If you have an expectation, Moroccan multi-instrumentalist Aziz Sahmaoui is going to defy if. Schooled in the music of his native Maghreb, he’s a man who’s never believed in limits. With his band, the University of Gnawa, he blends gnawa, the healing trance music from Morocco, with West African music, jazz, rock into a heady, beautiful groove – and now he’s bringing the sound to North America for a series of dates in the US and Canada, giving people the chance to experience what Britain’s Independent called “the best gnawa you will hear.”
Sahmaoui and his University bandmates – most of them from Senegal – build on the rhythmic trance idea that’s at the heart of Moroccan gnawa tradition and turn it into a global experience, intoxicating and addictive. “Music is love,” Sahmaoui explains “and love is always great, it’s always the pinnacle. We all possess a language that allows us to see and understand the profundity of the other, something that goes beyond listening and watching, work, trade…venturing beyond what we know can take us into a new world.”
Multi-instrumentalist Aziz Sahmaoui has explored several new worlds in his life. At six he joined one of the local groups and was initiated into the rhythms of gnawa. His first instrument was a guitar that sprang “from my imagination, and I fell into the magic of the language of string instruments.”
After backing several Moroccan superstars as a young man, he decided to try his luck in Paris, becoming one of the founders of the celebrated Orchestre National des Barbès, a group that broke down the barriers of African music and became a huge sensation in the 1990s – their debut disc sold a staggering 100,000 copies and has gone on to become one of the seminal world music albums.
From there, Sahmaoui delved into jazz, playing with luminaries like Michael Gibbs before Jow Zawinul, keyboard player with the legendary Weather Report, asked him to become a member of the Zawinul Syndicate, an ensemble that continues to this day. Sahmaoui made his debut on the live CD Vienna Night.
Like any artist, Sahmaoui wants to keep pushing and challenging, to gnaw away at convention. The result of that is the six-piece University of Gnawa, whose music takes that Moroccan tradition of healing music as a basis, seamlessly adding North African street music (cha’abi), jazz, rock and West African music, all with a searing groove to moves the feet and the mind. Featuring Sahmaoui himself on n’goni lute, gimbri, mandola and vocals, the band can seamlessly shift from the forceful Afrofunk of “Maktoube” to the glistening kora and guitar workout of “Tamtamaki” to a deliciously airy cover of Weather Report’s “Black Market” that turns the tune inside out. The band’s self-titled debut album won rave reviews. Britain’s Guardian newspaper called it “thrilling,” while WOMAD termed the disc “vivid and intoxicating.”
“There’s beauty in the union of two different musics,” Sahmaoui reflects. “A language that’s Maghrebi and Senegalese, and strong together. There’s never been any calculation about what we do, it was born naturally out of friendship, and things found their own level spontaneously, just from the pleasure of playing together. As musicians we’re gathered around a musical culture that’s guided by the same spirit, we’re in the same space.”
Gnawa is very much music of the spirit, its ancient origins in the slaves transported across the Sahara from Guinea and Ghana. The University of Gnawa not only to take it home again, but bring it into the heart of the modern world, bringing past and future together. At their WOMAD performance two years ago, festival goers were “transported…to another realm.” Now it’s North America’s turn for the soulful experience. “I want our trance rhythms to take us into new spaces in front of fresh audiences and other cultures,” Sahmauoi asserts. You can experience the University of Gnawa at:
21 July / Montreal / Nuits d'Afrique
24 July / Cleveland / Cleveland Museum
25 July / Chicago / TBD
26 July / Los Angeles / Grand performances
27 July / Calgary / Folk Fest / Nuit Calgary
28 July Calgary Follk Fest / Nuit Calgary
31 July / NY- Out Door Stage Lincoln Center