Hassan Hakmoun
Hassan Hakmoun Hassan Hakmoun presents The Gift on Triloka Records

Moroccan Gnawa Master Musician Uproots the Past, Fuses with the Future

North Africa has long been a crossroads. The Gnawa people of Morocco descend from slaves from West Africa, but they claim spiritual descent from Bilal al-Habashi, an Ethiopian who was the Prophet Mohammed's first muezzin (caller to prayer). Gnawa music’s integration of African rhythms and sensibility has been compared to the Blues and Santeria. But the Arabic context produced a unique sound. Not until Hassan Hakmoun’s upcoming CD, The Gift, on Triloka Records (May 7, 2002) has the Arabic milieu of Gnawa been musically brought to the fore.

Hassan Hakmoun has street smarts. By age four, he performed alongside snake charmers and fire-breathers on Marrakech streets. His mother is known throughout the city as a mystic healer. Her derdeba trance ceremonies are all-night affairs where hypnotic playing and chanting exorcise evil spirits. This musical form, steeped in Islamic mysticism and West African rhythms, lifts the spirit and heals the wounded with songs of praise. Out of these origins came an emissary infused with Gnawa music as well as rock and funk.

The night before, he had met composer Richard Horowitz, who came to his aid with a place to stay and a gig at a Moroccan restaurant on Bleecker Street. That night established the seeds of many years to come. The unknowing diners were soon ecstatically dancing instead of eating. A New York Times writer was dining there and began the buzz that led Hakmoun to the US stage as a premier world musician on par with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (they were the first signed to Peter Gabriel’s Real World label). As fans lined up to praise Hakmoun, he disappeared again, this time with a waitress whose marriage soon became his legal passage to this land of dreams.

Hakmoun has resided in the US ever since. The pentatonic scale and driving rhythms of the sintir, a three-stringed long-necked African bass lute, are instantly appealing to many Western ears, and Hakmoun, has succeeded in presenting this music outside of Morocco to widespread critical acclaim. He was the only world musician invited to play Woodstock ’94, and has performed on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and on the WOMAD ’94 tour. Hakmoun became a regular fixture in New York’s rock, jazz, and fusion scenes, and earned his following for spanning multiple genres with his spiritually charged voice and playing.

The Gift teams Hakmoun with American-born producer Fabian Alsultany. The two have tackled the landmark task of bridging Gnawa with Arabic music while maintaining a forward-looking sound. Alsultany recruited over a hundred musicians to fill out the sound with strings as is common in popular Arabic music. The CD breaks new ground with a widely popular Arabic song, "Layla Layla" (without which no Arabic wedding is complete), which is unheard of from a Gnawa musician. Hakmoun carries the healing tradition to a wider audience with the life affirming single, "This Gift," a remarkable and timely duet with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Paula Cole, with whom he fell in love while recording this song. The two now have a four-month old baby.

The new Triloka release and a 2002 late summer/fall tour return Hassan Hakmoun to the world’s eyes and ears. Drawing deeply on an intensely spiritual and ancient tradition, listeners will move their bodies and souls to the sounds of The Gift.