I am currently visiting my brother who teaches English at a University in Fes, Morocco. One of his roommates is Chris Witulski, a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology from the University of Florida currently researching indigenous Moroccan music. A big part of Chris’ work is devoted to transcribing performances of certain types of Moroccan folk music, and Monday he hosted a group of Gnawa musicians at the house to perform a series of songs.
As Chris and a few Moroccans told me, Gnawa is rooted in West African music and primarily uses pentatonic scales, although more Arabic-sounding melodies with half-steps and microtonal vocal intonations evolved once the tradition reached Morocco. Monday’s performance featured three musicians, two who played iron castanet-like instruments called krakebs and one who played a three-stringed bass-like instrument called the hajhuj. The hajhuj player led the group through the songs, which often featured call-and-response passages.
Although the raw materials of the Gnawa music I heard were very straightforward – repetitive rhythmic grooves supporting tunes rooted in a simple melodic language – I was struck by the unpredictable phrasing. Rarely were lines repeated in a cookie-cutter manner, and most of the time there was little sense of antecedent-consequent relationships in the songs’ melodic framework. The music simply moved along from one piece of text to another, stabilized by the rhythmic drone of the krakebs.
Of course, I am no expert on this music and I dislike describing this music to you after so little contact with it. So, below is a link to a video of an earlier performance by this same Gnawa group. Note Abd ar-Rzaq, the ma’alem, or leader and the dual function of the hajhuj as a melodic and rhythmic part of the ensemble. The animal skin wrapped around the main body of the instrument not only helps it resonate, but also acts as a drumhead, which he taps from time to time.