Hassan Hakmoun,
The Gift
(Razor & Tie, 2002)

"Hassan Hakmoun's story began over 500 hundred years ago with the birth of Gnawa music in Morocco, the lifeblood of the people from the crossroads city of Marrakech." So reads the somewhat audacious liner notes to The Gift, the 2002 release from the Marrakech native.

There's something a bit intimidating about these words, which cast the music that follows as the continuation of an ancient tradition. The notes provide a whirlwind tour of the music of the Gnawa, descendants of African slaves who originated from Mali. However, as for the songs themselves, credited primarily to Hakmoun and filled with creative vocals in a language other than English, there's no information provided, no translations or hints as to content.

Fortunately, this music is up to the task of speaking for itself. The Gift revolves around Hakmoun's powerful voice and its idiosyncratic phrasings, a communal-sounding group of chanters and propulsive drummers, and a revolving cast of dozens of wide-ranging musicians, making these songs dense affairs of percussion, strings and other instrumentation.

"Syada Ana" opens the disc on an upbeat note, with Hakmoun's voice and primary instrument, the bass-like sintir, holding the center here as throughout. Other instruments include a modern keyboard, whose runs are effortlessly integrated into the tribal sound. The later "Lala Aisha" features a more measured, nuanced vocal performance from Hakmoun, supported by Eastern violin, but then finds a rising tempo in a chorus of massed voices and builds to a frenetic crescendo by song's end.

There's a lot of call-and-response energy flowing through The Gift, which create a mantra-like feel even if the precise nature of the mantras is lost on the English-speaking listener. As with much music based in trance states, the repeating musical motifs can become monotonous if you're unable to cultivate a meditative mindset. Fortunately, Hakmoun's songs remain reasonably brief and feature a multitude of additional textures, two factors which minimize this potential problem.

In case the multitextural appeal and well-integrated modern instruments don't add enough interest, Hakmoun adds even more variety. "Layla Layla" is an Arabian standard from 1977, but Hakmoun adds his own energy to the song with an adventuresome, rollicking spirit highlighted by Vishal Vaid's towering Ghazal vocals near the close. There's also the "This Gift," a duet with singer Paula Cole. Unfortunately, this track sounds like it was crafted for the adult contemporary alternative market, not inspired by Hakmoun's Marrekeshian roots; recorded with different musicians, it seems generally tepid and seriously out of place. On the other hand, "Waterfall" is a bouncy reggae-infused number that works quite well, with a horn section that adds a certain ska feeling to the effort.

In a 2000 interview with Bouna Ndiaye, Hakmoun closed by saying, "Just keep listening." If you're a listener intrigued by African, Middle Eastern and Arabian musical vibes, and are appreciative of a respectful but not moribund approach to that material, then this might be just the right advice. No matter what your understanding of Hakmoun's Gnawa background may be, just listen to the well-crafted sounds of The Gift, trance and enjoy.

- Rambles
written by Ken Fasimpaur
published 12 April 2003

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