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  • Popplestone, Ann
    Copyright (c) 2003 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com Fusing West African traditions Mike Zwerin IHT Wednesday, July 30, 2003 AGADIR, Morocco
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 29, 2003
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      IHT article

      Copyright © 2003 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com

      Fusing West African traditions 
      Mike Zwerin IHT
      Wednesday, July 30, 2003       
      AGADIR, Morocco Preserving centuries-long West African ethnic musical traditions on a giant outdoor stage wired with a sound system worthy of Led Zeppelin and situated not far from a Club Med and between a McDonald's, a Pizza Hut and the Sheraton Hotel is, as Lenny Bruce said in another context, a "big gig."

      The primary objective of the anthropologist and psychiatrist Abdelhafid Chlyeh, director of the first Festival of Popular and Nomadic Music in Agadir this month, was "to keep the traditional music of the region alive so that it can be transmitted to following generations."

      "The idea is to give this music a chance to be heard by the Moroccan public so that they realize how much they have to lose," he said.

      The public was overwhelmingly Moroccan and averaged maybe 5,000 people a night. Admission was free. The ethnic musics being preserved were Arabic, Berber, nomad, Gnawa, Mauritanian and Malian - all still alive in and around Agadir. These traditions have been cross-breeding for some time, but they all risk being swallowed by globalization in the form of heavy metal, gangsta rap and worse.

      Chlyeh, who was born in Marrakesh and teaches ethno-psychiatry in the Paris region, founded the festival of Gnawa music in Essaouira, up the Atlantic coast from Agadir, in 1998. He grew dissatisfied with the organization there, and for most of the past year he has been criss-crossing the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains choosing musicians for the Agadir festival. At first, he was shocked to find young instrumentalists in isolated villages playing their ancient tribal music on electric guitars instead of traditional homemade cat-gut-stringed rababs and tidinits, but he got over it. He wants to avoid "locking the music up in a museum. Evolution is normal. We want to encourage positive communication. We do not want to be fanatical about it."

      Chlyeh pointed out that the Gnawas of the Essaouira region originated in sub-Saharan countries and were brought to Morocco centuries ago as slaves. With the birth of audiocassette technology, Moroccan Gnawa trance music became popular in Bamako, Mali, the area from which they originated. The Berbers were in what is now Morocco before the Arabs arrived, and their history and tribal ways continue to be passed on aurally from generation to generation by griots. The string and percussion ensemble led by the remarkable Mauritanian singer Aicha Mint Chighaly - whose business card describes her as "artiste" and includes an e-mail address - raised goose bumps.

      "No music can be 'pure' and still be a living music," Chlyeh said. "Even in the remote Amazon this is no longer possible. We want to take stock and see where we are now. Each tradition will give to and take from the other. That will not stop, no matter what we do. We can only try to channel it constructively."

      Although all of the music on the program had black African roots in common, cross-cultural fusion imposed from the top is risky. Witness the qualitative decline of some African bands after exposure to the temptations of the multinational music industry.

      Fusions between local traditions and music from the developed world were the least successful on the four-day program. There was not enough time for the musicians to rehearse and get to know each other. The dreadlocked folk/$ blues singer/guitarist Corey Harris was happy and successful singing with Chighaly, while the saxophonist Chico Freeman, although known for explorations of African and Afro-Cuban music with Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente, seemed timid, reluctant to impose bebop on local cultures.

      Since people everywhere bang on skins of one kind or another, percussion fusions worked best. Trevor Morais, a Trinidadian who lives in Spain and has worked with the Icelandic singer Bjork, was ecstatic playing his drum-machine programs plugged in next to the Berbers with their krakeb, allun and tbal drums. The Brazilian percussionist Ruben Dantas, long associated with the flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, locked into the traditional grooves with gusto.

      So men in turbans and women wearing veils were singing quarter-tones as though the clavier had never been tempered and playing in seven without having heard Dave Brubeck. It was demonstrated that you do not have to know the definition "blue note" to be funky and that the concept of "swing," the keeping of good time, originates with the human heartbeat and goes back a lot further than Benny Goodman.

      Ann Popplestone

      CCC Metro TLC

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