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.


Comb & Razor said...

shame on me... i didn't even realize you were back!

alright, then!

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Stumblin' back, bro. Still too much going on.

But that book! How's Latin Beat going for you?

Spinning said...

*Very* interesting post, Al!

I have to wonder, though, about instruments - for one, there's a Colonial-era reference to "the sprightly barafoo" (balafon) quoted in Dena j. Epstein's book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. It might well be that some West African instruments were played here, but eventually abandoned in favor of others... It's impossible to trace things that far back, at this remove in time, but one thing I'm sure of is that traditions are in the constant process of change.
(am saying this as a student of various kinds of percussion music - including Malinke djembe/dunun ensemble playing.)

Something I just found on YouTube: a series of video podcasts on Tunisian rhythms. You might really enjoy that!


"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Spinning, thanks for the tip on those videos! I'll definitely get on those I remember you mentioning the "barafoo" in an earlier post and really need to pick up that Dena Epstein book. I'm really curious about percussion that came from slavery (and if early slave populations were Mande, balafons would have been an integral part of the music they left behind, right?) in the English-speaking New World. I'm just about to start a book called Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso by John Cowley that will have some clues, I hope.

I've been out on the road all week, which is why I missed your comment earlier. But while I was out, I got a great CD of an Afro-Arab drum music recorded in the early '80s for the British Library, called The Yemen Tihama: Trance and dance music from the Red Sea coast of Arabia. I'm not up on much Afro-Arab fusions in the Middle East, so it was a revelation to me. It might be right up your alley!

Spinning said...

Thanks for the rec. on the book by Cowley - am not familiar with it, but it's on my "to get" list now. As for that CD, yes - I'm familiar with it, though I don't have a copy.

It sounds like you'd probably enjoy talking with folks who specialize in music from the Gulf/Arabian Peninsula. I've got a "basement tape" of Saudi womens' wedding music that's a heck of a lot more polyrhythmic than anything I've heard from places like Mauritania or Western Sahara - but then, I also doubt that the few recordings that are available here give anything like a comprehensive view of music from those countries... ;-)

Are you familiar with Thomas Hale's book Griots and Griottes? am working my way through it now (slowly)! He's got some very interesting ideas - or, as he calls them, hypotheses - about the origins of the Gnawa and Gnawa music.... You should be able to pull up some of that material via Amazon's "search inside this book" feature.

I have this feeling that anytime you've got trade routes (for goods of any kind - not necessarily slaves), that the people who live o those routes - and those who actively engage in trade - are constantly learning about new things, whether it's ideas about math or new techniques for weaving fine cloth or... CD players. So much change can occur in relatively short periods of time that trying to extrapolate backwards to the early part of the European slave trade is (to my mind) probably doomed - if you're looking for absolute certainties, that is. I think something that a lot of writers tend to forget is that things go on changing and developing, so... even if a lot of things about traditional music from, say, southwestern Mali are basically the same as the were 50-100 years ago, a lot of other things about it are bound to have changed, for all kinds of reasons.

I'd love to find actual evidence for people building balafons here in North America, but... there are so many possible reasons for a tradition dying out. one of them might be lack of time to make instruments (and limited access to the right kinds of materials); another might be as simple as - nobody was really interested in continuing that tradition after a certain point. (Seems to be a common lament re. immigrants and their kids - I've seen it regarding people from Uzbekistan whose kids don't want to play the "old" instruments, because they like guitars and keyboards better! But it might be that *their* children and grandchildren decided to go back and start playing some of the "old" music and instruments, because it was pretty good after all! ;-))

BTW, I wish i could suggest a book on tango, but that's not my strong suit at all - maybe start checking out some tango sites and see what they recommend? I'm willing to bet that the best literature is in Spanish, though...

Spinning said...

Oh, before I forget - check out the Saudi Aramco World site for some great articles on music from all over the Muslim world. They've got their archives online, and there's so much in there.... (Not sure of the URL, but Google will pull it up for you easily enough.)

There's even an interview with Dick Dale, where he goes into some detail explaining how he used Middle Eastern rhythms as the backbone of his guitar style... Fun stuff!

