Preserving and Advancing West African Musical Traditions

Preserving and Advancing West African Musical Traditions

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2003 Mike Zwerin

Agadir, Morocco: Preserving centuries-old West African ethnic musical traditions on a giant outdoor stage wired with a sound system worthy of Led Zeppelin and located not far from a Club Med and between a McDonalds, a Pizza Hut and the Sheraton Hotel is, as Lenny Bruce said in another context, a "big gig."

The primary objective of the anthropologist and psychiatrist Abdulhafid Chlyeh, director of the first "Festival of Popular and Nomadic Music" in Agadir in July, was "to keep the traditional music of the region alive so that it can be transmitted to following generations. The idea is to give this music a chance to be heard by the Moroccan public so that they realize how much they have to lose."

The public was overwhelmingly Moroccan -- few tourists, it was low season -- and averaged maybe 5,000 people a night; admission was free. The ethnic musics being preserved were Arabic, Berber, Nomad, Gnawa, Mauritanian and Malian, all still alive in and around the Moroccan region called Souss Massa Draa, of which Agadir is the capital. These traditions have been cross-breeding more or less ecologically for some time, but they all risk being swallowed by globalization in the form of heavy metal, gangsta rap and worse.

Chlyeh, who was born in Marrakesh and teaches ethno-psychiatry in Paris University 8, founded the festival of Gnawa music in Essaouira some 150 kilometers up the Atlantic coast in 1998. He grew dissatisfied with the organization there, and for most of the past year he has been criss-crossing the Sahara desert and the Atlas Mountains choosing musicians for his first Agadir festival.

At first, he was shocked to find young instrumentalists in isolated villages playing their ancient tribal music on electric guitars instead of traditional home-made cat-gut stringed ribabs and tidinits, but he got over it. He wants to avoid, "locking the music up in a museum. Evolution is normal. We want to encourage positive communication. We do not want to be fanatical about it."

Chlyeh pointed out that the Gnawas of the Essaouira region originated in sub-Saharan countries and were brought to Morocco centuries ago as slaves. With the birth of audio-cassette technology, Moroccan Gnawa trance music became popular in Bamako, Mali, the area from which they originated. The Berbers were in what is now Morocco before the Arabs arrived, and their history and tribal ways continue to be passed on aurally from generation to generation by griots.

The string and percussion ensemble led by the remarkable Mauritanian singer Aicha Mint Chighaly -- whose business card describes her as "artiste" and includes an e-mail address -- raised goose-bumps. "No music can be 'pure' and still be a living music," Chlyeh said. "Even in the remote Amazon this is no longer possible. We want to take stock and see where we are now. Each tradition will give to and take from the other. That will not stop no matter what we do. We can only try to channel it constructively."

Although all of the music on the program had black African roots in common, cross-cultural fusion imposed from the top is risky. Co-option is never far away. Witness the qualitative decline of some African bands after exposure to the temptations of the multi-national music industry.

Fusions between local traditions and music from the developed world were the least successful on the four-day program. There was not nearly enough time for the musicians to rehearse and get to know each other. The dreadlocked folk/blues singer/guitarist Corey Harris was loose, happy and successful singing with Chighaly; although known for his explorations of African and Afro-Cuban music with Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente, saxophonist Chico Freeman seemed timid, reluctant to impose bebop on local cultures.

Since people everywhere bang on skins of one kind or another, percussion fusions worked best. Trevor Morais, a Trinidadian who lives in Spain and has worked with Bjork, was ecstatic playing his drum-machine programs plugged-in next to the Berbers with their qrakeb, allun and tbal drums. The Brazilian percussionist Ruben Dantas, long associated with the flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, locked into the traditional grooves with gusto and aplomb.

So men in turbans and women wearing veils were singing quarter-tones as though the clavier had never been tempered, and playing in seven without having heard Dave Brubeck. It was demonstrated that you do not have to know the definition of "intonation" to be in-tune, or of "blue note" to be funky; and that the concept of "swing," the keeping of good time, originates with the human heartbeat and goes back a lot further than Benny Goodman.

Mike Zwerin published this piece originally in the International Herald Tribune.

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