Gnawa Music Gains International Clout, Worldclass Musician Swears by Playing from the Heart



Amlil says he “works with his heart,” not for money or fame. Traveling around the world with his band for international festivals is “very hard, it’s a lot, but when you love this…you do it…”

RABAT, Morocco–Abdelkader Amlil sits cross-legged at the head of a crowded but cozy room that he has repurposed into his music studio. Tucked away deep in the medina of Rabat, Morocco, the studio is host to his band’s practicing sessions, as well as casual gatherings of family members and friends. Holding a lit cigarette between his fingers, he lifts it to his mouth, and inhales deeply. The bright red-orange of the butt burns bright, mirroring the glow in his eyes as he speaks about his career as Maâlem (master) Abdelkader, a world-class Gnawa musician.

From humble ceremonies in the medina to traveling the international circuit to share traditional and jazz fusion Gnawa music, Amlil experiences first hand the globalization of the Moroccan music market. Yet, in his eyes, Gnawa music is not about the fame, prestige or  money.  For Amlil, Gnawa music creates a connection between the listener and the music; Amlil feels “so successful and happy because people are listening” to this music.

Gnawa music is characterized by its distinctive sound, which uses metallic castanets, heavy drums and a three-stringed bass lute (guembri), and by its rich cultural history. According to a feature article by Dr. Chouki El Hamel, “Gnawa Music in Morocco”, Gnawa music and its spiritual attributes preserve the cultural and historical memories of the displaced and enslaved black West Africans brought to Moroccan cities like Essaouira and Marrakech. El Hamel depicts Gnawa songs as painting images “of displacement, dispossession, deprivation, misery and nostalgia for a land and a former life kept alive through their unique musical and ceremonial practices.” Playing in international festivals, Amlil is able to share this cultural history on a worldwide scale.

In recent years, the international presence of Gnawa music has risen. With attendance of such festivals like the Gnawa World Music Festival reaching almost half a million, and with non-Gnawan musicians emulating and even adopting the Gnawa sound, Gnawa music has launched itself into the international spotlight. While Maâlem Amlil participates in such international events, he balances large scale events with the traditional musical customs he grew up with.

“I was surrounded by this music, always,” Amil explains, “I just inherited it.” He never attended a prestigious musical conservatory nor received professional musical training; he simply grew up immersed in Gnawa music. Neither of his parents played Gnawa music professionally; it was his aunt who introduced him to playing for parties and events.

Describing his first inspiration, “[My aunt] would make this party, this folklore,” he says, referring to the traditional intimate lila, a night-long spiritual ceremony rich with song, dance, food, and costume. Such deeply personal and spiritual musical expressions, arranged by his aunt, inspired Amlil to take up the guembri himself. “I loved this about her.” Exposing him to this side of Gnawa music heightened Amlil’s love of the music, spurring him to become the international musical sensation he is today.

“I started playing when I was seven years old. And I was professional by age twelve,” Amlil simply states, sitting beneath the talisman of his far-reaching success that cover the walls of the studio. Barely an inch of wall is visible between posters, framed certificates, or photos of performances.

In the heart of the Medina of Rabat, Morocco, a cramped but cozy home hosts the practice sessions of maâlem (master) Abdelkader Amlil, an internationally-known Gnawa musician. Friends and family come in and out of the room to sit and join in singing and clapping.

As he reflects on his accomplishments, Amlil lists his performance venues: “Mexico, France, Germany…Spain, Russia, Portugal, Qatar, Japan. All the world,” he says. The posters on the wall are like stamps in a passport: Mexico Jazz Fusion Balie Fiesta from 2005, a poster with typeface in Chinese, Spanish, and more mark all the countries Amlil and his band have performed in; the years on the posters span more than a decade. Amlil states, “To travel is hard, it is very hard, it’s a lot, but when you love this… then you do it.”

For Amlil, the hardships of international touring is outweighed by sharing with others and drawing awareness to Gnawa music. Commenting on his experiences playing for international audiences, Amlil states “music is for all, so you can’t say this is not for me or for you, the whole world loves the Gnawa [music]”. As he describes his favorite performance, his eyes light up, and he shifts excitedly on his couch cushion. In Mexico, at the 2005 Balie Fiesta , the crowds engulfed the stage, and “when we stopped playing people said ‘No we want more!’ The people wanted the music and they just wanted more,” Amlil explains.

Fueled by the audience’s support he receives from international and local performances alike, Amlil recalls how this demand was not always present. When he first started as a professional Gnawa player, “Gnawa music was not a priority for Morocco.” The now highly sought after Gnawa World Music Festival, held every June in Essaouira, Morocco, was not always so, explains Amlil. Instead there was more of a focus on traditional lilas.

CloseupShotMaalemAmlil began playing at age 7, after being introduced to the music through his aunt, and was hired for parties starting when he was 12 years old. Gnawa parties in Morocco are spirituality-based celebrations when people can “be free and crazy,” said Amlil’s daughter, Manal.

While Gnawa music has gained international clout in today’s entertainment market, Amlil contests that “in the festival, it is just the music…and the rhythm…It is just the stage and the musician.” But the smaller, more traditional lilas that take place in the medina of Rabat are spiritual ceremonies. Party goers gather to not only listen to the music, but to understand the music and the lyrics. Manal, Amlil’s daughter explains how Maâlem Amlil purposefully sings in Darija or Gnawa, to facilitate this understanding in his audiences. In the lila, she explains how “it is very spiritual, because they dance, they cry…they just want to be free…to make craziness, and afterwards they can relax.”

Playing for Moroccans, Amil says, is intimate and personal: he hand selects a different set of songs to play for each party he is invited to, fitting the song to the particular feeling of the party. Amlil not only understands the music; he feels it in his whole body as he plays. When he picks at the guembri, he uses a combination of both his heart and mind, but mostly his heart, “I just play because I love this music…for all, music is the life.”

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