Another essential item from the Axiom Records catalog of world music recordings, courtesy of the production efforts of Bill Laswell and his associate Richard Horowitz, is the mindblowing and otherworldly 1990 album Night Spirit Masters, credited to Gnawa Music of Marrakesh.
The producers and engineers traveled to Morocco and, according to the liners, made the recording in the "Medina of Marrakesh," the historic and cultural core of that ancient city with its component parts dating back to the 11th Century and which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Using a 12-track digital recorder, handled by Billy Youdelman, whose engineering credits date to Bob Dylan's 1978 Street Legal album, as well as recordings for Little Feat, the Eagles, Dionne Warwick, Leonard Cohen, Warren Zevon, and several of Laswell's projects, including the Herbie Hancock record, Future Shock, and others, the team recorded musicians in the public setting. Youdelman does a truly impressive job of recording and the mixing and mastering are also essential in creating a beautiful sound from beautiful music.
Interestingly, some observers have viewed Night Spirit Masters as a Westernized version of Gnawa, as if some elements of the fusion of the sound was somehow illegitimate. Yet, the very nature of Gnawa music is fusionist--it came from black slaves from Mali taking their native sounds and then mixing them with the Arabic and Islamic elements found in Morocco.
Instruments include the sintir (a three-stringed lute functioning as a bass), the darbuka or goblet drum, other percussion instruments, as well as hand claps and chanted and sung vocals comprise a music that is repetitive, highly rhythmic and percussive, and often building in tempo and intensity as a form of religious ritual involving dance as well as music to induce a trance state of ecstacy.
The tightness of these musicians, true masters of their form, and the excellent recording quality make this album, whether overly "Westernized" or not, really enjoyable, captivating and hypnotic. The first two pieces includes the sintir, drumming and vocals, with the second, "Mimoun Mamrba" featuring that gradual increase in tempo that is a hallmark of the sound. "Tramin" is a three-minute piece of trio drumming that shows an interesting polyrhythmic approach.
Track four, however, is the highlight of the album and this listener well remembers the powerful effect "Chabako" had way back in 1990 or thereabouts when this six-minute masterpiece evoked a frenzied response from its moderate sintir opening, augmented by hand cymbals, the oud (another stringed lute, but of higher pitches than the sintir), the call-and-response vocals which built slowly and surely from a medium tempo to faster and faster levels until you all but had to jump up and find some way to keep up with the transformation. It is easy to understand why Gnawa music is trance-inducing from this piece alone.
Another like-minded tour de force is "Baniya," another six-minute transportive exercise in ecstasy with the larger ensemble like that found in "Chabako" and with a catchier melody than the former. The two sintir and quartet volcals of "Jillala" is another excellent song with a duet drum piece following. Then comes another breathtaking large group work called "Hamouda" that closes the album in much the same way, as "Chabako" and "Baniya" had.
In all, this is a nice selection of pieces with varied personnel, instrumentation, and tempi. To an ignorant Westerner, this is a great experience in hearing music from a part of the world that has so much interface between societies in terms of trade, warfare, food, and music, whether it is considered "authentic" or not. Paul Bowles, an American composer and write who lived for over 50 years in Tangier and authored the famed novel, The Sheltering Sky, provides brief notes about the people and the music that proved helpful to the novice who bought this album twenty plus years back.
Bill Laswell and cohorts (including Chris Blackwell and Island Records, who funded the Axiom catalog) are to be recognized once again for introducing music that broadens the horizons and expands the ear beyond what is exposed to in all-Western forms.