Concert review: InnoVe Gnawa Band & Faith at Mercury Lounge (NY)

Venue: Mercury Lounge (NY)
Date: November 25, 2014
Concert Review by Dawoud Kringle

On the night of the Ferguson riots, while protests sprang up throughout major cities in the US, InnoVe Gnawa Band took the stage and brought the legendary and magical Gnawa music to NYC’s Mercury Lounge, with Black Rock Coalition mainstay Faith waiting their turn.

Gnawa music has an amazing history. The Gnawa are a Sufi order in Morocco who identify with the descendants of formerly enslaved West Africans. Their music is believed to heal people possessed by djinns. The term Gnawa refers to Moroccan slaves who originated from Senegal, Chad, Mali, Nigeria, and Old Ghana (a kingdom north of Mali) in the 11th-13th century. These enslaved groups were called “Gnawa,” and become free under various historical circumstances. The Gnawa became a mystic Sufi order that marks their exclusiveness within Islam and the religious and spiritual components of Gnawa practice, and incorporate the style of music associated with this order. They trace their spiritual lineage to the legendary Islamic saint Bilal ibn Rabah. Bilal was an Ethiopian born into slavery. He converted to Islam while still in captivity and was tortured for his conversion by his master Umayya B. Khalaf. When Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, a very close friend to the Prophet Muhammad, heard about the spiritual valor of Bilal, he bought him and set him free. Bilal became a close personal companion of the Prophet. He was also the first muezzin (caller to prayer) of the newly established Islamic community in Medina. This special relationship with the Prophet brought Bilal a special Baraka (a divine blessing).

Gnawa is believed to have been brought to the attention of the west by jazz age poet Claude McKay. He described the Gnawa in his writings, which attracted the attention of many western musicians such as Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Robert Plant and Peter Gabriel. There is also a legendary story of Jimi Hendrix jamming with Gnawa musicians while vacationing in Morocco; Maleem Mahmoud Ghina was impressed by his ability to understand the music.

The band took the stage wearing the beautiful and colorful clothing of their tradition. Bandleader Maalem Hassan Bn Jaafer began a chant while his sintir began an evocative bass line. The krakebs and percussion followed. Soon, the listener was pulled into the hypnotic undertow of the music. Their music had very complex polyrhythms that nonetheless kept a steady and very accessible beat happening. They vocals employed the call and response that much African vocal music has; but put forward a quality that only comes from Morocco. My Arabic is not fluent, but it was obvious the lyrics were from the Islamic / Sufi tradition of Morocco.

After a few songs, the sintir was passed from the Maleem to one of the younger musicians. He proved himself equal to the mantle of musical leadership in this music.

The sintir is worth mention. A three string bass instrument, with a goatskin face, is an essential instrument in this music. This particular instrument was beautifully crafted and had a built-in pickup, EQ, and preamp: a sign of the times. They created a very full and complete sound with a very minimal instrumental accompaniment. And the fact that it was the single most complex instrument in the ensemble was indicative of the level of mastery necessary to do this music. Like the Master Musicians of Jajouka, their instrumentation is very minimal; yet the sound is overwhelming.

After a few beautiful pieces, the sintir was passed back to the Maleem. By this time, the group got the very appreciative audience to participate with clapping and occasionally vocals (which their American mouths had difficulty pronouncing). In the beginning of this song, the sintir was the only accompaniment to the vocals, apart from clapping. Eventually the percussion entered, and brought the song to another level.

The impression one immediately gets is that, apart from the impossible to resist transcendental quality of the music is the sincerity. Many genres of music pretend to invoke the transcendent state of consciousness. They fail, because they lack the sincerity to take it beyond sensationalism and empty intoxication. InnoVe Gnawa is the real thing.

It’s actually quite difficult to write about this music. Gnawa has a quality that is lost in the realm of journalistic description. Words do it little justice; it truly must be experienced for oneself. At times I wondered if Mercury Lounge is the best place for this music. A proper environment for experiencing this music is essential. But then again, maybe this is exactly what places like Mercury need.

Faith is one of the old mainstay Black Rock Coalition bands. Led by Felice Rosser (vocals and bass), they held their own in the turbulent world of rock music for decades. I saw them perform at a BRC produced show about 25 years ago, and was curious about how their music has evolved over the years. Evidently, this was their first performance in a while.

They began their set with a song called “Lovers.” From the beginning, it was obvious that their music had evolved with the times. Yet there was still the quality of the classic age of BRC bands. They continued with “Falling Down”. An indirect reggae insinuation / subtext seemed to show itself through the rock exterior of the song. The song built to a controlled exclamation of passion. This was followed with a straightforward rock song called “Lucky One.” “He’s so Fine” combined soul / R&B vocals with some very interesting and expertly executed syncopations. The next song, “Carried Away,” combined reggae with blues. A drum segment (not exactly a solo, not exactly a backbeat) ended the song. This was followed by the most ostensibly reggae song so far.

The remainder of the set was a fine display of the band’s creativity. The audience was enthusiastically responsive to the performance. Faith has an endearing and intimate quality to both their music and stage persona that I recall from years back that has matured without losing anything.

Felice‘s vocals are as strong as ever. To my ears, there was a shade of old Staple Singers in her phrasing. But the music is not retro. Much of the more current / modern elements of their music come from guitarist Nao Hakamada. His phrasing and choice of chord voicing brought the band’s sound into a 21st century pop sensibility. He’s clearly no “chopsmeister”, and doesn’t need to be. His goal is to play for the song. Paddy Bloom is a very solid drummer. His style locks in beautifully with Felice’s equally solid bass playing. They had Salvatore Principato as special guest on conga. He blended well with the music, offering an almost subliminal flavoring.

It’s clear that Faith have a lot to offer.

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