Inspiration & Intention
Hamsa Lila is inspired by earthy trance grooves from a variety of cultures, including North and West Africa, the Americas, India and the Caribbean. Through Acoustic Trance, Hamsa Lila presents traditional and originally composed material set within a new creative ritual of celebration, while honoring the ancestors and the spirit of indigenous music.
Blending the rootsy sound of the bass-like camel-skinned Guimbri from Jajouka, these two instruments from Morocco create resonant grooves that spiral around West African drums, while ethereal Flutes, Worldwinds and the impassioned soul waking sounds of the Saxophone weave through powerful male and female vocal chants and lush harmonies. The songs contain mesmerizing and trance inducing rhythms and melodies, producing an atmosphere of Euphoria.
A feast for the senses blending colors, incense, costuming and imagery (slides, video & shadow) along with belly dance, African dance, Capoiera artists, fire dancers and contact improv.
The Meaning of Hamsa Lila
hamsa – an ancient amulet shared by both Arabic and Hebrew traditions representing the hand and the number 5, used for greeting & magical protection of the 5 senses. Hamsa in Sanskrit means swan and refers to Divine Breath.
lila – A night ritual of Gnawa people of Morocco. The Lila is a rich ceremony that follows a path through the night whose road is marked in the sensory realms of sound (music, song), sight (colors), smells (incense) and movement (dance). This musical ritual enables participants to enter a trance state of healing purification in which they may perform startling and spectacular dances. Lila in Sanskrit is the Cosmic Play.
History of the Gnawa and the Lila Ceremony
There is a domain where Gnawa music is very serious indeed. In all-night ceremonies, known as derdeba or lila, Gnawa musicians and officiants perform for the pleasure of beneficial spirits and for the propitiation of malicious ones, in order to secure peace of mind and cure the diseases of their devotees. The ritual is structured around a series of dance suites dedicated to seven families of saints and spirits, each characterized by specific colors, odors, flavors, feelings, actions, and sounds. In short, this is quite literally (or spiritually) a different world, marked by transformations of all the senses.
The Gnawa have their roots in communities of Sub-Saharan Africans, mostly from the region of the old Mali empire, who were brought to Morocco as slaves and mercenaries, starting in the 16th century. (Similar communities, with similar practices, exist in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya as well.) Their background is reflected in their belief system, which draws on both Islam and traditional Sub-Saharan religions. Many of the spirits in the Gnawi pantheon have close analogues in West Africa, and others bear the names of tribes in the Sahel, such as Bambara, Fulani, and so forth. At the same time, members of the group consider themselves to be good Muslims and they behave accordingly, praying, fasting, and carrying out other religious duties. The musicians sing primarily in Arabic, and their songs constantly invoke the name and epithets of Allah; furthermore, at least two of the families include Muslim saints, like Moulay Abdel Qader Jilali and Moulay Brahim, who are well known in Morocco and the rest of the Islamic world; finally, several other sections of the derdeba –even those dedicated to Sudanic spirits–begin with hymns of praise to the Prophet Mohamed. In short, the Gnawa are nothing if not practical and ecumenical. The duality–or multiplicity–of their beliefs is resolved in the character of their patron saint, Bilal, the freed Ethiopian slave who became the Prophet’s first muezzin (caller to prayer).
A lila (lit., night) generally lasts from sunset until dawn, and in some cases a full derdeba may stretch over several nights. The length depends in part on the mood of the participants, the number of spirits who must be propitiated, the seriousness of each case, and the resources of the sponsors. Some sections may get little more than a perfunctory run-through, but all seven families of spirits must be acknowledged in the music. Drums (tbel, pl. tbola) figure in the lila just as they do in public performances, but their ceremonial role is relatively limited. The barbell-shaped castanets (qaraqeb), on the other hand, are as indispensable for trance-dancing as they are for entertainment music. The principal instrument, however, is a three-stringed lute known by a variety of names (guimbri, sintir, hajhouj). The guimbri has a semi-spiked construction, with a skin-covered body, sliding leather tuning rings, and a sistrum-like sound-modifier at the end of the neck. The morphology and the playing technique of the guimbri have obvious connections to West African instruments like the khalam and kontingo, as well as to the American banjo. Indeed, there are many parallels between the Gnawa and African-American music: the responsorial singing and the interlocking clapping patterns have the spiritual attraction and propulsive drive of good gospel singing, while the pentatonic riffs and deep percussive sound of the guimbri remind some listeners of a bass laying down the harmonic and rhythmic foundation in a jazz or rock group.
