Thursday, 3 January 2008

Xmas Day 2007 Lila with Maalem Mahmoud Guinea

This Xmas (2007), the DaftNotStupid team decided to forsake the craziness of Xmas in England and took their daughter, Lou, to Morocco to indulge in their own Moroccan style of craziness and, without a doubt, the highlight of the eight day holiday in Marrakech and Essaouira was the Xmas Night Lila in the home of the Master Gnaoua Musican Maalem Mahmoud Guinea in Essaouira.

Maalem Mahmoud Guinea

Here's the playlist for the Lila, starting with the first piece - about 20 minutes long. Listen out for the sounds of the carpet-dancing about 15 mins in. I can still see them - just five feet in front of us.

For reasons known only to the young, Lou decided to stay in her hotel room to watch a Harry Potter film (in German) on TV, drinking copious cups of hot chocolate and so she missed this experience BUT she has heard about it endlessly since then!
I (Maggie) am a Christian and I had prayed beforehand for Jesus to prepare the way for us on this holiday and I believe that that is just what he did because not only were we able to contact Mahmood once we were in Essaouira on the off chance that we could meet him, having been bowled over by his performance at the June 2007 Festival of Gnaoua and World Music in Essaouira, playing firstly with his own group and then with Chiek Tidiane Seik, and he not only visited us at our hotel, Dar Loussia (one of the pretty restored courtyard hotels which Morocco has become famous for) but also invited us to a private Lila in his own home the next evening, which was Xmas Night.
We behaved like excited children all that day, so honoured to have met him AND to be invited to his own home, and pinching ourselves (metaphorically) to assertain that it was not all a dream.
The session had been arranged by Joseph Sebag, a Moroccan Gnaoua devotee who owns the Galeria Aida a great little shop selling books and some wonderful ethnic jewellery on Rue de la Skala (just off the Place Moulay Hassan) so that the Japanese photo-journalist Ishida Masataka could record a Lila in session and other guests, including us, had been invited to be part of the audience.
We had no idea what to expect and were already exhausted by our walk along the beach from the small village of Diabet several kilometres from Essaouira, where we had a Xmas lunch of omelettes, fish tagine and fresh bread at the tiny Jimmy Hendrix cafe, once frequented by Hendrix nearly half a decade ago.
But, refreshed by a hamman (lsimilar to a Turkish bath) and a cooked chicken from a street vendor, we set off about 8.30 pm with our guide, Hussein, who is a young apprentice musician being trained by Mahmoud. He is very charming, very handsome in a Rudolph Nureyof kind of way and, as we later discovered, already a gifted musican.
Our common language was French and as we walked across the large square outside the city walls, Bab Marrakech, and into the suburbs beyond, I was secretly delighted that I was able to dig up so much GCE 'O' level French that I thought had been lost for ever.
Mahmoud's house is a modest riad and we entered via a small blue door, squeezed past a scooter in the entrance lobby, took off our shoes and entered the downstairs room, which was clearly a room for entertaining with rugs and long, cushioned couches which faced a cushioned performance area . In front of us was a table with a tray containing jug of water and two glasses, which was, I felt, such a lovely gesture of hospitality.
Mahmoud greeted us warmly, as is his custom, and then pottered upstairs. The sky was clearly visible above us and a long red robe hung over the first floor inner wall, presumably a performance costume. A cowboy film was playing in one of the upstairs rooms, later to be replaced by the tinny ring tones on his young daughter's gadget, which struck me as so incongruous given her father's talent. But there again, that's the young for you.
She and her older brother went outside to play football and pretty soon there was a disagreement and she arrived back home in tears and rushed upstairs, where Mahmoud comforted her and soon she was back downstairs, all smiles and playing her ring tones. She is a very pretty young girl, of Junior School age, with her long black hair gathered into bunches and wearing slacks and a long-sleeved t-shirt with 'girl' embrodiered on it. She had kissed us on both cheeks as a greeting and I was very touched by the gesture.
Then an older brother dashed in, wearing a number 10 football shirt with what I think was the name of a Brazilian footballer player on the back, tall and slender and like his siblings extremely handsome and courteous, with a generously endearing smile.
