Brooklyn-based sextet Innov Gnawa envelops audiences in the mystical power of the Moroccan Gnawa music. The Gnawa are descendants of sub-Saharan Africans brought to Morocco many centuries ago as soldiers and slaves. 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. Guided by a maâlem, a master artist vested with deep spiritual responsibility, musicians perform elaborately structured all-night trance rituals (lila) for the healing and purification of both individuals and community.
Founded in New York in 2013, Innov Gnawa is led by Maâlem Hassan Ben Jaafer, a master from a long line of prominent Gnawa maâlems in the city of Fes (Fez). Maâlem Ben Jaafer presides over the ensemble with his distinctive singing and hypnotic, ancient melodies played on the guembri (a three-stringed, long-necked lute also known as a sintir), while the five kouyo (chorus members) fill out the sound with richly layered vocals accompanied by distinctive iron castanets, the qraqeb.
Innov Gnawa continue to perform in traditional settings within the Moroccan American community, but have also gained widespread acclaim for their efforts to bring the cultural and spiritual legacy of the Gnawa to new audiences.