Great music is the art and science of causing change

There is a craving for the post-COVID normal to mimic the pre-COVID normal. That craving for the return to familiar and secure comfort zones is understandable but must be treated with caution. Because we must beware of the porous boundary between societal expediency and personal identity being crossed. Controls on movement and contact tracking technologies may be valid as tactical expedients. But comfort zones are about control, and the terrible pandemic has opened many opportunities for personal freedom and privacy to be eroded by centralised controls in the long term. It is striking that that none of the rabid anti-Brexiteers who constantly bleat about curbs on freedom of movement post-Brexit have voiced concerns about the UK government's contact tracing - i.e. movement tracking - app. which holds personal data centrally. Have they conveniently forgotten Cambridge Analytica?

Comfort zones are the enemy of creativity and progress, and any 'normal', whether old or new, is defined by comfort zones. Great art music is about magical change: at the micro level change to personal consciousness and at the macro level change to society. As Aleister Crowley told us 'Magick is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will'. But under lockdown the art music outpourings on Zoom are, to quote Carl Nielsen, 'constantly going around in deedless admiration for the conventional'. Nielsen also implored 'give us something else, give us something new, indeed for Heaven's sake give us rather the bad, and let us feel that we are still alive'. In that spirit - in more ways than one - here is my account of venturing well beyond my comfort zone to experience music as the art and fuzzy science of causing change.

Silky darkness of the Maghreb night is the forge, and the Gnawa are blacksmiths turned alchemists. As the bass notes of the guembri penetrate the subconscious, they reverberate in the nervous system and induce a trance. Seven colours represent the saints in the Gnawa pantheon, and that white blur above is the cloth covering an ecstatic trancer at a Gnawa lila. White is the colour of the spirit company of Mulay Abdelkader Jilali, and during his veneration white benjoin incense burns. A Gnawa lila is a ritual of possession during which trancers, like the one above, fall into a trance and assume the identity of spirits from the pantheon.

Gnawa music has become yet another commercial property, and concerts by Gnawa musicians are now commonplace. But my photos, which were grabbed discretely in impossibly low light with no flash, were not taken at a concert. Due to my work with mystical traditions - I broadcast the Gnawa spirit ritual of the Sons of the Forest in 2008 - I was invited to the real thing, an all-night Gnawa lila. This was held in the 18th century Zawiya Sidna Bilal in Essaouira, Morocco, which is the only Gnawa zawiya (lodge) in Morocco. The Gnawa, who practice a form of folk Islam, migrated from black sub-Saharan Africa. They claim descent from Bilal ibn Rabah who was the only black companion of the Prophet, and inhabit a parallel spiritual universe, as the ethnologist Bertrand Hell explains:

The Gnawa call themselves the people of the khla, the hidden part of creation where the genies reign. They are in fact and in essence marginals playing the game of the strange stranger (in the double sense that is contained in the Arabic term gharib). Gatekeepers of a counter world, the Gnawa move in the night and on the limits of the licit. Marked by a fundamental ambiguity, they are transgressors who can handle blood with impunity and can control the most dangerous of forces. Embodying a “troubling strangeness,” these descendants of black slaves see themselves as invested with the most powerful supernatural powers
Canadian composer and sound ecologist R. Murray Schafer declared that art should be dangerous, and a Gnawa lila is one of the more dangerous art forms. The cavorting of the ecstatic trancers made moshing look tame, and the Gnawa equivalent of paramedics were on hand to cart their inert forms away and revive them. And there's no chance of faking it, because the trancers are administered a pinch of tobacco - if they really are trancing and in another world they don't sneeze, if they sneeze they are faking it.

Some of the lila was deemed too dangerous for me. The ritual is preceded by a torchlit procession through the town's narrow alleys - see photo below. My host entertained me away from the zawiya until I had seen the procession pass,and I was puzzled as to why we kept talking for thirty minutes instead of following the procession to the start of the lila. It was only later I discovered that immediately before the lila, these "transgressors who can handle blood with impunity" offer a sacrifice in the courtyard of the zawiya to propitiate the spirits. By tradition it should have been a black bull, but I suspect a smaller creature was despatched before I arrived. Later in the night as the lila reached the black segment which invokes the malignant spirits of the sons of the forest, some of the trancers started to wield ugly looking knives. At that point my host suggested that as it was very late it was probably time for me to leave...

Synaesthesia is the multi-sensory experience caused by crosstalk between the hearing, seeing and smelling sensory channels, and a Gnawa lila with its trance inducing rhythms, colours and scents - an incense brazier can be seen in the background in two photos - is the ultimate synaesthetic experience. There is much that Western classical music can learn from the Gnawa; because a lila is a multi-sensory healing ceremony, and similarly a classical concert should be a healing ceremony that placates the spirit. New technology means that we live in a multi-sensory environment, yet despite the visionary work of Scriabin and others classical music remains a strictly mono-sensory experience. William Goldman, the Hollywood script writer, explained that the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment either tells us lies or tells us comforting truisms that we know already, while art tells us uncomfortable truths we probably don't want to hear. By that definition too much classical music today is entertainment, but by the same definition a Gnawa lila is most definitely art. And if anyone still doubts the relevance of a synaesthetic ritual to Western classical music they should look closely at my blurred photos - the audience for the lila is strikingly young.

Sources include:
The Gnawa and Mohammed Tabal by Abdelkader Mana
Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace by Deborah Kapchan.
Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion and Trancing by Judith Becker

Thanks go again to Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb for his time and wisdom. Article based on 2016 post. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). >


Pliable said…
Memo to Philip Amos: apologies Philip, although this post touches on synaesthesia it is not the one promised in my last post. The pre-announced post is still in preparation and will follow shortly.
Philip Amos said…
Thank you, Bob. I am happy to wait keenly but patiently.
Graeme said…
Have you heard of this?

Sorry that it doesn't relate directly to your post but it is all about what do we hear when we listen to a performance or recording

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