The guembri's history spans across epochs, continents and musical genres. Let's take a closer look at the Gnawa instrument's story so far as it infuses the music of Mâalems with that of jazzmen as well as electronic frontrunners, too.
The guembri is a box-lute with hypnotic bass tones. It remains the totemic instrument of traditional Gnawa music and rituals. Originally from the Maghreb region of North Africa, it is said to have travelled overseas during the eighth century slave trade. It is a direct descendant of the Malian ngoni and a cousin of the banjo, which deployed across the Atlantic via different routes. In Morocco, the Gnawa communities made up of former slaves and their descendents, perform spiritual, initiatory and therapeutic ritual practices. Here, we find a synthesis of cultural contributions traceable to sub-saharan Africa, Arab-Muslim civilizations and the traditions of Berber culture.
These rites and practices also find echoes in musical traditions elsewhere: in Algerian diwan, Tunisian stambeli, Egyptian zar practices, Ethiopia, Sudan and further afield; in the Brazilian candomblé and Haitian voodoo. It is a web of fascinating links that was examined by the ethnologist Abdelhafid Chlyeh in his study: Les Gnaoua du Maroc : itinéraires initiatiques, transe et possession – La Pensée Sauvage edition.
In the Gnawa Lila ceremony, during nocturnal routines that resemble festivals of healing, the mââlem (master craftsman) plays the guembri to accompany dances and trance rituals. The intention: to induce balance in relation to the jinn (supernatural beings that populate the spirit world). The guembri is the keystone of these Gnawa healing traditions. With its three strings, traditionally comprised of goat innards, stretched over a wooden resonance box (itself covered in camel skin), it heals the illnesses that have caused affliction in the human spirit for millennia.
The guembri and tradition
Abdelhafid Chlyeh explains: “The status of maâlem is transmitted through inheritance, from father to son.” This structure is adopted by the esteemed Guinea family, native to Mali, who for several generations have been producing legendary mââlems; a role exemplified by the late Mahmoud, son of Boubker, grandson of Samba.
He was nicknamed the “Moroccan BB King” due to the aura he gave off. His mastery of the guembri gave him a world-renown that triggered many collaborations. As a result, Mahmoud shared stages with the drummer Hamid Drake and Carlos Santana, amongst others. A natural predisposition towards collaboration prompted the excellent 1994 Gnawa-jazz fusion album The Trance of Seven Colors (Axiom Records), which was recorded with Pharoah Sanders. More recently, his EP Marhaba (welcome), featuring the English artists Floating Points and the DJ-producer-shaman James Holden, affirmed his willingness to explore electronic territory too. A few months before his death, Mahmoud Guinea offered his guembri to his son, the maâlem Houssam Guinea, thereby preserving his heritage and perpetuating the tradition. His was a dignified goodbye, one that moved the public to tears at the 18th Gnaoua World Music Festival in Essaouira, Morocco. However, some purists feel that these kinds of fusions are problematic – that by placing Gnawa music into new contexts, its spiritual essence will become compromised.
This view is not shared by Mehdi Nassouli, the youthful and cheerful thirty-something from Taroudant, a contained and cosy village south of Essaouira. His journey started young, where he absorbed all that he could relating to the Roudani (Taroudant) folklore, Daqqa music, Amazighs and Gnawa culture. He learnt the malhûn poetry chants that had been inherited from Arab-Andalusian crossovers and became a specialist guembri player at the end of his initiatory journey. It took ten years in total and enabled him to cross paths with great mââlems all over the country.
Whereas some people refuse to stray from tradition, Mahdi Nassouli enjoys playing without the complex partitions of his heritage: electrifying his music by lending his guembri’s bass to the likes of Alpha Blondy, Titi Robin, Herbie Hancock, Justin Adams and the Indian Parvathy Baul.
Women and the Guembri
But the real revolution is being spearheaded by women. In Gnawa ritual, women’s traditional role has been that of the Moqaddema, an historic position that is akin to a grand ceremonial priestess. They organize the Lila ceremony, interpret dreams and guide proceedings until dawn follows. However, women don’t usually touch the guembri. It is an instrument that has remained the preserve of men (in public, at least).
