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Music – Hassan Hakmoun

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Hakmoun is one of the most notable figures in contemporary Moroccan music. Today he is working to create a new style of the Gnawa dance.

Hakmoun’s remarkable journey began in Marrakesh, Morocco, in 1963. Like many Moroccans, he comes from a family of mixed Berber and Arab ancestry. He also bears the heritage of the Gnawa, people brought to Morocco centuries ago as slaves from West and East Africa. The origins of Gnawa are complex and mysterious. The gimbri itself is a very large lute found throughout West Africa, but Gnawa lore also speaks of origins as far flung as Sudan and Ethiopia. Eventually, the Gnawa emerged as a distinctly Moroccan spiritual community that uses music, dance, and other arts as a means of healing. Hakmoun’s mother was a mystic healer known throughout Marrakesh for her derdeba trance ceremonies, often all-night affairs involving hypnotic playing and chanting to exorcise spirits. “My mother performed ceremonies,” recalls Hakmoun. People came to her because she read cards and palms. If somebody wasn’t well, she performed a ceremony: a healing ceremony.”

Hakmoun’s parents wanted him to go to school to get an education, but, from as far back as he can remember, he wanted to play music. “I started music at a really young age. I took it seriously at about age seven. All Gnawa people respect the gimbri, as if it were a holy instrument. I started learning to sing, dance, and to play drums. I made my first gimbri from an olive oil tin, and I practiced without anybody knowing. Then I bought one and started practicing on the roof of my house, because I didn’t want my family to know. By the age of 14, I had mastered the music. I knew it all,” he said.

Hakmoun’s family was enraged when they discovered young Hassan playing music on the street. Eventually, his mother recognized his talent and accepted his choice and he began to accompany her in ceremonies. His father had an emotional breakdown and was confined to a state hospital. Hakmoun went to work, putting together a four-piece group with a brother and some close friends, and touring all over Morocco, playing at ceremonies and earning money to bring back to their families.

When Hakmoun had put aside enough money to go the United States and perform with his Gnawa group in New York, he decided to live there. Hakmoun made his U.S. debut in 1987, at the Lincoln Centre in New York City with Etian and Blanca Lee’s Trio Gna & Nomadas dance group. He quickly became a regular attraction in New York’s rock, jazz, and fusion scenes, with a following who appreciated his spanning multiple genres with his spiritually charged voice and playing style. For both musical and commercial reasons, Hakmoun began to expand his musical range, adding American sounds to the Moroccan form. This led him to form the group Zahar, which means ‘luck’, whose music fused elements of rock and jazz with African styles, resulting in a completely new sound.
However, for Hakmoun, Zahar was just a phase. By 1996, when he released Life Around the World (Alula) he was back to a more acoustic format.
With The Gift (2002), he wanted to produce an album about the past, the present, and the future of Gnawa. He recorded the album in Marrakesh, New York, and Los Angeles. In it, The Gift was a thankful song about life’s blessings. Like Seven Seconds, The Gift is slow and reflective. Its rhythm and melody owe more than a little to the weighty ballads of Peter Gabriel and there is a yearning, rock angst in its refrain. Hakmoun’s idea was for pop listeners to discover African music and Gnawa tradition through The Gift.

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In 2003, The Gift received an INDIE award for “Best Contemporary World Music Recording” from the Association for Independent Music.
During the years, Hakmoun also composed and recorded for several films such as Rendezvous in Samarkand directed by Tim Bridwell, The Past and the Present of Djemma El Fna by Steve Montgomery, and the documentary Footsteps in Africa.

Today, Hakmoun continues to record and perform in major festivals and venues around the globe, as well as to give master workshops in universities. Most recently, Hakmoun started a project collaborating with percussive dancers to create a new style of the Gnawa dance.
Halima Ghazal

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