Gradually, members of Mahmoud's makeshift band arrived - not his regular group but friends who were Gnaoua musicans - and his two young sons, obviously being trained by their father, also formed part of the group. There were about seven playing altogether.
The rest of the audience also arrived: Joseph, Hilal ( a Moroccan designer), a very attractive Moroccan lady and her Italian husband and several of their friends and relatives, plus Ishida and his wife.
We sat on the couches facing Mahmoud and his group whilst they changed into their bright yellow performance robes and prepared themselves for the session. Conversation between performers and audience flowed freely, in Arabic, French and English.
And then the performance started.
I had never heard of Gnaoua music until about ten years ago when a couple of young Gnaoua musicans were playing at our hotel, the Riad Mogadon (woops! Freudian slip - I mean Mogador!), just outside the town of Essaouria, during a previous Xmas holiday . 'You must listen to this!' my husband said and so I did and I liked it but at the time I was desperate to have supper and so we moved on.
Even when we returned to Essaouira the next June for the Gnaoua and World Music Festival, sponsored by the King, Mohammed VI, I still didn't 'get' the Gnaoua music. Eventually, we returned every June for the Festival and although I fell in love with much of the World Music, particularly the fusion music and artists like Youssou N'Dour (from Senegal) and Thalweg (from France) and the Ali brothers and their group from Parkistan, I still found the Gnaoua Music too basic and too repetitive and too noisy.
And then, during the 2007 festival, we were having supper outside, on the balcony, of the Restaurant Bab Lachour and The Band of Gnawa (based in France) were practicing their set and they suddenly and unexpectedly launched into a performance, starting with, of all things, Come Together by the Beatles, with the large audience in the square singing along, and then they drifted into Gnaoua music and I finally 'got' it! Explosive ... exciting ... amazing ... joyful ... life enhancing ... and I was up on my feet and dancing and all the cares in the world just melted away. Then the band drifted back into Come Together and they did this drifting in and out of modern music and Gnaoua music (led by Maleem Said Boulhimas) with songs such as Who Knows by Hendrix and Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin and The Gallow's Pole by ?.
So, when I later listened to Mahmoud's session in the Place Bab Marrakech, I was able to enjoy tradional Gnaoua for the very first time.
Gnaoua music precedes the birth of Islam and is specific to Morocco, having been brought there by migrants and slaves from other parts of Africa by Gnaouai (the artisitic people from a variety of tribes) and has survived down the centuries despite being frowned upon by previous authorities because it was considered un-Islamic. But that has all changed, particularly with the approval of King Mohammmed VI and it is is growing in popularity, not just in Morocco, but throughout the world in both its tradional form and fused with other musical genres (rock, pop, jaz, hip hop etc.) In fact, Mahmoud has a photograph on his wall of the King presenting him with an award last year in recognition of his contribution to the cultural life of Morocco.
What we were listening to on Xmas Night was a Lila (trance session) and the music was very primitive and very rythmic. Mahmoud was playing his guembri, which is an instrument with three strings played like a guitar AND a drum; the rest of the group were playing castanets (aka Garagab, qarqaba, qaraqib, karkabas, karakob - the spelling variations appear to be endless), which are like brass castanets and, and singing and chanting in praise of Allah.
They also call upon spirits of the earth and heavens, so Joseph informed us, and I said that I wasn't too happy about that because I'm a Christian and believe it is a perilous thing to do. And so we started a dicussion about religion during one of the intervals and Joseph revealed that he was Jewish and Halil that he was a Hindu and Joseph said that Mahmoud and his group were all Mulims. We also had a mix of atheists and agnostics and it was really striking that we were all united by the music, which re-enforced my view that music can cut through all kinds of differences and bring us together in not just a shared experience but also in a realisation of a shared humanity.