Hasna El Becharia
That was until Hasna El Becharia arrived on the scene. She has garnered the nickname “Rocker of the desert,” never having fully accepted the opinion of her father (the respected Diwan master) who prohibited her from playing the guembri. Indeed, after growing bored of the oud (short-necked lute), she found ways to play the guembri in private and for women at weddings. In 1999, she eventually got the opportunity to play stages around the world after having captivated audiences at the Cabaret Sauvage in Paris. She played as part of the Women of Algeria Festival and her actions would prove groundbreaking. She, too, became a mââlema on the back of her performance, which was described by those there as minimalist and bluesy.
If her predecessor sang of his faith and his love for the Prophet, what interests Asmâa Hamzaoui “is above all the art in the music, the culture, the heritage; not the ritual.” At twenty years of age, the youngster, managed by her mother, set the scene alight on the guembri her father once played (mââlema Rachid Hamzaoui). She is now the leader of an 100% female group, Bnat Timbuktu, where she pokes at convention in her sequinned sunglasses, posing on Instagram with doll-faced expressions. She seems determined to win the recognition of her peers and especially, to play music that she loves. It is a rare sight to see.
In 2017, she became the first woman to play the guembri on the Moulay Hassan stage of the Essaouira Festival, leaving an indelible impression on the spirit world with a performance that reversed tradition. Indeed – the balance shifted when the maâlema publicly presented classics from the traditional repertoire, such as “Ouled Bambara,” alongside songs from her first subversive album, Ana Gnaouia (I’m a Gnawa).
Many artists have fallen in love with Gnawa music, the mystical power of its ancestral rhythms and the power of the guembri itself. Many people have also journeyed with the aim of discovering Gnawa instruments and culture.
Jazz and Guembri
Gnawa music and jazz have always been been a perfect blend by virtue of their common roots. They are cousins of each other as well as hybrid forms and their respective sounds have mutated from one side of the Atlantic to the other – finding a common expression in trance music.
On each of his records, the African-American jazz pianist Randy Weston has engaged in many musical explorations of the African continent, combining his love for Western blues, the rhythms of Ghanaian highlife and South African frenzy. He first set foot in Morocco in 1967, an episode which proved to be the first in a long series, giving life to his debut album that was recorded on tape in Marrakech (1992), followed by Spirit! The Power of Music in 1999. His repertoire includes two close-knit and masterful pieces made with The Gnawa Master Musicians of Morocco, an all-star Gnawa cast that utilize mââlem guembri basslines. They feature the Guinea father and son duo: Ahmed Boussou and Ali El Mansoum as well as Abdellah El Gourd, who hails from Tangier.
Marcus Miller likes to say that whilst slavery erased the names of people and their hometowns, it could not annihilate the rhythms: history still exists in music. Indeed, Miller’s 2015 album, Afrodeezia, was influenced by a journey in which he traced the footsteps of slaves and black communities, revisiting the rhythms that punctuate their chaotic historical routes. It took him through Brazil, Mali, the Caribbean and Morocco – but it was in Essaouira that he discovered the master Bakbou and his percussive virtuosity, prompting him to trade his bass for a guembri groove alongside Hamid El Kasri at the 2016 Mawazine Festival in Rabat.
Guembri and Electronics
The instrument has also been subject to experimental escapades, with John Zorn and Luc Ferrari distorting the bass of an electronic guembri during improvisation exercises, eventually turning the result into an album in 2010. Perhaps it will be in the field of electronic music that the instrument may find its most beautiful, 2.0 form.
Simon Green, aka Bonobo, is another musician who strives to induce states of elevation through music. On his album Migration, and more precisely on the elegant “Bambro Koyo Ganda,” he joined forces with Innov Gnawa, the widely hyped ambassadors of Gnawa music in Brooklyn. The track garnered huge success, receiving a nomination for a Grammy Award in 2018 in the “Best Dance Recording” category with LCD Soundsystem and Gorillaz also being nominated.
But Gnawa music fusions achieve their most beautiful form when they occur at home.
With a desire to pay homage to Roland’s TR-808 and the foundations of techno, Tunisian producer Sofyann Ben Youssef aka Ammar 808, took the heart of North African music and catapulted it into a retro-futuristic narrative where the bass and the beat cause ripples that sound utopian and aggressive. To achieve this, he teamed up with the Moroccan, Mehdi Nassouli, whose distorted guembri strings rumble under a gasba flute and a zorna bagpipe overload. This, combined with vocals from Cheb Hassen Tej (Tunisia) and Sofiane Saïdi (Algeria), made for a soaring pan-Arabic trance piece entitled Maghreb United (Glitterbeat Records).