Hoofed seductress, anti-colonial assassin. Musician SamiR LanGus summons a childhood legend
SamiR Langus (Arabic: لانگوس, Tamazight: ⵙⴰⵎⵉⵔ ⵍⴰⵏⴳⵓⵙ) plays Gnawa, a genre of North African trance music bearing the same name as the ethnic group that introduced complex 6/8 rhythms to Morocco. LanGus grew up surrounded by music, following the steps of street musicians, getting lost in the neighborhood. Originally from Agadir, Morocco, he now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. In his single released in June 2021, LanGus shares the story of Aicha Qandicha in “Lala Aicha”.
The reworked version of LanGus weaves jazz counter-melodies with a traditional Gnawa bassline and call and response vocals. Collaborating on the track are Oran Etkin on bass clarinet, Ran Livneh on double bass, percussionist Nizar Dahmani and vocalists Carolina Mama and Arta Jēkabsone.
LanGus joined host Caitlin Leggett on Changing Channels for a conversation about Gnawa culture and traditions.
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Caitlin Leggett: Can you tell us a bit about the culture behind the music?
SamiR Langus: It’s not just music, it’s culture. Because you can’t just go to music school and just pick the gimbri, your instrument, and you’re just going to study it. No, it’s like if you want to study jazz, you have to know the history of all jazz. If you want to play the blues, like you study all the culture. It is not just one instrument.
So basically gnawa music is healing, very spiritual music that has been played in these long night ceremonies, we call them lilac, which is one night. And back then it was seven days, but now people can’t afford to have seven days. You can just do one night. And they play with all colors. Basically we have seven colors, and each color has its own spirit.
When you go to a lilac, it’s the last color they play before sunset. It’s black, so they play Aicha Kandicha.
A subset of the Amazighs, the Tuareg ethnic group has received worldwide acclaim for carrying the torch of the Desert blues genre. Tinariwen mixes trance singing and Amazigh lyricism with West African rhythms.
A generation after Ali Farka Touré, Tinariwen is a new call and a response from the West African diaspora. The North Africans echo their remix of Mississippi Delta Blues and British Rock n Roll. Due to the global influence and indigenous Tuareg roots of their music, Tinariwen has faced violence from fundamentalist Islamist groups in Mali.
On the origins of the various rhythms of Gnawa:
When they brought the slaves from West Africa to Morocco, they were divided, like the people of that tribe, they didn’t care. They mix everyone up and separate them as they wish. So a lot of people who are separated from their loved ones, separated from their families – the only way to look for them and see what city they are in is to play music and go on tours around the country. Basically just throughout the country and playing this rhythm which is very specific to this tribe.
CL: What other sounds do you hear Gnawa influencing?
SL: When the Gnawa settled in Morocco, they adapted to the different styles of music that were already in Morocco. For example, if we are talking about the Amazigh people, we have a different style of music, the rhythm is very complicated, it is a little different. So once you hear it, you’re like, “Oh, click, okay. It’s an Amazigh rhythm. So we adapted that to some of the rhythms. And we’ve also adapted some of the other traditions that we have.
… The Gnawas are geniuses. Yes. I always say that, you know, because they came and they dominated the whole market. So now the only music that represents Morocco abroad is Gnawa music. So if you go anywhere and talk about Morocco, they’re like “Oh Gnawa Music! Or like you’re talking about Gnawa music, they’re like, “Oh, Morocco!”
Even “traditional” music is often a mixture of various styles. Maâlem Hamid El Kasri mixed the Gnawa traditions of North and South Morocco.
El Kasri’s interpretation of “Lalla Aicha” features the traditional rhythmic section of krakebs, iron castanets that represent the chains of West African Gnawese slaves trafficked to North Africa in the late 1700s.
CL: Can you tell us about Lala Aicha’s new single?
SL: Growing up as a child, I was afraid of her. And, I swear to God, I posted my story and I asked, “What do you know about Lala Aicha? And, just as five people responded. They know so many different stories, but no one wanted to answer. … Because, growing up, our parents scared us to go out late at night.
My mother used to scare me by saying, “Listen, my son, if you cross this border, Aicha Kandicha will come and get you… Yes, she is beautiful. She has long black hair. And she wears long white clothes. And she’s like cow’s feet. And I’m like, “That doesn’t make sense, mom. How does she have cow’s feet? … Even now, like when you go to a lilac, it’s the last color they play before sunset It’s black, so they play Aicha Kandicha.
The Amazigh group Ahwache Houara offers massive rhythmic energy to the call and the response. While this Ahidus style presents a different instrumentation than that of Gnawa, the same accentuated 6/8 rhythms propel the call and answer voices.
North West Africa is an intersection of trade routes dating back to the end of the Roman Empire. This long history of exchange continues to pollinate musical traditions such as flamenco, hip-hop and samba with the Gnawa and Amazigh styles.