Tea With the Maalam

Micro & Maalam Mahmoud Guinea

I’ve long suspected that Time didn’t necessarily have to move only in the linear, euclidian fashion that defines most of what passes for “reality”, especially in the West. Some would accuse me of using this as excuse for often being tardy, and maybe they are not incorrect. Now I will merely claim that I picked up a time virus while in Morocco. In Africa one is definitely confronted by a different sense of Time – one that certainly moves at a different rate than what i am accustomed to in the US. Giving into it is essential.

Majid & Mahmoud Guinea, Essaouira 12.23.09

In that spirit i will begin with the end of my trip to Morocco, a trip that was a very long time coming.Thanks to a grant i was able to travel there this past Dec with the University of the Middle East as part of their Civic Participation and Leadership Initiative. Fast forward to the end of that portion (stay tuned for next time when time rolls back around to the beginning) of the trip when i boarded a bus to Essaouira, on my own for the first time in Morocco and with dreams of meeting the Maalam.

Essaouira under water, 12/24/09

People were always surprised when they discovered that i had not yet to Morocco, since i was ALL about it, and most assumed i had been. I had been obsessed with that magical country for many years and most recently i had been teaching myself to play the sintir, but i knew deep inside that something was missing which i wouldn’t find until i went there. There was an authenticity to what i was doing that i knew would not manifest until i breathed the air and stood on the soil there – interacting with the people, eating the food (and maybe getting sick and shitting my guts out), and experiencing the raw flow of energy and life that one can’t get from a hyper-link. Playing the sintir, one of my main interests is Gnawa music, where the instrument is mainly used. A few sites on Gnawa that are worth checking out include this one with a historical background of Gnawa, and another one called CyberGnawas, though this guy seems to have an agenda and i’m not sure i agree with everything he says.

Majid, Micro & Mahmoud

When i learned that a friend was going to be visiting in Essaouira during my visit, AND he was friends with Maalam Mahmoud Guinea and might be able to arrange a visit…i don’t know, i was like a kid contemplating x-mas. What amazing fortune! Mahmoud has been THE cat that i’ve been checking out for years, ever since first getting this tape .It would be a good idea to click on that and scroll down to Saturday, April 12, 2008 for the Guinea recording. Download and read on. A note on spellings…they change a lot. I’ve seen his name spelled Ghania, Guinia (wikipedia), Ghanya, Khania, but the most accurate one seems to be Guinea. Same for “maalam” (which means “master”)…sometimes spelled mallem, or malam. Whatever – we have to get over these hang-ups on details, but it does often get aggravating when trying to locate stuff online.

Majid & Micro in Essaouira

Majid met me at the CTM bus station after the 3 hour trip from Agadir that turned into 4 hours (again, that Time thing) and almost as soon as i landed he whisked me off to the home of the Maalam. I had not slept more than 3 hours a night for the past week, so things were decidedly dream-like at this point. Mahmoud greeted us warmly and soon we were seated in his living room, drinking tea and enjoying a smoke. I had brought a few gifts for him, including a Club d’Elf CD, and we spoke to each through the medium of translator Majid, who i seriously am indebted to. I was like that kid at x-mas, now presented with one of his all-time heroes, and it was all i could do not to just smile like an idiot the whole time! He was holding the new sintir that he had recently made, one which Majid had told me he might sell to me.

Mahmoud Guinea and sintir

He played for us while we tapped out the krakeb rhythm on thighs and table, and Mahmoud’s son and Majid sang along. What can i say? I was in bliss! This was it, this was what i had dreamed about happening, and i felt like the luckiest man in the world. For now i could watch from a foot away while the maalam played, and all of the things the hands of a master did while playing the sintir (which i could only imagine while listening to recordings at home and trying to recreate) were now visible to me. This was as close to a formal lesson as i had had, and i wasn’t about to let this chance slip away.

I asked stupid questions, and he responded kindly, and was gracious enough to stop and show me things and even slow passages down a little as well. The left hand is not as big as mystery to me, but what the right one does – THAT’S what is so difficult to discern. Where the slaps occur, and is it the fingers or the thumb? He showed us a song which i have been working on since i returned home, and if all goes well at rehearsal tomorrow night, will play with the band on the Lizard Lounge show Thursday.

The sound of rain dripping from a hole in the roof into the foyer served as constant background for the Gnawa songs that Mahmoud played and which i attempted to absorb as best i could. His daughter was present when we first arrived, and his son came and went, but for the most part it was just myself, Majid and the Maalam for the whole afternoon, which will definitely go down as one of the best i have spent in this lifetime. Majid had recently got an iPhone app for call to prayers, and we were delighted to find that it was in the same key as the sintir Mahmoud was playing!

We agreed on a price for the sintir (one that i found most reasonable considering the obvious time he had put into it – it is much more ornate than my current one, with shell and wood inlays on the back and neck, and a lovely henna design on the camel skin top…can you tell i am smitten with it? It is beautiful!) and then Majid and i left to drop my things off at the apartment he was renting with his wife and daughter. We took a stroll through the ramparts and historic parts of the medina, which would be the only sight-seeing i would get during my brief, 24 hour stay. The rain was relentless and the wind howled the whole time, and i thought of Orson Welles filming Othello here over 60 years ago, and of Hendrix hanging out (one is constantly reminded of his visit…every restaurant has a photo and claiming to be a place he frequented).

Micro gets a new sintir, made by Maalam Mahmoud Guinea

Micro in the rain, Essaouira 12.23.09

Later that evening we returned to Mahmoud’s home and finalized the deal for the sintir. More tea, and more music. I remembered to bring my video camera this time and asked sheepishly if he would play some more. I have to say, he was as sweet a man as i could have hoped to meet, which is a pretty cool thing when meeting your heroes, for they are not all as such. I shot from various angles, and for any aspiring sintir players out there, i recommend studying these vids. I haven’t been able to come across anything on youtube quite as helpful. Listen to the sound he gets! Damn…i don’t know if i will ever get a sound quite like that, and only hope that this sintir will not constantly wish to be back with it’s maker and maalam!

I offered to take Mahmoud out for dinner so the three of us went out to the Restaurant du Port Chez Sam, which had a mighty fine paella, i have to say. Mahmoud is treated like royalty in the town, and all the wait staff wanted to have their picture taken with him. While the wind howled outside and ships rocked violently in their moorings on the other side of the window, i listened to Majid and Mahmoud talk, catching a little bit now and again amidst the combination of Moroccan Arabic and French. Every now and then i would ask for something to be translated, but for the most part i was content to bathe in the presence of a true master, the Maalam.

That’s enough for now. To end this i’d like to share one of the best videos i found of Mahmoud on youtube. Most of the stuff is just audio with a still pic, or poorly-shot audience vids, but this is from a TV shoot and pretty high-quality. Not long enough, but then again what is Time?



~ by delfblog on January 12, 2010.

2 Responses to “Tea With the Maalam”

  1. you know the answer: time is a strange mistress!

  2. […] purchase of a new sintir. His trip to Morocco in Dec 2009 is detailed in several blogs, found here, here & […]

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