“Do you want trance or happy?” Omar Afif asks the already happy crowd in Edinburgh’s Nomad’s Tent, (a shop by day turned venue by night). We are surrounded by their wares, colourful rugs and wall hangings. “Happy”, we call back. “I only do trance”, he says, plucking the strings of his guembri, a three stringed bass made from a carved-out log. “Andy does happy!” Andy Cooke plays his customised Ugandan xylophone, baladinda, its sound and style deceptively playful.
Omar leads the band Gnawa Trance Fusion, their rhythms tapped out on qraqeb (traditional iron castanets) by Mohamed Lkhanfoufi. A mouth harp adds to the timbre and already a few people have been lured from their seats by this enticing music, to join dancer Heather Muchamore, who plays a shekere (beaded gourd) and just can’t stop smiling.
So is Gnawa Trance Fusion happy or trance? It’s both, and there’s jazz in there too, as Steve Kettley, picks up his sax and melds a soaring improvisation over the sounds of Gnawa* music, with its repeated rhythmic riffs, and call and response melodies. This evening’s line-up includes Ghanian musician, George Ato Williams on drumkit and Allal Yamine, also known as the ‘Mad Nomad’ playing a dome-shaped drum made from a calabash.
Some songs begin with the bass sounds of the guembri followed by a gently tuneful thumb piano, the Ugandan ndongo. Then Mohamed wanders into the crowd, with his qraqeb clattering like horses hooves. The heartfelt vocals and the whole percussive array build up momentum, and more people join in the dancing. This global mix works well, the musicians, blending instruments and voices, create a feeling of celebration. Someone unfurls a Moroccan flag to the delight of Moroccan-born Omar who clearly enjoys sharing his musical culture with band and audience alike. A cheer goes up in appreciation.
It’s a warm evening on the last weekend of the Edinburgh Fringe and the proprietor brings a tray of glasses of water for the sweltering audience. The atmosphere is buzzing, driven by the cumulative rhythms and expressive singing of the whole band. Omar switches to a smaller, higher-pitched guembri, there’s time for one last number and almost everyone is dancing or clapping along to this fusion of good feelings, joy and happiness. We are at one with the world.
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*Gnawa music is a North African traditional music associated with ritual poetry and dancing. It combines a unique mix of Berber, Arabic and Islamic rhythms. Its characteristic instruments are the three stringed guembri and the iron castanets known as qraqeb. This music, with its use of repeated rhythms and chant-like vocals can inspire feelings of euphoria, originally forming part of a ritual to induce a spiritual trance.
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