The Search for Abdellah Pt. Trois (What is Jazz?)

Before the other Fulbrighters arrived, Andrew, Kendra, and I were led into a cramped room, where we greeted by gap-toothed smiles and an ever-thickening purple haze of smoke. After exchanging Moroccan pleasantries, we squeezed in next to our hosts. The gentlemen reclining to my left was a Master of the qarqaba (a metal variation on the castanet that evolved from the shackles that bound the Gnawa centuries ago), and to my right sat Andrew, who, moments earlier, had an electric guitar thrust into his lap and was instructed to play along with a Hendrix solo crackling out of a 10 watt speaker. “But, I don’t have an amp!” he cried. Pipes in hand, Abdellah & Co. meditated on this most existential of musical dilemmas.
They reflected for several minutes, and then a few more.
“Well, I guess it is that time” Abdellah concluded. So, naturally, we pulled out three long couch cushions and assembled our ranks in the salon. Trying in vain to tune his guitar, Andrew asked Abdellah to play an E. “I don’t know notes,” the Bearded One replied. “I know sounds and the colors they represent.” He then motioned towards the musical color chart on the back wall and added, “I see music differently than an arrangement of A, B, C, D. We have over 200 color combinations in the north, but if you travel down south, you’ll see they have 120 or so.” I recognized that this was a research question opportunity! But, before I could ask Abdellah whether any of the 200+ colors in Tangier migrated down from Europe as well, he rested a thumb on his hajhouj (also known as the guembri, a 3 stringed skin-covered bass plucked lute with a body carved from a log and covered on the playing side with camel), and everyone fell silent.


To be honest, I’ve heard all sorts of histories and explanations on the role of colors in Gnawa music and the Lila (night) ritual. But for now, we’ll start with an introduction by Timothy D. Fuson, an ethnomusicologist studying at the University of California, Berkeley:
“They begin the Lila by remembering, through song and dance, the Gnawa of times past, their lands of origin, the experiences of their slave ancestors, and their tales of abduction, sale, separation and loneliness, and ultimately redemption.” After paying tribute to their forbears, the Gnawa begin the sections dedicated to certain spirits, employing a system of color categories that mark the progression of the spirits over the course of the night. “Each melk (abstract entity/spirit), in addition to having particular characteristics of personality, is associated with a particular color. When a melk is invoked, the Gnawa play its corresponding music, sing its corresponding invocations, dress the trancers in the appropriate colors, and burn the corresponding incense. Because the mluk must be invoked in a certain order, the Lila follows a path through the night whose road is marked in the sensory realms of sound (music, song), sight (colors), smell (incense), and movement (dance).”

Credit: Dar Gnawa Website
Credit: Dar Gnawa Website
“Play.” So I did, ever so lightly, on the hand-drums suspended between my knees. Abdellah tilted his head back and wailed as his hand strummed, thumped, and plucked the hajhouj, blending its role between string and percussion. Partway through, a classmate he attended Quranic School with back in the 50’s entered the fray and led the chorus. This man could move, and I’m sure that any of the girls in the room that evening would not hesitate to agree with me. Kristen Johnson and Catherine “2nd Wind” Skroch kicked off their shoes to dance, which inspired Abdellah to transition into another song. Later, he explained: “I must respond to the energy and the passion of whomever I am playing with. But you know, the body and the instrument are also having a conversation, and when the instrument asks for more, the body must give to it. ”
As we gathered to leave Abdellah put down his hajhouj and asked me: “What is Jazz to you? I froze. “Jazz is…a…conversation.” “Exactly” he laughed, “So, let’s talk again soon.”
If you’ve never met the Bearded One, or seen him, or heard him, check out this 1-minute clip on his bio page. It’s in French, so I’ve provided an English translation below.
“My name is Abdellah El Gourd and I am a Gnawa musician in Tangier. Gnawa music is the spirituality of black musicians in Morocco. According to history, they came as soldiers, and after the war they started to remember the past. We only use three instruments, the Karkaba, the Tambou, and the Hajhouj, which is the Moroccan-African guitar. We also have the voice, and the body, and the [clapping]. The first jazz man I met in 1967, Mr. Randy Weston. He took me all over Morocco, and to the United States as well.”
PS: I’d like to dedicate this post to Lynda Olson and Gene Robertson of Mercer Island, Washington – my dear friends and most loyal readers.

5 thoughts on “The Search for Abdellah Pt. Trois (What is Jazz?)

  1. Rod! Thank you for dedicating your post to me! I can hardly wait to give you a big hug. Yes, I am your 2nd most loyal reader. Fondly, Gene


  2. Bra… what’s your take on Georgetown fading out of the final four! Ridiculous… I picked them in your honor!!! They Zzzzz as in zuzzo


  3. Hi there!

    My name is Casey Scieszka. I’m the Production Assistant for a documentary that will be filming in Morocco for two weeks this March. I came across your information on the Fulbright website– I also did a Fulbright. (I went to Mali in 2007 to research the role of Islam in the education system.) Your project sounds fascinating!

    This documentary will be essentially a quilt of many short films that together represent Morocco. We would LOVE to film/interview some musicians– and I know your Fulbright research looked into the music as a cultural exchange, so I’m wondering, do you have any suggestions/contacts in that scene over there? At this point we’re especially focusing on Joujouka and Gnawa.

    ANY advice will be greatly appreciated!



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