An Interview with Hassan Hakmoun
This interview with Hassan Hakmoun was conducted by Bouna Ndiaye of WNCU-FM, 90.7 FM in Raleigh, North Carolina:
WNCU: Hassan Hakmoun, you arrived in the U.S. in 1987 and began working with a trio and a dance troupe. Since that time, who are some of the artists you’ve worked with?
HH: Well, since I came here I have worked with Adam Rudolph, Don Cherry, Richard Horowitz, Peter Gabriel and Paula Cole. I’ve also performed and recorded with Rick Riviera, Jamshied Sharifi, and several other musicians.
WNCU : That must have been quite a change from the traditional Gnawa music you originally played in Morocco. The Gnawa form is one of the few powerful religious confraternities in Morocco. What exactly is the origin of that group?
HH : Well, the origin of Gnawa music originally comes from West Africa. Over 500 years ago, slavery brought people from West Africa to North Africa, which was then Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and other countries nearby. When they came, they brought their music with them which was called Gnawa. Since these different groups all played the same type of music, they call themselves the Gnawa people.
WNCU : I know that Gnawa music originally played a practical role in the lives of people in Morocco. How exactly does it work?
HH : Well, it’s very, very powerful spiritual music and primarily it is used for healing. The Gnawa carry out ceremonies in order to heal people who are very sick. Rituals are also performed on people who need to relieve stress or if they feel physically unwell. Gnawa trance music is performed all night long in order to carry out the healing and purification.
WNCU : Is Gnawa healing music something that is solely inherited, or can it also be learned?
HH : Naturally, of course, it is inherited, but the ceremonies can also be learned. In order to master Gnawa music though, you really need to grow up within a Gnawa family. You’ve simply got to live with your own people because that’s your school of learning. It’s kept in the family, but other people from outside can also learn.
WNCU : You mentioned earlier that the origin of the Gnawa is originally from West Africa…
HH : Yes.
WNCU: So we can suspect that there is a direct connection to to black people.
HH : Exactly
WNCU : And that slavery brought it to Morocco, is that true?
HH : That’s right. Our culture has early connections to the people of Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania and also Kenya and Ghana. In the history of Morocco, when the Arabs originally came to Africa, Senegal and other West Afrcian countries were all part of a large territory known as Morocco.
WNCU : Of course.
HH : That’s the time when they carried out their conquests, you know. Because greater Morocco used to include what is now Algeria, Tunisia, and other countries including Mali, Gambia and Senegal. They took over all these countries, and began to spread Islam, and that’s how slavery was brought also to North Africa from their own tribes, to work there and to do whatever it took to build their empires. You know the stories. When the slaves arrived they brought their music with them. The music turned out to be one of the most powerful things that kept them together as a people. Especially at night, they would pray and pray to God. There’s a lot of Sufism in Gnawa music. It’s not just a spiritual thing, it’s also our religion, you know. We sing and invoke God and many other prophets.
WNCU : That was going to be my next question because I was interested in knowing the relationship between Gnawa music and Sufism.
HH : Yeah. There’s a lot of Sufi influence in our music. Look how far Turkey is from Africa, but if you compare Turkish and Gnawa music you’ll hear strong similarities. Yesterday I met a Turkish Sufi here and I listened to some of his lyrics. For your readers to understand, we’ll refer to them as “lyrics” but actually they are prayers to God. Anyway, these Turkish lyrics I heard yesterday are very similar to some Gnawa prayers I know. It was very interesting for me to make this trip and have such good experiences.
WNCU : Incredibly, we still have a problem with slavery in a different form today in countries like Mauritania. Recently we had a problem in Mauritania where some people were believed to be the “owners” of another group which was supposedly a black group. Do you believe that Gnawa prayer music can help to do something against slavery going on in Mauritania or, let’s say, in other parts of Africa along the Nile?
HH : Well, the only thing I can tell you is that prayer is a strong tool. It can be more powerful than weapons. One thing that I see and understand, that I have learned from living in the States and also back in Africa: people around the world, including Africa, will always try to control other people. Poor people often think that they have no choice, that they must worship those that feed them and give them jobs. But this is wrong. I think the poor need to believe in themselves and move on with themselves, rather than just stick with something they’re not really comfortable with.
WNCU : That’s an interesting observation. Thank you so much for your time, Hassan. We look forward to following your career and seeing your future performances.
HH : Thank you. I just want to tell all the readers to continue supporting independent world music. Just keep listening.
You can read about “The Fire Within,” Hassan’s CD of traditional Gnawa music by clicking here.