Deborah Kapchan,
Traveling Spirit Masters: Morrocan Gnawa Trance & Music in the Global Marketplace
(Wesleyan University Press, 2007)

Deborah Kapchan, a professor of performance studies at New York University, is an expert on the music of Morocco. In this book, she writes about trance, specifically the Gnawa possession trance ceremonies in that country. She claims as her research questions: How is trance cued or keyed? What is the role of gesture in the transition into trance? How are emotion and memory a part of the experience? How and why are trance -- and sacred music -- becoming a transnational category of the sacred?

You can see we're entering academic territory here. Kapchan is not writing for a general audience; her work is aimed at other scholars and intends to shed light on a phenomenon that other researchers can follow up on. To be able to follow her discussion, you have to be willing and able to deal with academic jargon, to feel at home with sentences like: If there is a theoretical paradigm informing this work, it is found at the fructuous intersection of aesthetics, poetry and performance. Although focusing on the embodied aesthetic technique -- the poetics -- of trance more than the spirits and the cosmology that inhere in it or even the history that informs it (Lambek, 1981; Stoller, 1995), these are all of a piece; indeed, it is impossible to pull apart the affective and aesthetic strands of Gnawa trance.

Not that she isn't clear, and it isn't that the book isn't fascinating, it's just that more than a little decoding is necessary.

Once she begins discussing the musicians and the way many of them have moved from spiritually inclined healing music to commerically available recordings in the world music category, I found a remarkable comparison with America's early rockabilly artists, the fundamentalists like Jerry Lee Lewis, who were convinced they'd turned their back on God in order to play the devil's music and had put their immortal souls at risk. The Gnawa artists who moved toward success in the marketplace are suffering from the same feeling.

Gnawa trance music is fascinating, as are the men and women who make it. Because it is not aimed at us, this book, while being informative and valuable, does not offer a fun read to casual music fans.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

12 April 2008

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