Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Drag City Peers Into the Byways of Marrakech

Posted By on 11.18.09 at 01:03 PM

Last month Drag City Records released Ouled Bambara: Portraits of Gnawa, its second project on the sublabel Twos & Fews, run by Kentuckian Nathan Salsburg. Salsburg, who also plays music himself and maintains the swell blog Root Hog or Die—which includes a directory of free MP3s of traditional music of all stripes—has worked for the Alan Lomax Archive since 2000, and both Twos & Fews releases have a raw, folkloric spirit. Last year the label debuted with a collection of a cappella singing by Kentucky coal miner Nimrod Workman, and to celebrate its release the label hosted an informal gathering at Intuit Gallery, where it played Workman’s music, screened rare video footage, and served quasi-authentic hillbilly delicacies.

The label is giving Ouled Bambara the same treatment on Thursday night at Intuit. They’ll be screening the 35-minute documentary that comes with the new release, a project begun in 2005 by Caitlin McNally—a documentary producer who’s been involved with several Frontline programs and served as an associate producer of The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib—on a trip she took to Marrakech, Morocco, in hopes of getting a better sense of the Gnawa people and their beautifully hypnotic music.

The CD includes dynamic performances by a handful of veteran musicians she met during her travels, and while there’s no shortage of similar Gnawa field recordings available, McNally managed to coax some stunning performances out of artists like Brahim Balkani and Hassan Zougari. If you still haven’t heard Gnawan music, this certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to start. To my ears the very basic arrangements here—mostly just voice, intense hand percussion, and bass patterns scraped out on the guimbri—tap into the emotions at the heart of the music better than more elaborate productions.

The DVD gives Ouled Bambara an edge on most other Gnawa releases because it lets us see these spirit masters at work and provides some biographical background, usually just enough to hint at the different paths they’ve taken to Gnawa music—Belkani learned from his mother in Marrakech and suggests that he absorbed her knowledge in part because she breast-fed him, and Mohamed Hamada came to the music as a Malian immigrant.

Salsburg will be attend the free event, which starts at 6:30 PM. The label promises “Moroccan treats.”

Today’s playlist:

Jamie Saft, Black Shabbis (Tzadik)
João Donato, Donatural (Biscoito Fino)
Marty Ehrlich Rites Quartet, Things Have Got to Change (Clean Feed)
Christian Fennesz, Werner Dafeldecker, and Martin Brandlmayr, Till the Old World’s Blown Up and a New One Is Created (Mosz)
Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs (Matador)

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