Brooklyn-based quintet Innov Gnawa envelops audiences in the hypnotic power of Moroccan Gnawa. Gnawa refers to not only a style of music but also the people who created it. The Gnawa are ethnically diverse descendants of sub-Saharan Africans originally brought to Morocco as soldiers and slaves starting in the 11th century. This intergenerational group was founded in 2013 when Samir LanGus, a recent immigrant to the States, relocated to New York City to apprentice with Maâlem Hassan Ben Jaafer.
Although associated with Sufi tradition, Gnawa music actually pre-dates Islam, and is rooted in animistic, spiritual, and mystical concepts originally sung in Bambara, Fulani, and Sudani. The music combines the solo vocals of Arab devotional chanting with the rhythmic call-and-response of sub-Saharan Africa. Guided by a maâlem, a master artist vested with deep spiritual responsibility, musicians perform elaborately structured all-night trance rituals (lila) to engage the spirits (jin) in the healing and purification of both individuals and community. While historically a culture of the dispossessed, Gnawa has recently gained immense popularity in Morocco as a national symbol.
Maâlem Ben Jaafer is a master from a long line of prominent Gnawa maâlems in the city of Fes (Fez). He apprenticed to his father following the Gnawa tradition in which the student learns through meticulous observation of the master, never playing for his teacher until he is skilled enough to lead a lila on his own. Now the Maâlem presides over the ensemble with his distinctive singing and hypnotizing melodies played on the sintir (a three-stringed, long-necked lute), while the four kouyo (chorus members) fill out the sound with richly layered vocals accompanied by distinctive iron castanets, the qraqeb. Most performances feature music derived from healing rituals, but occasionally the group highlights the Maâlem’s knowledge of the ancient Sebitiyin (The Saturdays), a repertoire composed to honor the Gnawan community’s connection with Moroccan Jews.
Innov Gnawa continues to perform in traditional settings within the Moroccan American community but have also gained widespread acclaim for bringing the cultural and spiritual legacy of the Gnawa to new audiences, performing at both local clubs and Lincoln Center, and appearing with a range of artists, including Afrobeat ensembles, New Orleans brass bands, and even Cirque de Soleil. Their collaboration with L.A.-based DJ Bonobo earned a 2018 Grammy® nomination. In the hands of Innov Gnawa, this ancient music retains a power to connect and heal that transcends time and place. As Samir told the New Yorker, “… you don’t need to speak Arabic to be moved by this music. It’s the music of the poor, the excluded … their suffering is in rhythm.”