West African slaves, transported far from home, held on to rituals that praise saints and spirits with songs, dances, galvanizing rhythms and trance possession. That’s the story of voodoo and Santería in the Americas, and it’s also the story of Gnawa music in Morocco, made by descendants of slaves brought north from what is now Mali. As part of its World Nomads Morocco Festival, the French Institute Alliance Française brought “Master Gnaoua Musicians” to Florence Gould Hall on Saturday night.
It wasn’t Gnawa music in its traditional setting — as an all-night ecstatic healing ceremony — but a concert sampler. The program included two renowned Moroccan maalems (the honorific for master musicians) making their United States debuts: Hassan Zgarhi from Marrakesh, who is known as a staunch traditionalist, and Mahmoud Guinea from Essaouira. It also featured Maalem Mustafa Bakbou, from Marrakesh, and the concert’s organizer, Hassan Hakmoun, a musician from Marrakesh who has been based in New York since 1987 and whose many collaborations with rock and jazz musicians have made him an ambassador of Gnawa culture. In Morocco each would be leading his own group; here, they shared the same backing ensemble.
The music is spiritual yet never sedate. Most songs are driven by quick-fingered bass riffs played by the leader on the three-stringed sintir and by the bright clatter of large metal castanets called qaraqeb, with call-and-response vocal melodies arching over the beat. The musicians are also singers and dancers: crouching and leaping, twirling and even somersaulting as the polyrhythms grow denser and the songs accelerate.
Saturday’s program had one distinctly untraditional touch. The American Tap Dance Foundation had supplied the Gnawa, who usually dance barefoot, with tap shoes. The performers were clearly enjoying the chance to hear their footfalls amid the fusillade of rhythm, and to share some group steps, but it would have been good to have had at least one song performed in its customary way.
Gnawa music has distinct regional styles with different tunings and melodic inflections; the repertory has songs in pentatonic scales akin to West African music and the blues, as well as songs that use Arabic-sounding modes. For nonspecialists, however, what came across was the kineticism of the songs and the strength of the maalems’ voices and personalities: the grainy fervor of Mr. Zgarhi, the trumpetlike clarity of Mr. Guinea (who had one song praising the Fulani culture of Mali) and the otherworldly conviction of Mr. Bakbou, whose sintir playing was not only propulsive but also insistently dynamic, suddenly leaping into the foreground. Mr. Hakmoun made up for throat troubles with sintir virtuosity in complex meters and with strutting, whirling dances.
At one point in the concert the power to the public-address system briefly cut out, silencing microphones and the sintir amplifier. It didn’t interrupt a thing; the performers sang louder, and the qaraqeb rang out as it has for centuries, with mystical momentum.
A version of this review appeared in print on May 23, 2011, on page C3 of the New York edition with the headline: Mystical Morocco Bursting With Tribal Rhythm.
By JON PARELES
Published: May 22, 2011