An Appreciation of Hassan Hakmoun

Micro & Hassan in NYC circa 2004 (or was it 2005?)


An Appreciation of Hassan Hakmoun (as appeared in Dec ’06/Jan ’07 State Of Mind magazine)

I had heard some of Hassan Hakmoun‘s music in the mid-90’s, courtesy of a Boston world music radio show which played a few tracks off of his ’93 release Trance, but it wasn’t until my late friend Mark Sandman played me Gift Of The Gnawa, that I was truly smitten by his sound. North African music, and particularly the music of the Gnawa (Gnaoua), the mystical sufi brotherhood who were brought to Morocco as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa 500 years ago, was already something that resonated considerably with me. Being a bass player, I was drawn to the sound of the sintir (also known as guembri, or hajhouj), the 3 gut-stringed bass lute that is central to the music of the Gnawa. I had been listening to the Bill Laswell produced album Night Spirit Masters and unidentified cassettes with other Gnawa music for a few years by then, but something in Hassan’s playing and singing drew me in that day like few things in my life had before. I insisted that Mark let me borrow the CD, and reluctantly he agreed, though only with my promise that I would return it immediately upon his return from the upcoming Morphine tour. I took it home, had a smoke, and laid on the couch for hours as I played it over, and over, and over again, absolutely mesmerized. I made a vow that day that I would someday find a sintir and learn to play it, and would make it my life’s goal to endeavor to make music like this – music that transcended time and space, music that was tapped into something much greater than merely the person playing it, and that had a mystical quality with the power to heal. I also began a love affair with the music of Hassan Hakmoun.

Generally speaking, in Gnawa music the sintir is the main instrument and is accompanied by the metal castanets called qarakeb. The ma’aleem sings the lead and plays the sintir, joined by a chorus of response singers and clappers. One of the things that made this CD stand out from the other Gnawa music that I had heard was that drums (tablas & congas played by Adam Rudolph) were featured, and the interplay with Hassan’s sintir was some of the coolest shit ever, at times being difficult to tell who was doing what. In addition to strumming the strings, the sintir is slapped like a drum when played, the top of the instrument being made of camel skin. The way that Hassan and Adam played off of each other had me saying “Damn!” again and again. Don Cherry played pocket
trumpet on a couple of tracks and Richard Horowitz played the ney on a couple of others. Together with the sound of Hassan’s amazing voice the effect was nothing short of hypnotic, simultaneously sounding both incredibly modern and timeless.

Over time I sought out all of the music I could find of his. Though all of it is worth checking out, I was drawn to the music closest to the tradition which was mostly acoustic in nature, especially his CDs Life Around The World and The Fire Within. Eventually I met and became friends with Hassan’s bandmate, Brahim Fribgane, the great oud player and percussionist, and he began to play with my band Club d’Elf. Through working with Brahim and hanging out with him and his friends at places like Moroccan Bazaar in Cambridge (sadly, now gone) & Gates Of Marrakech in NYC, I furthered my immersion in the sublime music of Morocco, and at last got to meet Hassan himself. I had acquired a sintir of my own by this time, and Hassan was very gracious in offering some tips and help, though I was never able to muster the courage to ask for a formal lesson. Learning music in the western sense of “taking a lesson” seems foreign to this music, which is passed on mostly through oral tradition. What I learned came from Brahim (who was as close to a teacher as I got), and from drinking tea & hanging out with Hassan and the other Moroccans, who were about the easiest-to-hang with people as one could hope to meet, taking a delight in the finer things in life that was most infectious.

Every chance I get to see Hassan play is a reminder of how great music can be when the performer gives his or herself up to some greater power, and I have witnessed people go into trances even in the club atmospheres where I have seen him play. Experiencing him playing for an all-night Lila ceremony in Morocco… THAT is something I hope to see before I leave this earth, in’shallah.

-Micro

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~ by delfblog on November 11, 2010.

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