Comb & Razor said...

haven't finished The Latin Beat yet as i haven't had much reading time lately... i'm enjoying the book so far, though. it's not as indepth as Sublette's book but is more accessible and offers a slightly different perspective on the subject.

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Spinning, you're right I would definitely to pick someone's brain about those musical connections between Africa and the Middle East. Even the liner notes to the Yemeni CD are very vague about the origins of African music in that region and I thought there might be some relatively clear answers there. Yemen is just across the Red Sea after all and Ethiopia occupied a province there for a long time. I have only one CD of Mauritanian music, but from what I understand there's a whole complex system of rhythms and modes they use to make it. That system's definitely not on evidence on the CD I linked, which sounds more like the Touareg blues stuff. I don't have anything from Western Sahara, though it and Mauritania both sound intensely interesting. Again, any bone you can throw my way...

There's a reference to that Hale book in a book I'm reading on the Gnawa right now (I put down the Carnival book for the moment). Looks like it's another one for my list!

I hear you on the trade routes point. Culture is really only as old as the people who participate in it. Here's what I wonder -- if you take a listen to those Bambara tracks (and there's another album on Ocora of Guinean Hunter's Songs, though I don't have the liner notes for it) you can really hear what might be an embryonic Gnawa aesthetic. You've got the metallic percussion, the rolling bass lute, th hallmarks of that sound. The Bambara in the picture on my blog entry even have dreadlocks, like the Gnawa do in performance. So does that mean that Gnawa music crossed the Sahara with the ancestors of the folks in that picture? Or does that mean it found its way back down the trade routes to Mali? In Traveling Spirit Masters (a book on the Gnawa I'm reading now), the author Deborah Kapchan says the dreadlocks are a pop move in Gnawa culture. They wear them to identify with reggae stars and are a symbol of Pan-African liberation struggles, not an ancestral link to Mali. Like everything else we talk about on this blog, it's a maddeningly knotty question. All we really ever know is that there's music, that music exists, even if we can't really know where it came from.

In any case, I'll certainly check out this month's Saudi Aramco. Dick Dale actually sort of re-emphasizes what we're talking about. Will a musicologist 3,000 years from now be searching for some firm cultural connection between Islamic oud players and California surfers from the early 1960s? Will Dick Dale get picked up in books as part of the Middle Eastern diaspora? In the era before records, at least we can re-enforce speculation with some context, but there's no explaining Dick Dale without a working knowledge of a relatively small place and period of time. To talk about Dick Dale, you need the concepts of U.S. Immigration, surfing, radios, on and on... There's no telling what we don't know about the Gnawa.

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Uchenna, that Ned Sublette book was just unbeatable. It's the best book I've read in years. I can't wait for part two.

Many revelations in there. The stuff about Arsenio Rodriguez and Miguelito Valdes was great, the role of Puerto Ricans in translating Latin music for the U.S. (and vice-versa), the whole sections on Afro-Cuba and Colonial Cuba were just amazing. Got more and more to say and it keeps feeding back on me. We should talk.

Spinning said...

Hey, my guess (and that's all it is) is that Deborah Kapchan is right about dreads being a new thing to hit those shores, along with the reasons she cites. There's been a constant back-and-forth of music and recordings from various parts of Africa to the Caribbean and Central and South America forever (due to merchant shipping and the sailors on the ships). And I've been told that Bamako in the 70s was absolute paradise for *any* music fan - that there were all kinds of LPs for sale (jazz, blues, etc.) that were pretty well impossible to find in either the US or Western Europe! (Which is one of the reasons I take just about everything Ali Farka Toure says about his music vs. American blues with a grain of salt...)

You might want to do a search on the term "khaladji" (or "khalajee," or...) - lots of different transliterations - it's the general term for music from the Gulf countries.

As for African influences on the Arabian Peninsula (and elsewhere), that's a very complex thing and I only know a tiny bit about it. (One thing that's affected a lot of people on the Kenyan and Tanzania coasts: the Sultanate of Oman ruled various parts of those regions for a long time; some Zanzibaris actually have dual citizenship!)

