Morroco’s Nass El Ghiwane are legends across North Africa, comparable in status and influence to that of The Rolling Stones on rock music. Indeed, on the cover of
their most famous album – 1973’s eponymous Nass El Ghiwane – the five musicians wear long hair, afros and the kind of clothing generally associated with rockers from the late-1960s. Yet one
listen to their music and the comparison with Jagger and co. ends: employing traditional instrumentation (banjo, bendir, darbuka, tam-tam, hadjuj), Nass brilliantly fused several strands of
traditional Moroccan music.
Nass El-Ghiwane never changed their music yet the passing decades have left their mark. Two of the founder members have since died and when I traveled to Casablanca to interview founder member and bendir player Omar Sayed the man I met was no longer the slim, longhaired youth of album covers.
“We formed in 1963,” recalled Omar. “We were all friends from the neighbourhood. We all liked to play music and we initially came together to make music for a theatre production. We enjoyed the experience so much we spontaneously became a band.”
Touring as part of Tayeb Saddiki’s theatre troupe, it was the response their music received in France in 1969 that convinced them to forge ahead as a band. The name Nass El Ghiwane translates roughly as “new Dervishes” so referencing the ancient Sufi sect of the ghiwanes - musicians who sang to the Berber people throughout Morocco, transmitting news, religious lore and entertainment.
Nass El-Ghiwane proved a wake-up call for many North African musicians. Labelled chaabi (a blanket term for ‘popular music’), they released over twenty albums and Martin Scorsese used their song Ya Sah on The Last Temptation Of Christ soundtrack. The band’s influence spread to Algeria, making a big impact on the rai scene – Khaled and Rachid Taha have both recorded Ghiwane songs.
Valued for many qualities, it is the words of Ghiwane songs that gave the band such meaning to their listeners. Writing lyrics based on old popular poems meant their songs evoked daily life, the hassles and corruptions so evident to most ordinary Moroccans, in a contemporary Arabic dialect.
“We like to sing of what people feel,” said Omar. “The big respect we get for our music from Moroccans is sometimes so much that at times it makes me feel shy.”