The Hal of Gnawa: James Holden, Floating Points, Vessel, and Biosphere in Morocco

Kat Leinhart trails James Holden, Floating Points, Vessel, and Biosphere as they head to Africa for a weeklong residency with legendary Gnawa masters Mahmoud Guinia and Mohamed Kouyou

Imane Barakat

In Moroccan Gnawa ritual, songs are more than sound. They animate as spirits, who rise up and possess the body of a listener, piloting them into trance. Western musicians have long mapped patterns of migration to Morocco in search of ways to elevate their own practice. In the ’60s and ’70s, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and jazz pianist Randy Weston, among others, initiated collaborations with the Gnawa.

And in late March of this year, 14 kilometers outside the southern city of Marrakech, James Holden, Floating Points, Vessel, and Biosphere coupled with legendary Gnawa masters Mahmoud Guinia and Mohamed Kouyou for a weeklong residency, set to culminate in two performances beamed live via Boiler Room’s inaugural broadcast from North Africa. No predecessor has ever come trailing so many wires.

Imane Barakat

The roots of Gnawa trace back to the 16th century, with West Africans brought to Morocco throughout the trans-Saharan slave trade. Among diasporic, ancestral communities, Gnawa took shape as an amalgam of African animism and mystical strands of Islam. In the lila, or ritual night, the music of the Gnawa opens a channel to the spirit realm, healing those afflicted by spirit possession and giving rise to experiences of hal, ecstasy. Guinia and Kouyou are acclaimed throughout Morocco for their tagnawit, authentic mastery of Gnawa’s musical repertoire and the complex cosmology surrounding it. Guinia himself was born into a family of renowned ma’âllems (masters) with Malian lineage.

The organizers invited the group for their respective approaches to sound, and because they would treat the material with respect.

None of the artists came into the residency, hosted by Dar Al Ma’mûn, with more than base familiarity with Gnawa. Holden had a few Guinia mp3s, and Floating Points had been schooled on the subject by NTS Radio captain Charlie Bones during a 15-hour drive across England. Organizers Will Martin, Camille Blake, and Abdeslam Alaoui invited the group for their respective approaches to sound (Holden’s interest in trance made him an obvious choice, Vessel’s industrial inclinations a “dark horse”), and because they would treat the material with respect. The last thing they wanted was to bring in a group of producers who would spend an hour sampling the Gnawa artists, only to turn out a collection of tech house tracks that would make any number of cringe-inducing “world fusion” initiatives seem reverential by comparison.

The central and obvious challenge lay in bringing their discursive sounds into shared space and time. Gnawa is built around the cyclical rhythmic patterns of the qraqab, heavy steel castanets that mimic the sound of slave chains, sinewy call-and-response vocals, and the pentatonic, bluesy melodies of the guinbri (a three-stringed bass lute). “He’s got this very basic, beautiful-sounding instrument, and I have this super complex-sounding waveform,” Floating Points pointed out. “They don’t get much further apart.”

Camille Blake

Though Guinia and Kouyou have long histories of collaboration with Western artists – Guinia recorded The Trance of Seven Colors with free jazz saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders in 1994, and has played with Carlos Santana and Daby Touré, among others; Kouyou has toured in the States and played with Wayne Shorter and New Orleans group Donald Harrison & Congo Nation – it quickly became apparent that Gnawa would yield little by way of form. “Do they do anything else?” Biosphere asked the translator when, by the fourth day of the residency, the qraqab’s ostinato was still plundering through his mercurial diffusions, and had long left Vessel’s early attempts at rhythmic pursuit on a drum machine asphyxiating in the dust.

“When you hear these guys play, they have everything,” Vessel said. “They have dynamics, they have groove, they have all of the energy. So it’s quite difficult to bring anything that they don’t already have... All I would have contributed if I had continued doing that was to constrain it.”

“It works,” Biosphere reflected later, “if you try not to control it.”

“It’s quite difficult to bring anything that they don’t already have.”


Deferentially, the electronic artists changed tactics. In makeshift, open-air studio sessions, during which musicians break often to smoke kif from long pipes in the shade, Guinia’s son, a philosophy major at university, taps the rhythm of the qraqab into Holden’s MIDI controller. Floating Points tests out overdubbing. But they were cautious of what Vessel neatly summed up as “taking the culture and stuffing it into ours.”

The field of cross-cultural creative exchange, of course, is littered with political and historical landmines. Instances of white, Western artists adopting non-Western expressive forms will almost inevitably stimulate knee-jerk critical speculation of, as Will wryly puts it, “musical thievery and cultural plundering.”

“I think you have to consider the context,” Vessel said. “We’ve come out here with maximum humility and respect for these artists. It’s not like we’ve got a kind of ethnic loop in Ableton and are taking it to a club.”

“I sort of started to think that considering it too much is actually worse than not considering it – that that’s the patronizing thing.”

James Holden

“We all considered whether it’s right or not,” offered Holden. “But then I sort of started to think that considering it too much is actually worse than not considering it – that that’s the patronizing thing. If I had an opportunity to go and play with someone else who’s in my iTunes who I love, I wouldn’t be thinking about that, I would just be thinking, ‘am I worthy of playing with them?’” At another point, Holden asked the others, “How long did you spend going, ‘I’m not really worthy of doing this’? Like, ‘I don’t know enough’?”

In any case, allusions to “fusion” were actively avoided. Camille likened the objective to the “collision music” of Bill Laswell: to stage an encounter and bear witness to “the sonic Other breaking down.”

Camille Blake

“It’s the only kind of music I’ve ever heard where I can’t understand the groove,” said Floating Points, PhD in neuroscience, composer/arranger/technician, baffled by the handclap patterns. After the Moroccan musicians leave each night, he, Vessel, and Holden cluster around a laptop on the floor, trying to pick the timing apart.

