Samir LanGus vividly recalls the traveling Gnawa musicians who passed through his village. As a child growing up in Morocco, he was entranced by their music and would follow them wherever they went. His mom would frantically look for him, knowing of his tendency to be almost literally carried away by the music. Eventually, the Gnawa musicians would hide from him until the 10-year-old LanGus went home.
“It's the drum. When you hear that sound, it grabs you: Come follow me, come follow me,” LanGus says. “I felt so attached to the sound of their drums.”
LanGus is from Aït Melloul, a suburb of the resort destination of Agadir on Morocco's southern Atlantic coast. His father worked at a gas station, while his mother took care of their children at home. They lived with their extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins in one great house. By the age of 14, he convinced his mother that music would keep him out of trouble. He began playing the qraqeb, a pair of metallic castanets and set out on his Gnawa journey.
Gnawa, often referred to as "Moroccan blues," is the spiritual music of black African slaves who eventually integrated into Morocco’s cultural landscape. It is a music of the marginalized, telling stories of suffering and sadness.
"Gnawa is the mother of jazz and blues. When the African slaves traveled to the west and North Africa, they started talking about their hardships and their problems,” LanGus explains. "They sang about all of the bad times that they had during their travel. That is the blues.”
Gnawa (a Berber word translating to "the black people") predates Islam, fusing Sufism with West African animist beliefs. Slaves and soldiers took its seed to Morocco from northern Mali and Mauritania. The hypnotic rhythms have captured the imaginations of musical mavericks, from composer Paul Bowles to Jimi Hendrix, Robert Plant, and jazz great Robert Weston.
After receiving a U.S. diversity visa in 2010, LanGus eventually settled in New York City and formed Innov Gnawa. Gnawa groups must include a maâlem, or master musician, who inherits the tradition through his family. Using social media, LanGus tracked down Maâlem Hassan Ben Jaafer — who plays the sintir, a three-stringed plucked lute — to lead the group. Along with LanGus on vocals and hand percussion, Innov Gnawa includes Nawfal Atiq (chorus and hand percussion), Amino Belyamani (chorus and hand percussion), and Ahmed Jeriouda (chorus, hand percussion, and cajon). “When we play all together,” LanGus says, “you feel something powerful.”
The group will perform Saturday, May 5, at the North Beach Bandshell as part of its ongoing U.S. tour.
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In a traditional setting, the maâlem guides the lila, an all-night ceremony during which supernatural powers are called upon through music, dance, and trance. The hypnotic, repetitive rhythms are believed to have healing powers, which is partly why LanGus is so drawn to them. They also bring him a sense of home. "For me, I cry sometimes when I listen to it," he says. "When I have a pain, when I miss home, when I miss my family, I cry. You feel it in your heart."
Innov Gnawa's performances range from devotional songs praising the prophet Muhammad to a rare Jewish repertoire that dates back 2,500 years. "We can play in a church or a synagogue. We can play anywhere — we don’t care," LanGus says. "We do it for the love of music. Let's put religion aside and let's focus on the music and the happiness it brings people." As a way to reach a wider audience, the New York-based group is also incorporating contemporary influences into the music, with great success. Innov Gnawa was nominated for a Best Dance Recording Grammy this year for the song "Bambro Koyo Ganda," a collaboration with music producer Bonobo.
Innov Gnawa’s show is part of the Rhythm Foundation’s series Axis of Love, in collaboration with Miami-Dade College's MDC Live Arts. The series' name is a play on the term "Axis of Evil," which President George W. Bush labeled countries accused of fostering terrorism. LanGus believes music has no borders and can even unite us. "When we play in Miami, first of all, everyone is going to get crazy. Everyone is going to start dancing. Everyone is going to get in a trance," he says. “Music is a universal language. We want to bring people together through our music."