The Moroccan Majid Bekkas stands out in our time as one of the most exciting practitioners and advocates of gnawa music. The origins of gnawa have never been fully explained, and that hint of darkness in its very distant past adds to its mystique. The Gnawa ethnic group were probably trafficked as slaves from Mali, Niger or Ghana to the former great empire of Morocco, where they were able to preserve their culture, to conjure up spirits in night-long rituals called lila, ceremonies during which diseases were healed. Over the past two centuries, this music, with its powerful singing, the rattling of the giant castanets and the inescapable groove of the guembri bass lute, has become inseparably linked to Moroccan culture. Musicians such as Randy Weston and dub master Bill Laswell have discovered the potency of Gnawa music and brought it to Western ears in new and interesting ways.
Although he was born and still lives in Salé, across the river from the Moroccan capital Rabat, Majid’s origins are further South, in Zagora in the Moroccan Sahara. Back in the mid-1970s he set up a group inspired by the pioneering Moroccan rock band Nass El Ghiwane and also took up the guembri. Since then he has overcome all cultural barriers using this totemic and large box-lute, but has also made a major impact both with the oud and with his charismatic voice.
Trance, ritual, mysticism, psychedelia, magic… however one chooses to describe the way that gnawa music affects people, there can be no denying the fascination for it which reaches right across the world. And Majid Bekkas, one of the most dazzling exponents of modern gnawa is also probably the musician who has managed to find the most varied and interesting ways to make this music interact with other genres. He takes the boldly imaginative step of building a bridge to connect North Africa and Scandinavia, to align the ancestral with the ambient. It is an inspired move which seems to catch the very spirit of 21st century jazz.
Glorious improvisation, crisp poly-rhythms, an extraordinary yet natural-seeming collision of electronic flair and spirituality – all this and more is to be found in this exciting rapprochement of the continents and the centuries.