The rhythm has become, for them, somewhat of an obsession; it’s where the power is.

“It kind of feels like someone’s unscrewing the top of your head and clearing you out, and it’s very intense.”


“I want to understand how we do rhythm and how it works with us,” says Holden. We are standing outside a tailor in Marrakech’s old medina talking about magical pragmatism while someone tries to make Biosphere – tall, Nordic, proprietor of glacial ambiance – try on a djellaba. “I’m interested in trance music and how it combines with meaning and pre-learnt stuff and expectation and ritual to change how you feel. And this is the strongest – this strange swing, this odd timing that no one can quite put their finger on – I think that’s a big part of why it’s so…” he trailed off, exhaling smoke. “Yeah, something I’m taking home.”

Gnawa commands a different sort of attention. “The way we digest music is very disposable, and the way they approach it is as a thing of power,” Vessel said. “It kind of feels like someone’s unscrewing the top of your head and clearing you out, and it’s very intense.”

Camille Blake

These days, masters perform two versions of Gnawa – the sanctified version enacted in ritual, and the secular adaptation deployed in performance and collaboration. For the uninitiated, the transcendent dimension of Gnawa is experienced as sonic affect: an indefinable energy that takes up residence under the skin. But the Gnawa interpret this power as the expression of supernatural beings.

Throughout the week, a middle-aged Moroccan hotel employee has been stopping into sessions to dance. On Thursday, while Biosphere is working with Kouyou’s group, her body suddenly convulses, her eyes roll back, and she collapses.

The Gnawa repertoire corresponds to a pantheon of spirits that transgress and rise up in the body when their song is played. In a ritual setting, Ma’âllem Kouyou would address the spirit, helping the manager negotiate the terms of possession, but in this instance hotel employees quickly converge around her and hustle her out. “Hal,” Kouyou’s wife murmurs knowingly as Biosphere composedly tests his next track. Further muddling the shifting lines between secular and sanctified, cultural sharing and commodification, the camera crew is wondering aloud whether someone can get the hotel employee to do it again, this time on film.

Camille Blake

Before the Saturday broadcast goes live, Holden is slouched over in Doc Martens and harem pants patching leads, and Vessel is embroiled in a battle of wills with an outdated mixer. They’ve stepped up as ad-hoc sound guys, since the Moroccans originally slated for the job showed up late and keep pocketing Holden’s adapters and wandering off with them. Behind the glass doors of the resort’s lobby is a lush panoramic of the pool and cactus garden, set against the broad sweep of the Atlas. Kouyou fumigates his guinbri over a smoking brazier of ritual incense in solicitation of the spirits.

“Whether sonically it’s like mixing lime and milk is a different matter, but the fact that we’re happy to make music together is an edifying thing.”

Floating Points

After only five days of freeform collaboration, the works presented are still sketches, and drenching feedback has shut down the PA. But there are moments when all three sets stumble into something that works – when Kouyou’s voice or the round thrum of his guinbri rise up against Biosphere’s single tone, dropped like ink in water; when Holden, his synth propped up on a piece of driftwood, riffs deliriously around the galloping cadences of Guinia’s group.

Vessel, sandwiched between, conjures a swirling hive of eddied, hypnotic organs (think Terry Riley’s In C). He began rehearsing this approach, self-effacingly described as “wallpaper for them to play over,” after the Gnawa so resoundingly trounced his attempts at rhythmic contribution. But as he urges the searing tempo of the qraqab upwards and ululations arc through the tumult, it verges on ecstatic.

“It’s because we’re all playing together and are open to each other’s ideas that it actually worked,” Floating Points said. “Whether sonically it’s like mixing lime and milk is a different matter, but the fact that we’re happy to make music together is an edifying thing.”

Camille Blake

The artists disband back to Europe with hours of recorded material, sunburns, qraqab and Sufi reed flutes (the Moroccan music shop owner wouldn’t let the vintage Roland drum machines go to a bunch of foreigners, nor the out-of-print vinyl). Most intend to keep working with Gnawa in some way. Floating Points is considering releasing some of the recorded material, and Vessel says Gnawa will most likely influence his third album.

Through projects like this one, Gnawa travels. Tradition mutates and takes on new meaning; listening habits evolve. With audiences numbering in the tens of thousands, the Boiler Room broadcast conducts a secular, performance-oriented Gnawa style into sprawling new territories. (Because the Gnawa won’t necessarily benefit from paid gigs or record sales as a result of the exposure, they were paid for their participation in the residency.) Will and Camille are already planning new residencies, with the aim to eventually flip the format to host practitioners of traditional musics in Europe.

But masters will often say that as Gnawa diffuses further into global markets, the number of practitioners with true tagnawit is contracting. Over time, whole suites and individual spirits have phased out of practice, and repertoire is abbreviated for foreign ears. Gnawa is a groove, but it’s also a way of being in the world, and deep understanding doesn’t come in a week.

Some artists who enter into collaborations with Gnawa musicians do locate personal stakes in the tradition and, over time, approach a kind of embodied knowledge. Drawn by shared African ancestry, Randy Weston has been returning to work with Gnawa since the ’60s. Over decades of collaboration, he has claimed Sidi Musa as a kindred spirit, the patron saint of travel and of the cyclical rhythms of life, death, and rebirth.

“I’d like to be able to go away and come back,” Floating Points said. “Once I understand the groove, then I’m a step closer.”

Header and Floating Points/James Holden recording musicians image - Imane Barakat; all other images - Camille Blake

By Kat Leinhart on April 23, 2014

On a different note