Washington DC - Last year I wrote about well known Moroccan musician, tradition bearer, and ambassador of peace, Rachid Halihal. Recently, I became acquainted with another musical ambassador of peace from Morocco, an up and coming young Gnawa musician named Samir LanGus.
Washington DC – Last year I wrote about well known Moroccan musician, tradition bearer, and ambassador of peace, Rachid Halihal. Recently, I became acquainted with another musical ambassador of peace from Morocco, an up and coming young Gnawa musician named Samir LanGus.
Samir is based in New York. He played at the International Festival in northern Virginia in October and recently sat down with me and told me about his musical journey from Morocco to the U.S.
Samir hails from Agadir, Morocco. In 2010, he won the lottery to come to the United States. Now, at only 25 years old, he has been inspired by many musicians, including Gnawa masters such as Hamid el Kasri and Hassan Ben Jaafer.
The music of the Gnawa, a Sufi religious order in Morocco, is ritual trance music of Morocco’s black communities, originally descended from slaves and soldiers once brought to Morocco from Northern Mali and Mauritania. The music is believed to heal people possessed by jinn, or spirits. What most Americans do not know is that Gnawa music is the genesis of both American jazz and blues, and many American and British artists, including Randy Weston, Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Brian Jones, and Jimmy Page, have embraced it for decades.
But “Gnawa is not just the music,” says Samir. “It’s the culture. You can’t play just the sintir, you also need the castanets [qarqakeb] to have the Gnawa spirit.” He describes the sintir, a stringed percussion instrument made of wood and camel skin with goat gut strings, as a “powerful instrument” with an amazing sound. “You feel it in your heart,” he says.
Samir says there is big audience for Gnawa music in New York. New Yorker magazine documented the rise of Gnawa music in the U.S. last year.
Recently the band LanGus founded, Innov Gnawa, was listed as one of the top ten bands in Brooklyn, NY.
While emulating the pure Gnawa masters, Samir also takes inspiration from fusion such as that played by Jil Jilala, “the first band to do it.” He would like to improvise with Berber, Indian, Saharan, and even Flamenco music. He says he tries to play a mix that keeps the Gnawa tradition. He recently released his first fusion album called “Mimouna.” It is a mix of traditional songs and fusion with Jewish Moroccan music, including songs about Sidi Moussa (Moses).
Samir wants to “take Gnawa music to the next level and bring it the respect it deserves.” Gnawa music is “the mother, the real thing, the foundation,” he says. “When you hear it, you fall in love with it.” What makes his music exciting is a fusion of a centuries old North African tradition with the pulse and attitude of New York City.
I asked Samir about his name, LanGus. He said that LanGus comes from the word “lobster” in French (langouste). He said that most Gnawa musicians have a name related to a fish. He explained that this naming tradition reflects their love of the sea and of nature. He chose LanGus because it represents his position in society and his culture. He said choosing a fancy name would have been like wearing a djellaba with fancy shoes: “they don’t go together.”
Although he himself is modest, Samir dreams big. He dreams of having a significant Gnawa festival in the U.S., both to showcase bands that are already in the U.S. — Gnawa as well as jazz, rock, and blues bands — and to bring over musicians from Morocco for a giant collaboration that would draw on traditional music from the older generations and bring in new elements from the younger generation.
In the meantime, he believes in giving newer, up and coming musicians a helping hand, bringing them in, and encouraging them to play. “Being a successful musician is not just being good on stage. You need to be good with helping people too — helping someone who wants to learn or to know about the culture.” Quoting from Mahatma Ghandi, he says, “If you face violence with violence, you get violence.” He wants to teach people about his culture. “Gnawa means Morocco; Gnawa means Africa.”
Samir returns to Washington D.C. this weekend to play a free concert at the Kennedy Centre at 6pm on Sunday, February 20, 2015. There will be an after-party performance at Bossa in Adams Morgan. More information is available at https://www.facebook.com/events/389686881155737/.
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