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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Nass El Ghiwane: A Moroccan Phenomenon in Committed Art

Nass El Ghiwane
A cover photo of Nass El Ghiwane. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Youssef Sharqawi

We can get to know Morocco through its music. It is characterized by a vast diversity of melodies that differs in its historical and geographical contexts, such as its origin and the conditions that helped create it. Moroccan music also reflects the country’s position as a confluence for Berber, Arab and European cultures.

In this context, Nass El Ghiwane’s experience was different, for it was equivalent in terms of lyrics, sound, melody, rhythm, and content to the thoughts and aspirations of the Moroccan people. It was able to express the different and complementary elements of the Moroccan identity and be a voice for different social groups through its local cultural expressions, vision of the world, cognitive and realistic models. They did that in a context that is integrated and interactive with its historical, Arab, ethnic and social tributaries and its regional and human horizons.

Researchers consider Nass El Ghiwane’s lyrics as a subjective social tool for renewing and bonding with the roots. “It is an expression of the rich diversity founding the unity and integration within a Moroccan national, Arab, Islamic and human circle.”

Historical Emergence

Nass El Ghiwane band emerged in the early 1970s, during an era that can be discerned from the band’s songs. That era witnessed the “becoming of the industrial capitalist state, the decline of colonialism, and the emergence of political, social and economic crises.” On the other hand, according to the writer Mohamed Hammam, the band emerged with the rise of “the question of anxiety, misery, and rebellion, especially in the Third World”.

The researcher, Mohamed Raihani, believes that the band’s appearance had a double reaction. Firstly, to rehabilitate the folkloric song with its Maqamat, purpose, and musical instruments. Secondly, to counter the dominance of commercial music and geographical rhythms in Arab art in general.

Researcher Mohamed Hammam says about the band’s inception: “Suddenly, the Moroccan audience discovered the talent of a group of young people on the municipal stage of Casablanca, singing popular satirical expressions, carrying in their depth coded messages of harsh social and political criticism, expressions that draw from Moroccan and Arab heritage. It uses its richness and depth to express the people while absorbing the Moroccan cultural and geographical components, benefiting from the spacious Casablanca as a large city and a meeting point for popular cultures and national artistic expressions.”

Sufism and Committed Art

In the book of the critic Abdullah al-Haymar, “Nass El Ghiwane, the Lyrical Celebration Speech“, he reveals that the band’s artistic foundations were drawn from the elements of middle-age Morocco and Moroccan Sufism that coincided with the era of revolutions and internal strife. The title of this Sufism was the poet Abderrahman El Majdoub, whom Larbi Batma, one of the band’s founders, likens himself to.

“Just as Islam and revolutions emerged from the spirit of rejection, change and alteration, so did Nass El Ghiwane.” Haymar says: “Nass El Ghiwane carried within it this middle-age Morocco. They represented the past as popular memory. They gave an aesthetic to a lyrical celebration of rituals that were not familiar, except in the culture of festivals, Zawiyas, Hadra nights, and Gathba, by drawing on the Sufi poetry common in Morocco in religious festivals. The singing adopted by the Nass El Ghiwan band draws from this Sufi heritage and sometimes identifies with it, but with a contemporary projection.

Haymar added: “They stood for a message and a project, sang to people in their daily language, and entered their homes, shops, fields, and pastures. They addressed women, land, peace, freedom, wars, immigrants suffering from alienation, and other Moroccan and Arab reality issues. They were the new messengers of the Moroccan folkloric song”.

Nass El Ghiwane was born from the womb of the deprivation in Hay Mohammadi, and the religious Sufi celebration, in Tayeb Saddiki Theatre first, then from Boujemâa “Boujmii” H’gour’s idea of the “new dervishes”, until Boujmii came up with the name “Nass El Ghiwane”, from within the authentic Moroccan Saharan heritage.

The writer Norah Obaid believes that “Nass El Ghiwane are vagabonds, people of affection, goodness, and peace, people of understanding, passion, and love”. Five young men: Boujemâa H’gour, Larbi Batma, Abderrahman Paco, Allal Yaâla, and Omar Sayed.

Like the rest of their generation, the band members were affected by the winds of liberation that the world knew at the time. Their goal was not to seek fame or money but to speak for the marginalised and adhere to identity. According to the writer Naoufel Cherkaoui, “what explains the great popularity achieved by the band is that it adopted a committed artistic approach. It adhered to the voice of the poor and the oppressed who did not dare publicly express their suffering during a period of oppression. The band kept up with the concerns of the Arab nation and the tragedies of the African continent”. Nass El Ghiwane was able to “reproduce the social integration that French colonialism dismantled. The band was an example for the rest of the Maghreb youth in terms of their conviction in their identity and their eagerness to adhere to the authentic popular culture.”

