Touted as 'psychedelic Gnawa blues', but what does that actually mean?
Many nations hold a proud tradition of ritual poetry being sung to music. What makes Morocco's proud tradition of gnawa music distinct is not the lyrical content, often repeated religious chants, but rather the unique musical sound. The tradition of gnawa music is one that we have encountered before via Majid Bekkas’ wonderful Afro-American blues fusion effort with the genre on his African Gnaoua Blues album. Though the basis for Bab L’Bluz’s album remains the same as Bekkas’, as the band experiment with the form, the resultant sound is entirely distinct.
“...Bab L’Bluz take playing with the form to new heights, as despite having the rhythmic foundations of traditional gnawa at its core, they remain unpredictable throughout, not bound by musical rigidity.”
Characterised by its unique composition and instrumentation, gnawa music in its purest form typically evokes an almost trance-like state with repetitional chanting and ongoing conversations between the lead vocalist and the rest both serving as key features. Traditional instrumentation include the sintir (also known as the guembri) a three-stringed camel-skinned lute, large iron castanet-esque instruments called krakebs and a large bass drum known as tbel. At the core of Nayda! are all these elements but with a twist.
Whilst Bab L’Bluz pay homage to the wonderful genre of gnawa music, they use this as an inspiration to create their own style, transforming the gnawa roots into this unique mishmash of party music. Dubbed as psychedelic Gnawa blues, the use of the label psychedelic to describe what Bab L’Bluz do is a useful by-word to try to estimate what it is lead singer Yousra Mansour and co. do. This is because throughout, the record emanates a dynamic disjunction that characterises all high-quality psychedelic music. As far as I am concerned, Bab L’Bluz take playing with the form to new heights, as despite having the rhythmic foundations of traditional gnawa at its core, they remain unpredictable throughout, not bound by musical rigidity.
Whether it is funk, rock or desert blues, Bab L’Bluz can do it all. For my money, this is not a gnawa music album incorporating other genres, but rather an experimentation with other genres played under the confines of traditional gnawa norms. Were sintir player Brice Bottin to be playing the bass guitar instead, I wouldn’t be surprised were the album to be labelled a psychedelic rock album without any other overt connotations to distinguish it otherwise. The opener Gnawa Beat kicks off with an funky beat played on the sintir before being broken up with a war cry and a real desert blues flavour. This track is one to really move your body to, and though the album includes other songs with such a danceable quality such as El Watane, which uses a similar opening rhythm to Gnawa Beat, as well as my favourite track on the album a cover of Mauritanian legend Dimi Mint Abba’s Waydelel, none seem quite as appropriate for the dancefloor as the opener.
The group prove themselves as rockers with this dance sensibility on El Gamra and Oudelali with a danceable quality; with the later having echoes of The Stone Roses, a compliment of the highest order if you ask me. They do always hold onto the classic psychedelic feel which is particularly noticeable through the distorted sound of a children’s choir on Africa Manayo and even more so on the rather fragmented and fuzzy closer named after the band Bab L’Bluz. The name actually means ‘gateway to the blues’ in English and it seems rather fitting that they the leave their audience with the sound of the grooviest bassline ringing in their ears. This forward-thinking implemented by the group does not mean that there is a total dismissal of the gnawa inspirations which shine through particularly on the most traditional sounding track Yemma, as well as on Ila Mata a track heavily inspired by the works of Anis Shoshan, a famous Tunisian poet. Though, for someone who is unfamiliar with the sound of Bab L’Bluz’s work, what might blow them away first is the rather idiosyncratic instrumentation, but there is a lot to be appreciated on a lyrical level too, particularly on this track which pleas for unity. I feel this word is really key when listening to Nayda! because unity is what exemplifies what it is the group are trying to achieve. A message of unity across the region and wider continent of Africa, but also a musical unity between disparate styles as well as between old and new, something to be admired for years to come.