Until recently, the Gnawa were not well represented on record, although short excerpts of their performances have appeared on many touristic anthologies of Moroccan music, often recorded at the Marrakech Festival of Folklore or captured on the run on Jamaa el Fna. This situation has improved in the past few years, with the appearance of nearly 20 CDs featuring the Gnawa–and several more on the way. These releases include ethnographic recordings (or CDs presenting themselves as such); collaborations with well-known jazz and popular musicians such as Randy Weston, Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, and Led Zeppelin; and fusion experiments organized by a variety of Moroccan artists. In addition, there are many recordings, including complete performances of the derdeba, in archives and private collections around the world. In both scholarly and musical terms, however, none of the commercial recordings released thus far (and few, if any, of the archival recordings) provide the intellectual interest or listening pleasure of Gnawa Leila, the five-volume set produced by Antonio Baldassarre. Volume I, G
nawa Songs and Music from Morocco, includes examples of music performed before the actual ceremony begins, as a warm-up for both musicians and spectators. This disk is really separate from the rest of the series, both in terms of the structure of the ritual and, more important, the circumstances of its recording. These examples were collected three years before the rest of the “lila,” in two separate places–Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco, and Tamsloht, a village near Marrakech that is the site of one of the Gnawa’s most important annual pilgrimages. Sala’ Nabi’na Volumes II-V were all recorded in a single evening in Casablanca, although Baldassarre does not specify whether the occasion was a lila he happened to attend or a session specially arranged for recording. Volume II begins with drumming, known as l-A`ada, which is used to announce the beginning of the ceremony. Here Baldassarre presents an extended opening section in relatively slow, stately tempo, and then, with a quick fade, jumps to the rapid final phase of drumming. l-A`ada leads into the derdeba proper, which begins with the White Suite, in honor of the family of the Prophet. l-A`ada Volume III covers the Blue suites, dedicated principally to Sidi Mousa, the Lord of the Sea (dark blue), and Sidi Sma, the Lord of the Sky (light blue). To the untutored listener, this volume and the two that follow present more (or less) of the same– guimbri, qaraqeb, solo voice, and chorus. And yet each has its own interest. For example, the last two selections on this volume (Sidi Sma and Allah Bou Yandi Samaoui) are among the most compelling on the entire series, with a soaring chorus beautifully balanced with the guimbri and solo voice. Volume IV includes both the Red and the Green suites which represent (ostensibly) different aspects of the Gnawa belief system. After invocations to the Prophet, the musicians sing for Sidi Hammou, who presides over the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, and Baba Hammouda, the butcher who actually performs the slaughter. (Hammouda’s signature song, Band 5, was adapted in the early seventies by the folk-pop group, Nass el-Ghiwane.) Because of the connections to Muslim sacrifice, Baldassarre associates this group with both the Middle East and with surgical healing; some Gnawa in Marrakech, on the other hand, regarded the Red spirits as rather wild and fearsome. The Green Suite, in contrast, is dedicated to the Shorfa (sing., Sherif), the noble family of the Prophet Mohammed. Although the various saints and spirits can be clearly distinguished by their associated melodies and texts, the music for the different families is quite similar in its general stylistic features. Finally, Volume V moves further to the spirit side of the Gnawa, with the Black and Yellow Suites. The Black Suite honors the ancestral spirits of the forest, both male and female. The Yellow Suite–which might actually be termed polychrome, since it includes lavender, pink and other pastel colors–is devoted entirely to female spirits, whose personalities range from coquettish to terrifying. The set concludes with a song in praise of Aisha Qandisha, a goat-footed spirit who is revered, and feared, all over Morocco. Indeed, this last section provides final proof that the Gnawa should not be called a “confraternity” or “brotherhood,” as many scholars, including Baldassarre, persist in identifying them. While it is true that women rarely, if ever, play instruments in Gnawa ceremonies, a large percentage (perhaps even a majority) of the devotees are women, female spirits figure prominently in the pantheon, and, most important, many of the most respected officiants (mqaddem or mqaddema) are women.