ROTTERDAM: North Africa’s Gnawa music has long held a powerful sway over international ears. In the 1960s, Jimi Hendrix visited Morocco to take lessons with “The King,” Mahmoud Guinia, while “The Traditionalist” Brahim Belkane played with members of Led Zeppelin. Decades later, thousands of curious listeners continue to descend on Essaouira every year for the Festival Gnaoua et Musiques du Monde, which celebrates a 21st edition in June.
Riding the 1980s’ first wave of interest in so-called “world music” — a term most international musicians find structurally hierarchical — Hassan Hakmoun found fame representing his tribal traditions on a global stage and was soon working alongside Western luminaries, including free jazz pioneer Don Cherry. The Moroccan musician’s story is remarkable: The son of a renowned mystic healer, by the age of four Hakmoun was, legend has it, performing alongside snake charmers and fire-breathers on the streets of Marrakech.
But unlike the patchy rock and reggae fusions of Hakmoun’s breakthrough “Trance” (released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records two years earlier), 1995’s “The Fire Within” marked a pointed return to his roots. Gone are the electric guitars and trippy dub beats — here Hakmoun strips everything back to the same earthy instrumentation his forefathers used for generations: Hand-claps and clacking hand-cymbals (krakeb) drive these primal grooves.
The sole instrumental melody comes from Hakmoun’s sintir, a three-stringed lute which emits deep, throbbing, syncopated riffs in the spine-shaking lower registers. It’s deeply communal, but Hakmoun is master of ceremonies, leading the stirring call-and-response chants based on Sufi poetry.
These group recordings are balanced by the sparser-still solos. Released from the beat, Hakmoun’s playing further assumes the lilting cadences of human speech. For any audience, “The Fire Within” is a magnificent primer to Gnawa’s immutable musical foundations.