So much music that I hear in Morocco, including Gnaoua, seems to strike at something deep within, strong emotions of joy and sadness, hope and despair, exhilaration and exploitation that we all share irrespective of gender, age, religion, culture, or nationality. And I felt it particularly this Xmas Night. So, I silently prayed for a blessing on all of us and relaxed into the music.
The muscians were totally focused on their performance and, as they sat on the cushions with their backs aginst the tiled wall and their legs either crossed or outstretched, it was clear that they had a passion for the music and a passion for Allah. In particular, it was fascinating to watch Mahmoud's hands, as small and smooth as a teenagers, working his guembri seemingly effortlessly, and leading the music and the singing. He had the appearance of a man totally at ease and totally in the 'moment' and his two young sons looked like natural successors, in the way that Mahmoud learnt from his father, and his father from his father. A wonderful skill being handed down from generation to generation.
Purists of Gnaoua music get a bit sniffy about the developing role of dancing in Gnaoua music but personally, I love it. The Gnaoua dancing now plays an important role in performances on stage and to see the musicans perform the highly difficult moves (and I can assure you that they are VERY difficult because I've tried them myself) as well as playing their krota, dressed in the brightly coloured robes, with tassles swinging from their hats, is a magnificent sight to behold. Sometimes they dance individually and sometimes as a group, particularly at the climax of a session, when they advance towards the audience. And you think 'I certainly wouldn't want to mess with these guys' because the effect is of concentrated force and power.
Just how skilled these guys are was brought home to me in June while watching a Gnaoua group perform with The Asian Dub Foundation' (from Birmingham and absolute dynamite on the stage) and the Gnaoua dancers did their own version of hip hop and you just couldn't better that dancing. Their versatilty with this fusion music is awesome and highlights the fact that they are NOT support acts but world class performers and more than able to respond to different musical genres.
The title Maalem, by the way, means master and a master Gnaoua musician must be expert in ALL the disciplines: every instrument played, the singing and the dancing.
In Mahmoud's house there wasn't much space for dancing but several of the musicans did dance for a while and I was especially impressed with Mahmoud's oldest son. He had a certain fluidity which promises much for the future. And the younger son, too, obviously loves the whole musical experience. I was also taken with the intensity of joy that was plain to see on Hussein's face.
One of the group performed a trance dance which continued for ten or more minutes. He had a piece of material over his head (the Gnaouans use 7 different coloured clothes, each one representing the 7 stages of the trance session), and burning incense was heavy in the air and he did eventually drop to the floor like a dead weight and lay there for several minutes until he jerked himself awake. Possible some 'trances' are faked for effect but this looked genuine enough. ( Obviously, lots of silent praying from me during this time! I certainly believe in evil spirits and when spirits are being 'summonsed' you just don't know what you're going to get.)
Altogether, the session lasted several hours with breaks for refreshments.
Every so often, Mahmoud's wife (apparently the 'great woman' behind 'the great man') would call one of the children to fetch down some dish or other and they would scurry upstairs, having put their slippers on, and then dash back down, slipping their slippers off before walking on the rugs covering the floor.
I had actually been aware of delicious cooking smells for some time but had not realised that it was for us, so I was surprised and delighted when we were presented with a splendid lamb couscous, which arrived on a large metal platter: a mound of couscous with cooked lamb covered with caramalised onions and thick strips of cooked carrots and courgettes. We were each handed a spoon and thus we ate, sharing the same plate and it was such a liberating experience, again linking us together. (I had really only eaten VERY LITTLE chicken beforehand!) And then we had mint tea, which I don't usually like but this time found it to be perfect after the couscous. The plates and spoons and glasses were whisked away and the performance resumed.
Later on, the group stopped for their lamb couscous and they sat in a circle to eat and Joseph was invited to join them, which, apparently, is considered a great honour.
