audiences in the hypnotic power of Moroccan Gnawa. The word Gnawa signifies not only a style of music but also the people who created it. The Gnawa are ethnically diverse descendants of sub-Saharan Africans originally brought to Morocco as soldiers and slaves starting in the 11th century. “When I hear the song ‘Dawini, ana gharib wa birani’ [Heal me, O God, I am a stranger in a strange land]—the words the slaves sang centuries ago—I tear up, I think of home,” Innov Gnawa member Samir Langus told The New Yorker. “But you don’t need to speak Arabic to be moved by this music. It’s the music of the poor, the excluded … their suffering is in rhythm.”
Although associated with Sufi tradition, Gnawa music actually pre-dates Islam, and is rooted in animistic, spiritual, and mystical concepts originally sung in Bambara, Fulani, and Sudani. Guided by a maâlem, a master artist vested with deep spiritual responsibility, musicians perform elaborately structured all-night trance rituals (lila) to engage the spirits in the healing and purification of both individuals and community. While historically a culture of the dispossessed, Gnawa has in recent years gained immense popularity in Morocco as a national symbol.
Founded in New York in 2013, Innov Gnawa is led by Maâlem Hassan Ben Jaafer, a master from a long line of prominent Gnawa maâlems in the city of Fes (Fez). He apprenticed to his father following the Gnawa tradition in which the student learns through meticulous observation of the master, never playing in front of his teacher until he is skilled enough to lead a lila on his own. Now Maâlem Ben Jaafer presides over the ensemble with his distinctive singing and hypnotizing melodies played on the sintir (a three-stringed, long-necked lute), while the five kouyo (chorus members) fill out the sound with richly layered vocals accompanied by distinctive iron castanets, the qraqeb.
Innov Gnawa continues to perform in traditional settings within the Moroccan American community but have also gained widespread acclaim for their efforts to bring the cultural and spiritual legacy of the Gnawa to new audiences, performing at both local clubs and Lincoln Center, and appearing with a range of artists, including Afrobeat ensembles, New Orleans brass bands, and even Cirque de Soleil. One recent New York performance featured the Maâlem’s knowledge of the ancient Sebitiyin (The Saturdays), a repertoire of Gnawan songs composed to honor the community’s connection with Moroccan Jews. In the hands of Innov Gnawa, this ancient music retains a power to connect and heal that transcends time and place.