Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Morocco: The Gnawa, Pt. 1: Uled Bambara

Guess I’ve been sawing on about the blues in this blog for awhile, but it’s by design.

“When I first heard John Lee Hooker – it was in 1967, when a student friend brought back records from Paris – I thought he was an artist from my country,” Malian singer/guitarist, Ali “Farka” Touré told Eliane Azoulay writing for Calao in 1992. “Then I learned he was American, and then I thought he had stolen our music. In fact what in the West they call ‘blues’ is pure Tamasheq (a branch of the Touareg nomads of the Sahara), but the American musicians do not know that. We have the roots and the trunk, and they have the leaves and the branches.”

The Touareg occupy a complicated space in African history. Allegedly descended from the Berbers of Northern Africa, they are traditionally guides along the Saharan trade routes that connect sub-Saharan Africa with the Maghreb. Back in the day, the goods that moved along those routes included gold, salt, pepper and, more importantly, slaves; as a result, the Touareg enjoy a mixed reputation. Internationally, they are known for some progressive attitudes toward women’s roles in the tribal hierarchy, their poetry, and for a music that's a kind of pre-blues, its "roots and trunk"as Ali “Farka” Touré said. In northern Mali, however, their reputation is a sight more sinister. The slave trade in Africa is much more ancient than the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought Africans to the New World. Before Africans went west, they went east to Asia and, significantly, north to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Spain and other countries of the Islamic western Mediterranean. The Touareg have become known, rightly or wrongly, as the people who took them there.

Slavery created an African Diaspora that stretches all over the world, and is responsible for innumerable cultural and artistic developments, including the blues. Slavery also created an African Diaspora within Africa, and the developments there are no less significant. That’s where the Gnawa come in. What they created isn’t the blues, but it’s like a cousin to the blues. To extend Ali “Farka” Touré’s tree metaphor, the sounds of the Gnawa might be another set of branches – it’s what the blues might have been, if it had grown up in the dusty streets of Marrakech rather than the loamy fields of the Mississippi Delta.

The Mande people of western Africa, south of the Sahara founded three great empires along the Niger River, in areas now occupied by the parts of Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, Niger and Burkina Faso. The Ghana Empire, famous for its gold and the worship of a serpent god living in the Niger, came first. The Mali Empire succeeded it in medieval times, when its still celebrated founder, warrior-statesman Sundiata Keita, took on all comers and began to expand Malian influence across the river valley. Malian griots still sing the history of the eponymous empire that gave their country its 21st century name. Learn the Bambara language and pick up an old Super Rail Band record and you’ll hear one of his descendants sing tales of how Sundiata, the sickly son of a king, defeated the cruel sorcerer-king Sumanguru and came to lead the empire. (At least I assume that’s what Salif Keita is singing about on those cuts. If anyone reading this does actually speak Bambara and knows differently, please drop me a line.)

By the time the Songhay Empire (the third Mande state under discussion) was in decline, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was gathering steam. It’s hard to tell the story of almost any African country without talking about slavery, and Mali is certainly no different. The most populous tribe in the Malian area is currently the Bambana people. As happens in the vacuum created by an empire in decline, foreign and disenfranchised groups stepped up to loot and otherwise dismantle it. The Bambana were among the spoils, but they didn’t lose their language or their culture crossing the desert under the judicious care of the Touareg. They didn't lose their music either, and it would be useful (and, I would think, virtually impossible) to know just how much of it the blueswailing Touareg picked up.

Like other music from the grasslands that stretch from the southern border of the Sahara to the Equatorial forests of Western Africa, Bambana music comes in a few flavors. You’ve got your lute music, which they play on a four-stringer called a bamanagòni; they have harp music, played by hunters on a bridged harp called a donzongòni; and there's music for the soku, a single-stringed violin. They have a number of drums, many of which are played in ensembles, balafons, rattles, and small percussion like bells, Nescafè tins, and rasps. Their melodies are pentatonic and they favor the same cyclical riffs common to the Touareg, the Gnawa, and the bluesmen of Mississippi.

It’s an accident of history that in Louisiana’s early days the French dealt with European slavers who worked along the Senegal River, which runs along the southern border of Mauritania and the northern border of Senegal. According to Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music, one of Louisiana’s first major slave shipments came from the Bambara people (“Bambara” is a French corruption of Bambana. Its currently understood that both names refer to the same group of people.) The French didn't import many slaves from Africa, apparently, because they were unable to develop a real economic infrastructure in Louisiana. Arriving in 1719, this Bambara shipment would have constituted one of the original slave populations in that part of the U.S. They landed in the Deep South at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the land where the blues began.

If the Bambana did have a hand in shaping what became the blues in the U.S., they did it without drums. Slavemaster-approved string instruments like the guitar and violin could have served as surrogates for the bamanagòni and soku, but the bonjalaa and bari drums, balafons and rasps didn’t survive the Middle Passage. Many of those elements did survive the trip across the desert to Morocco, where a community of Bambana slaves began to coalesce even before the fall of the Songhay Empire. The Bambana, and other sub-Saharan Africans brought north to work as slaves for Islamic masters, reconfigured themselves into something different to what they had been at home, but distinct from the new culture in which they found themselves. As the Gnawa, they developed a new philosophical and religious system they could use to preserve their sub-Saharan routes. Music was and is a big part of it.

Bambana and Touareg links here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Blog resuscitation

So, it’s been a minute since I posted. Tomorrow will actually be the one month anniversary since I was last industrious enough to actually throw something up here.

I’m working on the next post, which is on the Gnawa in Morocco, and should have it up this week complete with downloadable stuff to make it all worth while.

It looks like in my absence links for The Story of Africa went dead, so I’m re-upping those as we speak. It also looks like Otha Turner benefited from a burst of holiday interest; big up to him.

So, expect some full on groovy Gnawa jams before January becomes February. Thanks for hanging tight!