MOROCCO: African Gnaoua Blues - Majid Bekkas
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Blues music returns to its homeland, as it is blended delicately with traditional Islamic rhythms
Throughout this journey across the world’s music and musical styles, we have come across all sorts of genre mixes and mash-ups that we thought were unusual and could never work, and (often) we’re completely wrong. One thing that both of us have learned is that music is pretty much universal and it can be applied in all sorts of contexts and in all sorts of ways. Think Chinese pipa folk music can’t be combined with South African, French, and Spanish music? Think again. Arabic traditional and rock? Works a charm. As does jazz and Indian raga music. And so on and so forth. Almost every mix of genres and styles to which we have been exposed has worked in some way, shape, or form. Therefore, when this was recommended to me by Danny as ‘Moroccan folk meets the blues’, I was sceptical due to my lack of knowledge of Moroccan music, but I shouldn’t have been. African Gnaoua Blues by Majid Bekkas is a very interesting album that captures the essence of the American blues tradition, whilst contemporaneously combining it with the Gnaoua music (or ‘Gnawa’ in the English orthography) of Morocco and North Africa in general.
“Taking a genre with African-American roots such as the blues and adding traditionally Moroccan sounds to it, Bekkas is perhaps placing Africa at the root of his music, as it can be argued that both are adapted forms of African music”
Gnawa music is somewhat hard to define, but in essence is a body of Islamic religious songs and rhythms that combines poetry, music, and dancing. Originally named after the Gnawa people who came from Kano in Nigeria, they were brought as slaves up to the north into Morocco and Algeria, and brought their music with them, preserving an element of their culture. It was initially a religious mode of music, but has since been secularised to a degree, like we saw with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and qawwali music. Furthermore, combining Gnawa with the blues and jazz creates a symphonic musical crossroads, whereupon Bekkas takes us on a journey through African music of different types. Blues was originated by African-Americans in the 1870s, and has a direct lineage with African folk traditions. Therefore, taking a genre with African-American roots such as the blues and adding traditionally Moroccan sounds to it, Bekkas is perhaps placing Africa at the root of his music, as it can be argued that both are adapted forms of African music, albeit ones that were developed in vastly different circumstances, even though there is a similarity inasmuch as both come from peoples that were enslaved and oppressed.
I found the album’s focus to me mostly instrumental, but remnants of Gnawa music’s devotional lyrics remain throughout, particularly in Mrahba. That said, I would not want to deny that Bekkas has a great voice. He does, and he showcases it often to great effect, with Soudani Manayou, Daymallah and Balini being particularly good, it’s just that for me at least, the hypnotic musical rhythms, beats and melodic hooks were what really drew me into this music. The most bluesy track is the opening track, named African Blues, and Bekkas begins by singing in a style akin to something like John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters, before the song expertly combines elements of Gnawa music. At its best, the album is trance-like and expertly crafted, drawing you in with its low key yet infectious grooves. If I were to pick a few holes in the album, I would say it might overstay its welcome by a few minutes. It lasts 70 minutes, and while every song is good, some are of course better than others, and maybe if the album was slightly tighter round the edges, I would not be saying this; however, this is a minor criticism. Though there is not much variety in style, it all works, which is what ultimately counts most, and Bekkas is a consummate musician, filling the album with interesting musical ideas and moments.