Hassan Hakmoun

Hassan Hakmoun’s new album evolves Moroccan music once again. From the pages of a Paul Bowles novel to the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones lugging microphones up North African mountaintops, Moroccan Gnawa music has long made a strong imprint on American consciousness.

Images of itinerant mystics cracking krakeb while leading all-night ritual dances was both honored and revised when Marrakech-born Hassan Hakmoun evolved his homeland’s folk music in the late 1980’s. Since then, the ‘Godfather of Gnawa’ has been the most recognized and innovative Moroccan musician on the planet.

It’s been 26 years since the talented vocalist and sintir player released Gift of the Gnawa alongside famed trumpeter Don Cherry and percussionist Adam Rudolph. Yet the time has been spent well. Hakmoun’s latest album, ‘Unity’ is the finest example of ritual music combined with the heart of American rock, soul and blues ever recorded.

“The word ‘unity’ just came out,” he says from his new home in Brooklyn, NY, noting that this album is dedicated to Nelson Mandela. “There are so many people of the same religion in the world killing one another because of small differences in their beliefs. Just look at what’s happened recently in South Africa, the Middle East and West Africa. It’s made me pray that one day we all have unity.”

Featuring the deep bass grooves indicative of the hypnotic strains of Gnawa trance music, the addition of guitars, harmonica and Fula flute (the latter by fellow New Yorker and band member Sylvain Lerox) pushes this forward-thinking effort into fresh territory. Enlisting Israeli bass player and Ex-Centric Sound System founder Yossi Fine as co-producer (alongside Hakmoun and Chikako Iwahori) has helped the musician create the most danceable and uplifting music of his career.

“His sintir got amplified big time,” says Fine from his Tel Aviv home. Hakmoun was introduced to the musician via longtime friend Fabian Alsultany, and loved Fine’s interplay of elements on West coast-based Gnawa-inspired group Hamsa Lila’s album, Gathering One.

“All of Hassan’s lines and riffs comes out like never before,” Fine continues. “You can hear how good his playing is throughout the album. Yet I wanted a modern sound: I sent his sintir through amplifiers, making it bigger that what it is. Hassan’s music is complex and primal and we wanted to emphasize the other musical styles that he has mastered, giving it a modern edge.”

‘Unity’ kicks off hard with ‘Zidokan,’ an older song that captures his rock fusion sound with blaring guitars and a solid midtempo beat. The album revisits old territory with a new version of ‘Balili,’ which means ‘My Father.’ Hakmoun had initially recorded this song with Cherry and Rudolph over two decades ago; Soul K pays tribute later on with a percussion-heavy remix.

Devotion is thematic on ‘Unity’: ‘Dima Dima’ is about experiencing life and prayers; ‘Boudurbalayi’ is dedicated to those who make the trek to Mecca every year; ‘Moulay Ahmed’ is dedicated to the 12th century saint and Sufi scholar; ‘Hamadyi’ asks the prophet Muhammad for blessings and direction.

“‘Hamadyi’ is a very touching song to me,” says Hakmoun. “I sing about all the people here before us, including family members—it’s very emotional, I get tears when singing this song live. It also combines West and North African styles, with Moroccan rhythms and Senegalese sounds.”

The album rounds out with ‘Ohio,’ a fun dance number that is later remixed by Fine, and the scorching ‘Baniya,’ the song Hakmoun attributes to redefining Moroccan music with rock elements. This is also the track that introduced his music to Real World Records founder and musician Peter Gabriel, who began a relationship with Hakmoun in 1989 when releasing the groundbreaking album, ‘Trance’.

Recording in Williamsburg’s famous Studio G—where Pretty Lights recently recorded his Grammy-nominated record, A Color Map of the Sun—Fine wanted to recorded North African folk fusion like a ‘classic rock album.’ Recorded into a direct channel using an u87 microphone and running Hakmoun’s sintir through a bass amp, Fine was especially happy with the wide range of equipment that the studio had.

“We wanted to enhance Hassan’s incredible playing by bringing his sintir to the front of the mix,” Fine says. “And we kept the recording process organic: the drums, percussion, background and lead vocals, and sintir were recorded live, and then we added guitars, keys and flutes. The entire session was done in three days, and then we turned Hassan’s home into a recording studio to keep the feel for the mixing process.

And the live elements come through gorgeously on the album. This was Hakmoun’s intention all along, to put on record the magic he’s created with his band for decades.

“The inspiration of Unity was to work on certain songs I’ve played live but have never recorded before,” Hakmoun says. “I’ve been working on new styles for a long time, and a lot of Moroccan musicians are taking advantage of the doors I opened for them. I’m happy to be able to keep performing for those people who are inspired by what I do.”

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