9/20/2009- We spent almost all day looking for M’Alem Abdellah El-Gourd’s Dar Gnawa, which, believe it or not, turned out to be right next door to our hostel! Personal Legend! The universe conspiring! Need I say more? When he opened the bronze door to his home we inquired as to weather he was the “bearded one”, to which he shot back: “I know who I am, but who are you?” Already I felt like I was in the presence of a Yoda-like master. Tangier is my Dagobah.
After greeting each and every one of us, Abdellah led us through Dar Gnawa with his hands clasped together behind his back, motioning towards photos with Randy Weston with a nod of his head and raising an eyebrow at a Grammy nomination, high up on a dusty shelf littered with broken guitar strings. Throughout the tour he dodged questions from fellow Fulbrighters about the role of Jin (spirits/genies/demons- depending on the context) in Gnawa music. Finally, Abdellah whirled around, raised one palm as if he were taking an oath, and declared that his musical dealings pertained to the inhabitants of this world and not the next. “Why all the questions about Jin? I connect with humans!”
Moments later his grandchildren ran downstairs for a kiss goodnight and we took that as a cue to bid adieu as well. Just before leaving, Abdellah asked my age and poked at my heart. “Only 62,” I said jokingly. He leaned back as he laughed and sent it right back: “Well, I’m only 65! I want to jam with you…to let the tension between young and old play out.” And with that, we were invited back the next evening.
Intermission: HOW RANDY MET ABDELLAH
Before we continue, a quick bio: Abdellah “Boulkhair” El Gourd is a healer/Gnawa musician, and Master of the hejhuj (hag’houge), also called a Genbri, a three-stringed lute made of goat gut. He was born in 1947 in the Kasbah of Tangier. Since then, he’s transformed his home into a museum of sorts, as well as an institute for the instruction, practice and promotion of Gnawa culture. Among many, many other things, he’s renown for his collaborations with jazz pianist Randy Weston, most notably: THE SPLENDID MASTER GNAWA MUSICIANS OF MOROCCO, which was recorded in Marrakech and received a Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album in 1995.
Over the course of 3 rowdy days, Randy and Abdellah jammed with nine other Masters from Sale, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangier, and Essouira. Some of which hadn’t seen each other in 40 years! Weston recalls that they “lined the 9 masters according to age…and it was a magic evening because, to their knowledge, never in the history of their culture have there ever been 9 hag’houges together with 2 percussionists…each master sang his own song; after each one finished another continued. It was a historic moment.” One month later, the eldest master passed away. 3 months after that, the second eldest died.
Randy Weston’s own connection to Gnawa music stems from a shared narrative that was best described by M’Alem Ahmed Boussou in 1987: “…Weston’s music is related to ours, by virtue of its African roots; the exodus of Black people during the age of slavery transported Gnawa ritual both to America and to the North African Maghreb. Such ritual, after its development in America, was lost in concentration on sheer rhythm, while the influence of the Church eventually gave rise to the Negro Spiritual.”
As for a quick take on Mr. Randy Weston (who was greatly influenced by the likes of Thelonius Monk), I’ll let a certain Mr. Hughes give you a taste:
When Randy Weston plays
a combination of strength and gentleness
virility and velvet emerges from the keys in an ebb and flow of sound
seemingly as natural as the waves of the sea