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Gnawa jazz

The Gnawa ma’llem (spirit master) Abdellah El-Gourd and the African American jazz pianist Randy Weston met in El-Gourd’s native Tangier in the early 1970s; over the next 30 years their interactions transformed their lives.

They recognized a common thread in slavery, as the Gnawa were originally sub-Saharan peoples who were mainly brought to Morocco as slaves. The two men collaborated musically, and Weston’s music was deeply influenced by the experience.

For El-Gourd, the great figures in jazz—both historical and contemporary—became symbolic ancestors; their portraits hang in his home next to those of Gnawa elders. Also due to his Western encounters, El-Gourd realized the importance of documenting his local layla tradition, a project that possesses him in a way that may be compared to the spirit possession of the layla ceremony itself, and which resonates with the way that Gnawa music has possessed and is possessed by the West.

This according to “Possessing Gnawa culture: Displaying sound, creating history in an unofficial museum” by Deborah Kapchan (Music & anthropology: Journal of musical anthropology of the Mediterranean 7 [2002]). Below, a brief interview with El-Gourd.

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