Sahara rock stirs up sandstorm


Cool kids like rock music. If they carry their enthusiasm into adulthood, they’ll discover the best rock bands have blues roots. Some will link American blues with its African – usually Malian – ancestry, such as Ali Farka Touré, or desert rockers Tinariwen and Tamikrest.

How did the Sahara give birth to such luscious creativity?

Moroccan instrumentalist Majid Bekkas would argue that the answer lies in a hypnotic trance. His latest album, Al Qantara, explores gnawa music, a pre-Islamic African way of healing and driving out evil through low-toned, strangely evocative rhythms. His guembri – a three-stringed lute – gives a glimpse of Saharan music before the desert rockers plugged in their electric guitars, a time when life was as harsh as the landscape.

None of the gnawa power has been lost in time. The rhythms are dizzying, and the percussion is frantic and unforgiving. A bridge to the West is made by Belgian flautist Manuel Hermia, whose raw breaths seem to whip up the energy of the album into a sandstorm.

Moroccan Khalid Kouhen plays tabla drums on some tracks, extending gnawa’s reach to India. There is something sacred here, and we should be grateful to Majid Bekkas for introducing gnawa to the world. 

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Clyde Macfarlane
Music and travel writer @GuardianTravel, @SonglinesMag, @MailandGuardian and @TheQuietus. New poetry book out: Across New Zealand in 140 Hitches Clyde Macfarlane has over 342 followers on Twitter.

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