And with each break, the barrier between audience and performers was put aside and we discussed how the session was going and about the music generally. I also had a chance to discuss Hilal's costume work since I enjoy sewing and embrodiery myself. He was sitting next to me and showed me the many layers of his Indian-style tunic. It was made in a very soft cream linen/silk material with finer layers of Egyptian cotton underneath. He had made the trousers too and all was finished off with hand-embrodiered edgings. (When we return in June for the festival I MUST get in touch with him and ask him to create some exotic trousers for me.)
The music was very loud it has to be said and would have echoed around the neighbourhood, escaping from the open roof, and round about midnight, there was a knock on the door. I wondered if perhaps it was angry neighbours who had been trying to sleep (although on reflection I realise that that would have been absurb) but Hilal declared loudly: "Papa Klaus!" and everyone burst out laughing. In fact, it was a young Morocco man, as handsome as you can get, with long dreadlocks and delicate features and hands with his European-looking girl-friend. They stayed for a while and then disappeared outside. It was that kind of informality.
By the early hours of Boxing Day morning, Mahmoud and his friends finished their marathon session and we all applauded loudly and compliments were delivered to all the players. It had become chilly by then and I had already put my coat on but given that this was December, I think that was pretty good going since we had been sitting under the stars for a long time. We promised to bring Mahmoud a recording of the session (we had been recording, with his permission, throughout) in June and Ishida, who had been taking photographs using a very impressive looking camera, made arrangements with Joseph for a preview of his material. There was much shaking of hands and then we all burst out into the midnight-blue Moroccan sky on what was now Boxing Day, exhausted but exhilarated. (How Mahmoud and his friends felt physically and emotionally after their efforts I hardly dare imagine. They probably need chiropractotors like The Rolling Stones so physical is their performance.)
And Joseph asked me to bring some copies of 'Saucy Shorts for Chefs' and 'Sexy Shorts for the Beach' (paper-back short story collections (I have a short story published in both of them)) to sell in his bookshop when we return for the 2008 Gnaoua and World Music Festival in June (inshallah!).
We, the audience, all shook hands and staggered back to our respective 'homes.'
John and I (TheDaftNotStupid team) repaired to the roof terrace of our hotel with a bottle of brandy and pastries and cigarettes and sat silently looking at the Atlantic Sea and the large semi-circular sweep of the beach stretching towards the desert in the south and the white roof tops in the walled city of Essaouira, with the two resident sea-gulls perched on the wall hoping for some tip-bits, which, of course, they got.
And the next day, a dejected Lou informed us that she had twisted an ankle when she missed a step near her room and so it was business as usual...except that Xmas Night Lila experience is something I will never forget. Although I had taken paper and pen, I had not made any notes at all, but my memory of that night will never desert me. And I have a whole new list of names to add to my daily prayer list.
Maggie Knutson: teacher, writer, journalist and novice photographer. Also member of TheDaftNotStipid team.
P.S. THIS IS MY VERY FIRST BLOG!!! and it has definitely been work in process so it has grown, spelling mistakes corrected and so on during the week but this is probably the final version and, bearing in mind that French is probably the most commonly shared language of those of us who love the music, I shall endeavor to post a French version of this page - just don't hold your breathe, though, because it might take a long time.


  1. Ik ben heel blij met jullie site en muziek, ik ben helemaal gek op muziek, zing zelf ook.. maar wanneer ik wlad en bnat bledi vooruit zie gaan in alles wat ze doen, en houden marokko heel hoog houden, dan doet het me wat!
    Inchaalah j'éspére que vous reussirez pour devenir connue partout!!!!!

    thalaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaw fi roskom

  2. Hi Hanouna, I love music too. Thanks for the good wishes - but it's not about me becoming know - it's really about the music. By the way, I love your eclectic mix of languages - you're a true polyglot. John