JOLA ‘Hidden Gnawa Music in Brussels’ CD (Muziekpublique) 5/5

Although my personal path should have perhaps begun in 1991, it is a vivid memory of a cold February night back in 1993 where my journey first starts. It was not only my first experience of hearing the late Randy Weston live but the influences he brought that night of the Moroccan spiritual music of Gnawa with his band comprising Abdellah Boulkhair El Gourd, Abdelouahid Barrady and Abdenebi Oubella. The evening was to open doorways into an unknown world of rich North African music, subsequently tapping into Maâlem (master) Mahmoud Ghania, who would one year later work with Pharaoh Sanders, and then his collaboration with Hamid Drake several years later. His son too, Maâlem Abdallah Guinéa/Ghania, would feature in this gentle exposure to sounds created on typical guembri, hag’houge and krakebs instruments and indeed haunting vocals, before opening my arms wider to the music of Si Mohammed Bel Hassan Soudani, Hassan Idbassaid, Hassan Hakmoun, Nass El Ghiwane et al. It is, however, the work of Hassan Hakmoun and Adam Rudolph back in 1991 that should have caught my attention with their ‘Gift Of The Gnawa’ album which featured Don Cherry, one that is now prominent in my own jazz-influenced Gnawa story.

The Muziekpublique label is now responsible for this next chapter. That of JOLA, which translation ‘tour’ refers to a specific ‘way of the Gnawa’ in any musician’s teaching and development; the travels required to work with other musicians to learn, to share thoughts on music and, ultimately with perhaps the goal of the Maâlem title. YOLA is a gathering of these travellers, some forty of them who reside now in Brussels and who each bring their specific style, teachings and history to the recording – further spreading the knowledge between the group. It has taken twenty years for this album’s manifestation, one that opens with ‘Ulad Bambara’, chanting, hand-clapping and exciting energy like no other. The vibrance of this opening song would envelop any listener comforted in the knowledge that the proceeding twelve tracks would not disappoint. We then embark on a vocal-less ‘Baniya’, the shortest piece here, by no means lacking in energy, feeling somewhat like more than laps are being slapped. Next, we have ‘Arada’, with its strong drum pattern not too dissimilar to that of the Irish bodhrán before we enter ‘Jangarma’ and its powerful voice and krakebs combination. Unsure how many of the forty souls involved on each piece, this could very well be everyone, as the power of this composition is off the chart. ‘Ftuh ar rahba’ is a standout track within the project and quite honestly touches every nerve and lifts hairs to attention, as if beckoning some mighty spirit from the depths of forty ancestors through Abdelwahid Stitou – pull up a chair, close your eyes and drift off to Essaouira.

Enters ‘L Kuhal’, as one might feel drawn into a festival, a gathering for cultural or religious enlightenment. ‘L Musawiyin’ then brings a deeper lead voice with a chorus on a hypnotic Rida Barrady journey, before ‘L Humar’, a Hicham Bilali and Badr El Hernat piece, increases the emotional state – one of the more powerful of songs represented by this collective. There really is no let-up. No break from the expressiveness in these songs or interlude from how wonderful this music makes one feel. ‘Mulay Brahim’ maintains the same emotional state before ‘Mulay Ahmed’ opens the dynamics of the first female voice we have heard in Hanane Abdallah with Hicham Bilali on duty. ‘As Samawiyin’ call and response is another stand-out Hicham Bilali song – if there are any that stand taller than the rest here – featuring Mohamed Zefzaf. ‘Ulad L Ghaba’ or ‘Forest Children’ takes our journey towards the end of the album and has me immediately referencing Asmâa Hamzaoui and Bnat Timbouktou as another contender for further investigation on our Gnaoua theme. ‘L Bnat’ then concludes proceedings to a powerful, rewarding climax.

Nothing should be ‘hidden’ about this music. It’s a compelling story through sound that has now embellished my own JOLA significantly. What is most remarkable here is that not one song lets the album down. It is each an expression of a language, culture and story not known to many of us but one we should make more effort to nurture. Set yourself time to hear this album, its ritual music and the expression forty passionate souls can achieve. Make it part of your own JOLA in life and embrace the trance it has left me in. Maybe one day we can witness this in the flesh, and allow it to captivate us all. A shame that current circumstances around the world lead to the cancellation of their album launch this week. A sound that has blessed me in recent years with creative music from Aziz Sahmaoui in 2011, a live performance in Berlin by Joachim Kühn called ‘Gnawa Jazz Voodoo’ which featured Pharoah Sanders in 2013, Fawda Trio and Samir LanGus in 2016 through Asmâa Hamzaoui and Bnat Timbouktou last year, but above all else, now into Hidden Gnawa Music in Brussels, where I urge you to take yourself soon and join the musical pilgrimage.

Steve Williams