Interview: Simo Lagnawi (November 2014)

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“I’m trying to bring gnawa music to this country. I’m trying to let people know what this music is all about.”

Few musicians have dedicated their life and career to one musical style as Simo Lagnawi is doing with gnawa, the traditional Moroccan music that was originally carried to North Africa by the black slaves of sub-Saharan Africa. Traditionally gnawa is a ceremonial music used to evoke saints and spirits using special colours and incense associated with different phases of the process. The music induces a state of healing trance in those who participate in the ceremonies. The words Simo used to start off our interview few days ago left us without any shadow of a doubt that he is a true devotee of gnawa music.

If you are based in the UK and you’ve listened to gnawa music the chances are that you’ll have come into contact with Simo or one of his songs. You will most likely have chanced upon his relentless rhythm, hypnotizing vocals, colourful costumes and expressive guembri (the three-stringed camel-skinned bass plucked lute, typical of the gnawa musicians), and if you’ve attended any of his shows you will also have been amazed by his acrobatic dance moves and intense stage-presence. This is because Simo Lagnawi is fast becoming one of the most influential gnawa musicians not just on the British scene but arguably in the world too. When you talk with him about gnawa music he patiently but enthusiastically leads you into his world. He becomes a musical tourist guide introducing you to the Northern African style.

“I don’t know when everything started, but I can say that I was born with this music. Actually, we in Morocco are born with the rhythm. Everybody listens to that music. Everyone is exposed to it from childhood. In addition, my grandfather was a musician too. He played his guimbri and he taught me a bit when I was a child. But my family were also into Berber music, a Berber family”.

In 2008 Simo decided to move to London or, as he likes to specify “it was destiny that brought me to London”. In the British capital he found a world that was speaking another musical language. He therefore decided that to learn that language he also needed to teach his native one to people in the UK.

“Years ago, when I arrived in London nobody could understand what was going on when I was playing my music. People were wondering what I was doing, what kind of music I was playing. They had never seen my instruments or my dance moves before, but after a while they started to understand what gnawa was. They began to realise that I was playing true gnawa music and that I was doing four or five jobs at the same time; I was playing gimbri, I was playing krakebs (traditional large metal castanets), I was doing acrobatic dancing and I was also singing”.

Today he is still performing all those roles because he wants gnawa in its varied manifestations to act as a vehicle for communicating a specific message to his audience.

“The main thing I want to achieve through my music is to send a message to people. I reckon the best way to do it is to be a singer, a musician and a dancer at the same time to show all the aspects of gnawa together. You see now people are more receptive and open. They’ve probably been to Morocco to one the many music festivals, like the gnawa festival in Essaouira, and so they come into contact with gnawa. But once back in the UK they forget about it. They forget its name and its rituals. So I started to make gnawa popular so that people can finally know what this music is about and understand the meanings behind it”.

As well as gnawa music, Simo Lagnawi is also a mouthpiece for his native country, Morocco. In the same passionate way that he illustrates his music he converses enthusiastically about his birthplace.

“Morocco is a meeting point for many different cultures. It has the flavours of the East, West, North and South. That’s why we have so many different music styles there. We are the result of many cultural influences. We play chaabi [the most popular folk style] and other popular music like rai, which come from the East.
Then we play Berber music and gnawa, which are from West Africa and areas to the South of Morocco. Finally there are also all the influences from Andalusia and the North. In Morocco, the rhythm changes every fifty kilometres!”

Simo’s style, despite being focussed on traditional gnawa, can’t help mirroring this wide range of musical flavours.

“I define my music as gnawa, but I also try to bring in elements from outside that are not related to gnawa. I’m not trying to change anything that the masters did in the past. I’m not trying to change tradition, but I do try to give a new vibe to people to allow them to get closer to the vibe of gnawa music. So I have mixed gnawa with the psychedelic rock of the English music scene. Then, to broaden my scope I’ve also worked with musicians from the Gambia and Burkina Faso as well as collaborating with Koichi Sakai, a Japanese producer. He came to record a song with me and added his musical experience to my work”.

Simo considers this approach the only way to let gnawa music grow.

“I reckon that if gnawa music becomes fossilized, too bound to the traditional style, it won’t develop. I’ve always found it more useful to go and play with different musicians from different countries and mix my style with theirs. Today people have finally started to realise that in Morocco we also play a style of music that is linked to the rest of Africa, where before they thought that Moroccan music was about the Arabic tradition only, that we were just playing the darbouka and doing belly dancing. But there is a lot more there! As I said, we have a lot of flavours coming from other parts of the world. An example is the style of acrobatic dancing I do, which you can see danced in a similar way in Guinea”.

Simo Lagnawi’s idea to let the UK know about gnawa music is still work in progress. That is why some months ago he started a broad-based project, the School of Gnawa. The school is a means to teach gnawa music and Moroccan culture to Londoners, but also an opportunity to receive and embrace external influences.

“Music is always a learning process. You never finish learning. When I came here six years and one month ago I couldn’t find anyone to play with. Nobody seemed to know this kind of music. I was playing alone, busking around London and giving my business card out to people. Then I decided to start the School of Gnawa project so that people could come and learn what gnawa was and how to play it and eventually play with me. I like to pick some of the best students and invite them to help me out on stage”.

So, if you are interested in gnawa music or Moroccan music and culture in general you are well-advised to have a listen to Simo Lagnawi’s recordings. His first album ‘Gnawa London’ was released in 2013 by producer Griselda Sanderson on her label Waulk Records. This debut album was, in Simo’s words “strictly bound to tradition”. His follow-up ‘The Gnawa Berber’ has just been released on award-winning label Riverboat. It takes traditional gnawa and adds some of the flavours of Berber music as well as influences Simo has encountered since being in the UK.

“The Gnawa Berber is released by World Music Network [Riverboat’s parent company] and has already received good reviews in the Evening Standard and the Independent – and more reviews are coming! I was also invited by BBC Radio 3 to do a live session for World on 3 [broadcast on 7th November]. In few days on the 4th of December I’ll be playing on the Passing Clouds stage and that’ll be the official album launch”.

This year has been a good one for the exposure of Simo Lagnawi’s gnawa music with numerous festival appearances and prestigious dates such as Africa on the Square in Trafalgar Square and the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall to mention but two – but he never stands still! Despite the fact that he has only just nailed his second album his mind is already in motion for the next one…

“I’m already thinking about my album number three. I already have many ideas and I hope it will be ready for 2015”.

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