Monday, January 15, 2007
In the highlight of the Hassan Hakmoun show at Symphony Space on Saturday night, the Moroccan-born Hakmoun brothers had a gnawa dance-off. AbderRahim Hakmoun, dressed in an orange tunic and a bejeweled, fezlike hat, spun its tassel like a helicopter propeller, smacking his bare feet on the stage in a complex pattern. Hassan Hakmoun, playing a sintir (a three-stringed, wood and camel-skin lute), matched his younger brother’s furious rhythm, whipping around his long, reddish dreadlocks.
“This is a traditional African foot stomp,” Hassan Hakmoun said, describing it as the root of American tap dance. As the duo got low to the ground and shook their hips and shoulders, their moves suggested a clear line to more modern styles, too, from stepping to krumping. The dance was mesmerizing, but it was also apparently painful.
“Next song,” Hassan Hakmoun said, “we’re going to wear shoes because living here in America for so long, we don’t have African feet anymore.” He laughed. “And medical care is too expensive.”
His music, gnawa trance, is hypnotic devotional music with African and Sufi Muslim influences. Brought to the region by West African slaves and traders, it’s heavily rhythmic, built around drums, qaraqebs (metal castanets), hand claps and the sintir, which is both thumped and strummed.
Gnawa is designed to bring listeners into a mystical, trancelike state; songs often start with a slow, mournful vocal and sintir introduction, then gradually speed up until they are frantically, heart-poundingly fast. In derdeba ceremonies, gnawa music and dancing are often used to drive out evil spirits (when someone is sick or troubled) or to honor beneficial spirits (when someone is exceptionally well).
Gnawa groups play at Marrakesh’s Jamaa el F’Na, a large square where tourists flock for photo-ops with snake charmers and surly monkeys. That’s where Hassan Hakmoun, the son of a Berber healer, started playing as a boy. Now he is a m’allem (a master musician or band leader) and a New Yorker, well known in the West for his work with Peter Gabriel, Kronos Quartet and Pharoah Sanders.
On Saturday, Mr. Hakmoun had the charisma of a rock star, theatrically thrusting around his sintir and singing huskily with an ecstatic expression. He sang call-and-response with his qaraqeb-shaking brother, who earned cheers for his acrobatic leaps during “Moussaoui.”
The set included traditional derdeba songs, with stunningly complicated polyrhythms by the percussionists Brahim Fribgane and Ron McBee.
While introducing “Challaban,” Mr. Hakmoun said: “This is a very, very spiritual and peaceful song. You have to follow the drums. You have to be the drums.”
The crowd clapped along as instructed, but the results weren’t exactly rousing. Music this rapturous is better appreciated in a less formal setting, where people could try some (probably painfully awkward) trance-dancing and the band could feed off the energy. The show was simultaneously enthralling and academic.
Mr. Hakmoun ended it with “Maaboud Allah” and a sweaty dance of twirls and kicks. Then he dropped to his knees for a lengthy spotlight turn — like the Eddie Van Halen of the sintir.