According to the researcher Mustafa Harkat, the band’s founders “said with a loud voice: why should I be a victim to silence?”. Ali Sharaf says: “The power that distinguished them was that they were open about everything that was secret”.

The band’s Pluralism and Production

Nass El Ghiwane invested in Moroccan folklore, both oral heritage and everyday language. It also returned to popular melodies stemming from vernacular music, “and melodic sources rooted deep into the Moroccan people”. Thus, according to Mohamed Hammam, the band brought the melodies, chants, and clamours of the poor from marginalisation and closed spaces to public circulation through the stage and parties inside and outside Morocco.

It was also able to bring the audience stolen by the western music back to its Moroccan and Arab origins and reconnect it to its roots. It gave life back to the buried rhythms and marginalised music.

The band’s choice was not among the available choices; colonial, authoritarian, or partisan. “It was an artistic choice with musical and rhythmic expressions belonging to all the plain, mountainous and desert regions of Morocco, such as the Aita, the Malhun, the Gnawa (the rhythm of Africa), the melodies of the South in the Sahara, the Abidat Rma, the authentic Arabic oriental melody, and the Berber melody (Ajmak)”.

Researcher Mohamed Said Raihani says that the most important guarantor of the Ghiwane philosophy is pluralism, which distinguishes this band from its peers internally and aboard. “The band was a bridge through which the concepts of pluralism and diversity were expressed to the audience. In addition to the “rhythmic pluralism” that the band pursued in search for a truer expression that unifies form with content, there is also a “purpose pluralism” that ranged between lamentation, description, wisdom, flirtation, mysticism, and Madih Nabawi. There is an “existential pluralism” that nourished and nurtured this Ghiwane philosophy that was originally nothing but the “ethnic pluralism” of the members of the band. Boujmii was a Sahrawi, Allal Yaâla and Omar Sayed were Berbers, Abderrahman Paco was from Essaouira, and Larbi Batma was from the Chaouia tribes”.

A Humane Need and Adventure

Nass El Ghiwane
Veteran US movie director Martin Scorsese (R) listens to Moroccan singer Omar Sayed during the screening of the film “Transes” directed by Moroccan Ahmed El Maanouni on Jemaa El Fna Square in Marrakech, 09 December 2007, on the sidelines of the Marrakesch International film festival. The festival, which runs until December 15, will feature 110 films in all. ABDELHAK SENNA / AFP.

Omar Sayed, the band’s frontman today, expresses that establishing Nass El Ghiwane in the political and social conditions that Morocco was experiencing in the early 1970s was a humane adventure. It derives its strength from its simplicity and sincerity. “A sincerity that is embodied in the tears of mothers wearing Atlas dress, or the Amazigh djellabas, as they chant the songs of Nass El Ghiwane and send their messages and moans to their imprisoned or kidnapped sons especially since most of the lyrics of the Nass El Ghiwane band were written by their mothers; Minah (Boujmii’s mother), Haddah (Larbi Batma’s mother), and Al-Dawiyah (Omar Sayed’s mother).”

Nass El Ghiwane was an outgrowth of a social need, in the words of Mohamed Hammam. It was the band’s national marginalised need for a conscience, a soul, and a memory in the form of aesthetic and sensory manifestations. Nass El Ghiwane was a spontaneous response to a critical stage in Morocco and the complex transformations that the world was experiencing at that time. The band charted a path away from authoritarian and partisan polarisation to express the national issues experienced by the ordinary citizen or those issues with which he interacts under his national belonging to the Arab nation, or through his spontaneous empathy to the suffering of deprived human beings everywhere.

“They were loyal to their roots, to the virtues of brotherhood and collective belonging, and the imagination of an entire people”, says Moroccan thinker Tahar Ben Jelloun. Or in Abdullah al-Haymar’s words: “They cried out the festive lyrical cry; to restore psychological balance to the imagination of an entire people. They broke the sound barrier with wisdom and rhymed words, and with melodic rhythm, they were beacons by which the marginalised and oppressed are guided in the darkness of the soul and enabled them to break the sealed horizon. They sow seeds of hope and joy in the body of the Moroccan self. They opened the doors of the lyrical celebration towards the postponed calls of the future”.

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