Electric Gnawa


Sheyma Buali


Celia Topping


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But no matter how quintessentially local the places he’s performed in are, his motivation is clearly to spread the love and magic of his deep-rooted musical background. ‘What I am doing here is not for myself. I want to show people what Gnawa is.’ He aims to do this by playing with as many local musicians as he can gel with and developing a web of fusion sounds.

‘I push human stories of peace. I believe that will move people to revolt for humanity.’ His surreal yet profound lyrics touch on subjects such as slavery of the mind and the goodwill of the soul, as well as mystical tales about mysterious women and men who part seas, as in his band Electric Jalaba’s track ‘Moses’.

The origins of Gnawa are rooted in Lila, a highly spiritual, multi-sensory event using seven coloured fabrics (each representing a different saint) and heaving incense. The music, performed by a mualim, or musical master, with sometimes up to twelve others surrounding him, is known to take the audience into a trance. A Lila is an evening that is believed to elicit spirits and purge people of demonic possessions.

‘I perform Lila, but it would be very difficult here. The energy is different. At Lila we talk about prophets, which is understood much better there.’ Lagnawi is referring to the spiritual psyche, which can educe visceral mind-over-body spasms, an experience he believes cannot be translated. ‘You would have the master playing with Soyos, his musicians who play the karakabs. There are smells and colours, which I can bring, but it is much more powerful in Morocco,’ he says.

While Lagnawi may feel it’s harder to achieve a spiritual connection to music in London, his arrival in the city inspired him to mix things up. Here, tradition started to give way to a new world of influences. London gave him an opportunity to meet musicians from Burkina Faso and Senegal as well as Creole instrumentalists and British vocalists. His MySpace page is a testament to the many styles he has shared his studio with: jazz, folk and reggae, among others.

‘I want to spark people’s interest in the sound by fusing it with other styles,’ he says. His band, Electric Jalaba, brings together Afro fusion and psychedelic rock. After knowing each other for just one month, the members of the electro-improv band (formerly known as Sound Species), decided to change their name to reflect their new Gnawi bandmate. While ‘Jalaba’ refers to the unisex robe commonly worn over clothes in North African countries, the band’s eclectic fashion mixes the hoodies of urban London with Lagnawi’s traditional, multi-coloured fabrics and shell-beaded crochet headpieces.

After attending one of Electric Jalaba’s performances, prominent British-Moroccan artist and designer Hassan Hajjaj approached Lagnawi and offered to collaborate. Hajjaj’s signature bright pop colours and patterns is a perfect fit for Lagnawi’s dazzling dress sense, as seen on the cover of Lagnawi’s debut album Gnawa London (as of yet, only available online). Their corresponding colour schemes erupt into a rainbow of backgrounds and foregrounds in Hajjaj’s cover artwork to create an apt portrait of the musician.

‘He’s a great guy,’ Lagnawi says, beaming with pride over his brotherly relationship with Hajjaj. ‘I’ve been with him to Kuwait’s Reuse 5.0, Dubai’s Third Line Gallery and the Film Middle East Now festival in Florence, Italy. He has a great vision and a big heart. He has really supported me in this country.’

Lagnawi laments the tiny size of Gnawa sub-culture in London. He cites only one active musician other than himself, Boujemaa Bouboul, who has been in London for over 13 years. ‘We each have our own line, and two lines are better than one, but it is still very little.’ To address the lack, Lagnawi has begun teaching the musical form at what he has dubbed the ‘Gnawa School of London’. ‘I travel a lot to learn from the different regions of Morocco and to meet various masters.’ Lagnawi’s motive is to teach what he defines as the true spirit of Gnawa. Apart from education, he also uses the school as a recruiting ground. ‘I discover people who have the kind of rhythm that I want to perform with. I invite them to play with me and pay them as professional musicians.’

Lagnawi’s aspirations are big. He hopes to be able to reach a point where he can organise huge Gnawa festivals in England, similar to Essaouira’s Festival of Gnawa, but with big names like Robert Plant, Carlos Santana and B.B. King joining the Moroccan masters.

‘I’ve been playing Gnawa since I was young and I will continue until I’m old,’ he says, explaining how it’s the kind of music you’re born into. ‘Gnawa music chose me, I didn’t choose it. It’s a very spiritual music. Once you’re in, you get stuck – you’re never going to get out.’

This article appears in the issue40Buy Now