Tangier-America Day! (and my 1st academic conference, ever)

As it happened, the US Cultural Attaché in Morocco caught Nacim and Zakaria’s performance at the Fulbright Symposium (see previous post for videos). A week later, the American Embassy in Rabat contacted me to help organize a fusion performance for Tangier-America Day in – you guessed it – Tangier. I happily obliged. The idea was to showcase American and Moroccan collaboration, so we brought together Nacim Haddad, Zakaria Aktoui, Aicha (a Watson Fellow from the States/phenomenal singer), and myself. Aicha brought a soul-stirring addition of jazz vocals and spoken word to a Gnawa 3-piece band: Nacim on the haj houj, Zakaria on the qraqeb, and yours truly on the tabla (hand drums). The result was quite a spectacle (YES, that was a double entendre in French!), and we even had the honor of playing for the US Ambassador, Samuel Kaplan, and his wife Sylvia. Believe it or not, Zakaria did his first ever Gnawa toe touch less than a foot away from them. Check it out. Oh yeah, we called ourselves Gnawa Voyageur…and Zakaria and I just might be the greatest dance duo in Tangier-America Day history (see video 3).

Here’s the opener, a variation on “Bu Lila. Aicha comes in with the 2nd chorus on English:

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Gnawa Show at the Fulbright Symposium

Every year the Moroccan American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (aka MACECE) hosts a 3-day conference to bring together all the Fulbrighteres in the country to present their findings. After opening remarks by US Ambassador Samuel Kaplan and his wife Sylvia, we heard from professors, students, and visiting scholars, on a variety of subjects ranging from Maghrebi conceptions of citizenship, to religious rhetoric during the Spanish Civil War, to the Equity and Reconciliation Commission established to address injustices from the Years of Lead, to the new generation of hip hop artists in Casablanca. As for my own presentation: New Perceptions of Gnawa: Reassessing Tagnawit (Authenticity), I faced a dilemma of sorts. How do I go about talking up saints and rituals without angering the spirits? So, I decided to model my 15 minutes of Fulbright fame after a Lila, complete with music and dance by none other than Nacim Haddad and Zakaria Aktoui. As tradition dictates, we began with songs from Awlad Al-Bambara, and ended with Aisha Qandisha. Check it out. I’ve included a 2-minute recap of my slides (with music) and I’ve paired the performances with transliterated/translated lyrics below:

The Presentation in a nutshell:
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What Does it Take to be a Gnawi?

Ancient Gnawa
Great question. In the course of my research, I’ve encountered all sorts of answers from the Masters, but I’m also interested in what the younger generation has to say on the matter. So, I spent several afternoons shooting the breeze with Nacim Haddad and Zakaria Aktoui, on the other side of the Bouregreg River in Sale. Nacim is a Moroccan taking on a Masters degree in “Science Informatique” at the local University, but moonlights as an ethnomusicologist (and a phenomenal haj houj player). Zakaria is a Gnawi. Meaning, his parents are Gnawi, he was raised in a house of night rituals, spirits, and possession. Local lore has it that Zakaria’s mother went into labor and gave birth to him while in a trance. He is a full-time Gnawi. It’s his life, his culture, his religion, and his profession. There are no delineations between these areas of his identity. His son just turned one and is already following in his father’s footsteps (See video). So, who better to ask than these two?
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