Janet Topp-Fargion (who's done a bunch of East African field recordings) is definitely someone you should talk to; also Kay hardy Campbell, who's a specialist in music from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. (Womens' music in particular, since a lot of social activities are segregated by sex.) You can find her via the Arabic Music Retreat group on Yahoo... And there are some oud forums (in English) where you might get a lot of info., too.

Happy hunting! (Oh, oudist Ali Jihad Racy would be another great contact - and Phil Schuyler, who used to be at the U. of MD's Baltimore campus. He's spent a *lot* of time in Yemen, working on Yemeni music.) Google should cough up some contact info. for you. (I'm out of touch with these folks myself, so...)

Spinning said...

Sorry - khalidji, khalejee, etc.

I am such a bad typist! ;)

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

I had no idea about Bamako, but it does explain how cosmopolitan the music from that era is. Mali seems to have such a complex reputation. Depending on who you ask, you'll hear that it's just a vast rural space full of very insular people with anciently traditional lives, but then you hear Moussa Doumbia or the Super Rail Band and you can see there's a tension there that no one's going to be able to explain. At least not quickly. But I guess you don't go to Africa for easy answers...

Thanks for the contacts. I'm gonna try and get up with some of these folks, especially the Phil Scuyler you mention.

And don't sweat the typing. You're in good company.

Spinning said...

just a vast rural space full of very insular people with anciently traditional lives...

Yeah - that's vastly appealing in some ways, i guess, but it's not true. Keep in mind that AFT's comments about his music being superior to John Lee Hooker's (etc.) were made to "Westerners" who (I think) probably wanted to hear someone say things along these lines.

Have you ever read Banning Eyre's book In Griot Time? he spent a lot of time in Bamako, studying guitar with Toumani Diabate (and others, mostly from Toumani's family). He knew AFT fairly well, yet... AFT seems to have been quite capable of coming up with nonsensical stuff and passing it off as inherited wisdom. (One of his comments is - I think, would have to check to be sure - about how all rivers flow into the *Pacific Ocean.*)

Apparently AFT was also quite open about his admiration for JLH when he was younger... and only playing for a "local" audience.

I think all of us outsiders have a vast potential ability to (no way to put it politely) misunderstand things; also that a lot of informants might say things that we want to hear. (Seems to happen a lot in oral history, for all kinds of reasons.) Cultures are very complex things, and traditions are always in the process of changing - if they don't, they die. (I think.)

I have NO insider's knowledge of any of these things - I've never been to Africa or the Middle East, let alone met some of these musicians. So please take my comments for what they're worth, knowing that they come from one individual viewpoint, and that I might be every bit as misguided as a person who maintains that the earth is flat. ;-)

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Yeah, just to clarify, I don't actually believe that Mali is "just a vast rural space full of very etc." but I think that's reputation it enjoys. And that tension I mentioned above is kinda what I think we're both getting at. I think we can agree that it's in many Malian musicians to be seen as exponents of this huge, ancient, "authentic" (a specious adjective) world untouched by Western greed, industry, and so forth. I absolutely understand that idea informs informants who might be speaking to musicologists and interviewers sniffing around looking for "the real."

But the really interesting part of what this must represent in Mali, at least for me, isn't what the westerner thinks about it, but what someone like Salif Keita thinks about it? His aesthetic is a post-Independence era aesthetic, and his work (not to mention his success) isn't possible without a cosmopolitan Africa. But he's nobility. Keita means something because the Empire of Mali means something. His connection to this idealized culture, the one Mali successfully sells to customers, has to be pretty complicated. That's the tension I think we're both talking about.

Imagine the informant in Mali who spins "folklore" for the western musicologist, heads to a bar where he dances to Michael Jackson songs, and goes to sleep wishing he lived in the glorious days of Sundiatta. What's the answer for that guy? Did AFT know he was speaking nonsense-as-wisdom to Banning Eyre? Did AFT wonder what "wisdom" really means? Did Eyre?

Spinning said...

I think Banning Eyre had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek for some of that book - it's very entertaining, and quite insightful (includes his own admitted prejudices against griots using drum machines and super-cheap keyboards for everyday gigs).

and yes, Keita is from the nobility - which means he isn't supposed to be out there singing in the 1st place. You might find some of the interviews on to be very interesting - my eye has been caught (and held) by Kandiya Kouyate's account of what her father and step-mother (both of them griots) did to keep her from singing. It's *not* at all in line with our (my) fairly romanticized ideas of what it must be like in Mali!

