Although 8 April was only the second time Aziz Sahmaoui came to Cairo with his band, the audience started to sing along and request their favourite songs straight away from the beginning of the programme.
Sahmaoui, with a strong and effortless hold of the evening, kept changing the mood before it got repetitive, rocking out, jazzing up and going back to traditional gnawa pieces, making the crowd clap energetically, break into dance, and quietening down, with lyrical compositions.
"First I was afraid to come to Egypt. I was not sure if the audience would like and understand us. But when I met the people, I realised they know our music, even the lyrics," Sahmaoui revealed to Ahram Online.
Indeed, it seems that Cairo liked him. The cozy amphitheatre of El-Geneina was almost full, as Sahmaoui introduced the concert and mentioned his mother, who was present at El-Genaina, as his "biggest fan." He also added another warm note to the homely atmosphere.
Apart from Aziz Sahmaoui himself, the University of Gnawa was represented this time by two Senegalese musicians and one Moroccan, all original band members since its founding in 2010: Hervé Samb on guitar, Alioune Wade on bass and Adhil Mirghani on percussion.
All musicians were given space to express themselves in solo improvisations and lent their vocals to the chorus as well. Wade also appeared at some point as an able solo vocalist with a melodious and soothing voice. Samhaoui, the band’s lead singer (as well as composer and lyricist) kept switching between traditional stringed instruments, ngoni and mandole, and finally let himself go on percussion in a drum piece played by all the musicians together, which concluded the programme.
Gnawa, the traditional music of Morocco and Algeria, has enchanted many musical souls around the world in recent decades with its moving rhythms and happy mood. Big international musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, and The Rolling Stones borrowed from this living tradition.
Sahmaoui was part of the big wave of gnawa fashion as a founding member of the popular Orchestre National de Barbes in 1995, and then with his own band, University of Gnawa.
“We were a big success. People saw us as a French band although we sang in Arabic. Now the situation has changed. If you sing in Arabic, you don't appear on the central TV channels anymore ... But we try to stay positive," Sahmaoui said.
Sahmaoui strongly believes in forgiveness and understanding. In his lyrics, he prefers to comment on current problems using general metaphors, without going into detail.
“My pain is just for me. Even if I am not feeling good, I will give my best to the audience. Pure, high sentiments make you happy, even when life is hard, and change your vision and give you the possibility to understand and forgive, making your mind free from heaviness ... Music has to soften the hardness of life. ”
His songs, such as Maktoub, Yasmine, Meskina, refer to unjustice that could happen anywhere, be it Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria or Egypt.
"I am sure all this war could be finished in two months if people wanted it," he says.
Concerts and cultural exchange continue despite hard social currents. Recently the group performed in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and toured the US.
“I've seen French people, Japanese people doing Gnawa, playing kota and guembri, singing with lyrics, and doing it very well,” Sahmaoui said, sharing his amazement with Ahram Online.
Many times, misled by the band’s name, people would ask about the whereabouts of the University of Gnawa, willing to study there: “One day a person called me from Algiers, asking for the address. I thought he was joking, so I told him to go to the Belcourt district of the city. He called me back after two or three days saying he didn’t find the university ... But I was just joking! There is no establishment to learn gnawa from. Not yet."
For Moroccans, gnawa is a culture they imbibe naturally from the street and family, and Aziz Sahmaoui is no exception.
“I grew up in Marrakech. We start playing when we are born, our toys are percussion. If you walk around the city, every 10 metres you will hear someone playing. All occasions are celebrated with music. Aunties and brothers would call the child to join the fiesta, give him an instrument and show a simple beat. So, rhythm is very strong in Morocco. If you are in a stadium with 20 000 people, you ask them to do a rhythm and they will all do it directly. You give them a code, they give you the answer," he explains.
Sahmaoui also learned from gnawa masters like Hamida Bossu, Abdel Kebir Marchent, Moallem Sadique, and Moallem Sam.
“I met with them, lived with some of them and their families. There is a tradition, and if you want to renew it, you have to know it first; you have to understand the heritage and feel it like your life. Then you can move on to fusion.”
But according to Aziz Sahmaoui, fusion requires not only a profound folk music background, but also an openmindedness that not all traditional musicians posess.
“When you take them [the music and musicians] out of their tradition, sometimes they cannot hear the new notes,” he says.
In this respect, the years Sahmaoui spent in Paris, since he arrived there as a student of antropology in 1984, were a musical blessing.
“Yes, you can call it antropology in music," he smiles. Staying in this melting pot of cultures, being associated with the Joe Zawinul jazz syndicate and meeting musicians from around the world, added to his Moroccan energy a French attitude of nonchalance and well orchestrated simplicity.
“Different traditions make you rich. Then you try to put this richness into your compositions and find your style is not easy enough ... Magic is when you make music easily accessible for people who are not musicians. I like difficult things, but I keep them to myself, investing the exercise and hard schooling into my understanding of music. No need to bring out this struggle to the audience. People want easy things. They work all the week and they want to hear something beautiful. We want to seduce people to love us."
Judging from the way the audience was reacting at the concert on 8 April in El-Geneina, Aziz Sahmaoui has found a recipe of a seductive musical concoction, where gnawa, pop, rock, blues, jazz, Senegalese mbalax (popular dance), and Egyptian music are all basic components.
The composer stays modest about his accomplishments. “We are trying to be new, to create something. In this world not everybody can have his own signature in musical language and poetic image. I think this is born with us, but we don't know it. Then at some moment you have to decide who are you, and what you want," he explains.
Sahmaoui, born in Morocco, grooving with the Senegalese, living in Paris, charming people easily around the world. When asked where he really feels at home, he takes a minute to think it over. "Good question ... When there is peace of mind, you are at home," he says.
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