Friday, January 30, 2004

The Lure Of Gnawa
Traditional music of Morocco attracts Western musicians of all genres

Larry Blumenfeld
(edited for the LC blog - click link to see entire article)

...Although drummer Will Calhoun wasn't at that festival, he had attended the three previous years. Known the world over as a member of the group Living Colour, Calhoun was received by Moroccans as the latest in a line of rock royalty to visit. But he felt awed by the power and proficiency of the Gnawan musicians. Like so many other Western musicians, he felt a deep connection to the music they were making. Still, as a drummer, Calhoun felt humbled.

"I gotta be honest with you," Calhoun says from his home in the Bronx, New York. "The first time I went, I didn't have the Gnawa thing under my fingers."

That "thing" to which Calhoun refers is the specific rhythmic orientation of Gnawan music. The drummer explains a bit about finding the "one" of each six-beat phrase in a different place than you'd expect, and about how Gnawan music accentuates the first and third beats, as opposed to Western music's emphasis on the second and fourth beats. But ultimately, he has to clap it out for me, holding his hands somewhat stiff and precisely parallel, as the Moroccans do when they clap. (Clapping is an integral part of Moroccan music in general, and even the most casual listeners in Morocco are skilled at syncopated clapping.)

Calhoun, of course, is no stranger to absorbing musical styles. Living Colour is a rock group that reaches in many directions; Calhoun tethered much of the group's music to African and Caribbean rhythms. He's as comfortable playing traps in a jazz quintet as he is playing arena rock, and he has distinguished himself as a soloist on electronic wave drums as well as on many traditional percussion instruments.

When Calhoun returned to Essaouira the second time, he felt comfortable with the Gnawans. "And they were touched that I had treated their music with such respect, that I wanted to learn how to play it properly," he says.

In staged concerts and informal leelas, Calhoun mixed it up with master Gnawan musicians such as Mahmoud Ghania. "For me," Calhoun says, "the experience was like playing with Miles or Ellington." He found willing partners and lasting musical collaborators in Marrakech, still a haven for Gnawan music, making an especially strong connection to a maleem named Mustapha. He played electronic wave-drum performances in Marrakech, and the audiences loved it.

Calhoun traveled to other parts of Morocco during his stays there. He rented a car and headed east, past the dunes of the desert. He slept under the stars, visited Berber villages, even played with their musicians (where he encountered yet another interpretation of 6/8 time).

Calhoun brought back some incredible photographs from his drive across Morocco. But he found nothing that touched him like the music of the Gnawa. And when Calhoun recorded recently with Mos Def and with his Living Colour bandmates, he brought a little bit of Morocco to the sessions.

"Here they are!" Calhoun says, after rummaging around in his basement for a few minutes. He brings out a few torn toms from a set of five drums that someone made for him in Essaouira, and which he brought to those sessions. The drums are made of thuja, a strong, dark wood for which Essaouira is well-known, and which is usually used for furniture. Now, Calhoun uses them whenever he can, claiming that nothing else can achieve the same sound.

"I had brought a set of drums to donate to the festival," he says. "So I just had this craftsman make me a duplicate in thuja. They kept mine; I kept this one."

Talk about cultural exchange.

© 2003 Jazziz via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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