BTW, just curious - are you the same person as "Big Al" on the Organissimo jazz forums, or am I jsut confused?! ;)

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Yeah, Salif Keita is just all contradictions! I mean looking at it on paper, I wonder how that dude gets enough time off from reconciling his world views to get sleep at night. But I hasten to add that I'm not an albino nobleman from Mali, so I don't have a lot of context to work with. I will totally seek out archived interviews with him. He's always interesting, though not all his records set me on fire.

I'm actually not the same Big Al. Hit me up some time and all will be revealed.

Spinning said...

I have a DVD of a documentary on Keita that was done by the BBC ages ago, and ... I think you summed up my own impression of his interviews there in your post! I do like a lot of his music, and would like to see him perform someday.

The BBC took on the whole issue of him continuing to publicly praise the former dictator of Guinea, Sekou Toure (this also comes up in Eyre's book, BTW). Keita's responses were - well, confusing to me personally.

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

The whole Salif Keita project is confusing to me personally. That guy wraps my brain around itself. I love that early Rail Band stuff and frankly dig the way it seems like a response to that Guinean sound, but I didn't know it extended as far as stumping for Sekou Toure. I guess Salif never had to hang out in one of his camps...

nicolas said...

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Spinning said...

Keita talks about Sekou Toure being like a father to him... The whole thing strikes me as being very odd - even if Keita truly was naive about him back in the day, he surely knows better now... But yet he still performs a praise song about Toure.

I'm not sure that anyone can figure it out.

"Big Al" Maghreb said...


Great videos! Thanks for posting.


Great Brazilian thing you've got going on the last couple of days. Bola Sete's absolutely all right with me.

ORO said...

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Anonymous said...

Sorry Mr. blogger, as an african historian said, if one talks about africa, that seems for african as a talk about something else. Everytime if european talks about the history of subsaharian africa tuareg seem to play the main role. remenber the history of tombuctu (tombuctu was not a kingdom but a city in Songhai kingdom) was not dominate by tuareg, but by songhai, black african. Even as maroccan idriss and his nercenaries attacked timbuctu in the 16 centuries, the war of ton dibi, they fighted against songhai, not tuarge. Songhai are descendant of Sarakhole, they are ancestor of almost all black in westafrika Malinke-Bambara, Akan, they have founded empire of Ghana. The word Sarakhole ist supposed to come from Kemet Egypt. Sara is the name of a great woman, Khole means descendant. They are descendants of Sara and the legend said that they have left egypt in the time of the big Hunger there. One part goes to yemen and the other part founded Ghana.
Sorry for my english. But as african we suffer of discrimination in historical tradition. Going back to Tuareg, Berber, Berber was the name of all people not original from rome and living in carthago. Blacks in Marocco or tunisia are not all descendants of Slave. It existes Black noble berber and Kunta.

Anonymous said...

to big al Maghreb,
In Interpretation of the history i can say that Gnawa are originally from Mali and has been taken as War prisoner after the defeat in Ton dibi in 1594. Maroccan under the Sultan Idriss and Mercenaries from Spain, Italian who after defeating Turkish in Lepanto, wanted to make fortune in tombuctu. Bambara is the name of the small group of Malinke in Segu and Kaaarta. Bambara, right Bamana, means the person who refused. Bamana are group of Malinke who refused to come, as they were invited by the Peul-Toucouleur -Jihad Chief sekou Amadou, to come to be converted in islam. The legende said, that the commissionary of Amadou Amadou, who spoke Malinke, have reported: Bana, to refuse, mana, to come. Because the peul didn't speak Malinke, they understood this people are banamana and so Bamana. Som interpretaion said they refused the God, because Bamana are animist, A Bana, he refuses, Mana his God. Ma means God in Bamana.

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Anonymous, this is very interesting! Are you an African historian? One of the things that interested me most about what you said was the legend that half the descendants of Sarakhole went to found the Kingdom of Ghana and the other half to Yemen. Do you know where in Yemen they are supposed to have gone?

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