The Moroccan poet-musician Aziz Sahmaoui returns with Poetic Trance, his third and most accomplished album, that sees his songs, polyrhythms and humanist aspirations take shape among the grooves embodied by his group, the University of Gnawa.
The meeting took place at Café Zimmer, number 1 place du Châtelet in Paris. In a quiet backroom of this velvet-lined, temple-like space, Aziz Sahmaoui and his brown curls gave off an air as tranquil as the Seine that flowed peacefully nearby.
But when he first landed on its banks in 1983, our subject lost his bearings, thinking he’d arrived in the country of blond angels, with those who respect punctuation, and have incredible calves … ” Though nevertheless, he may have become disillusioned if there hadn’t been any music.
From his childhood in Marrakech, Aziz Sahmaoui still remembers the smell of Targa, the river district, and of Jemaâ El Fna square, which offered him plentiful games: a variety of dances, songs and waves of energy. Instead of the rumblings of cars, Aziz Sahmaoui was surrounded by bendirs, loutars and guembris – he quickly contracted a sense for groove: “That sound! It is a blessing. It catches up with you in the same way that truth does. I don’t come from a family of musicians but in Marrakech, everyone is rhythmic. The thing I cared about was understanding how to make these instruments speak,” he recalls with a smile. Sustained by the nights of festivities, by the Gnawa trance that he now animates, profanely albeit sacredly inhabited, Aziz Sahmaoui absorbs and then reveals the secrets of the true science and power of trance. In concerts, it is effusive and festive, unleashing bodies and ululation in the audience before the end of the first refrain.
After an initial period of uncertainty, Aziz Sahmaoui discovered a veritable continent of rhythms in Paris, offering his own to the National Orchestra of Barbès, the flagship of a musical revolution that fused Tagnaouite heritage with the radiance of jazz, reggae, funk, rock, raï, chaâbi, and reggae. Pushing his experimental explorations to the limits with Sixun or the Zawinul Syndicate, Aziz Sahmaoui returned to what he calls “his instincts” in 2010 by founding University of Gnawa, a free university which immediately enrolled the Senegalese musicians Alune Wade (bass), Hervé Samb (guitar) and Cheick Diallo (kora) as engineers of a universal sound.
Produced by the audacious pioneer Martin Meissonnier (Fela, King Sunny Ade, Khaled, Manu Dibango, Papa Wemba … ) and recorded live with a sense of risk and adventure, Poetic Trance reveals a mature, shimmering and weighted musical language. “Musically, we wanted to find a balance between Africa, Europe and the rest of the world. With Poetic Trance, I think we have succeeded: it’s pop, it’s disco, it’s rock and reggae and there, all of a sudden, the sounds of the kora, n’goni, guembri and karkabous intertwine … Such happiness! Today the great Gnawa masters, the maâlems, my friends, are very proud of us: we have been able to renovate the genre without distorting it, and many have followed the example.”
Caressing the world
Aziz Sahmaoui is present in the world: he expresses himself with the elegance of a prince and the tone of the storyteller. Handling words as well as his griot (bard) lute, from which he is inseparable, the musician admits a particular kinship: “It is true that in the country [Morocco], during evenings of music that I could facilitate, we sang of people, their beauty, of their name and lineage.”
This dreamer was introduced to poetry through the infinite richness of Arabic literature, notably thanks to the collections of Mu’allaqāt, the long pre-Islamic epic odes judged worthy of being embroidered with gold thread and then suspended at the Kaaba in Mecca. “Literature is the most formidable introduction to world discovery. Its magic comes from nowhere but arises from us … ” Aziz Sahmaoui softly declares. He is a man who has inducted Claude Nougaro, Nass El-Ghiwane and the Berber proverbs, without discriminating between them, to the pantheon of his inspirations. For all of this follows from the good word: “poetry has the power of elevation, it is the writing of heaven on Earth. When a word grooves, when it sounds un-crumpled, un-stretched or un-crushed, then it finds its place in a powerful architecture. But the poet must also sing of injustices: denouncing the fractures between peoples, along borders or in the imposition language.”
Thanks to a brilliant vocal mastery, Aziz Sahmaoui and University of Gnawa are able to sing in Tamazight, Wolof or Mina about the resilience of war victims (“Coquelicots” – Poppies), love (“Nouria”), fraternity (“Entre Voisins” – Between Neighbors). Each declares a deep attachment to their African culture in “Janna” – this paradise. “With my music, I want to help soften the bitterness, to build bridges between Africa and Europe. It is a way of enlarging our circle, which is never closed: come and join in!” Indeed as declared in the Gnawa classic “Gang Sound of M’birika” on Poetic Trance: “People have come en masse, from all over, for these festivities and for this celebration – to live the experience like a liberating therapy of bodies and minds.”
For more head to our article: The Guembri From Medhi Nassouli to Randy Weston and Bonobo