Moroccan Legend Hassan Hakmoun on
Gnawa Music & Culture
Known as “the Godfather of Gnawa music,” Hassan Hakmoun is arguably the most famous musician ever to emerge from Morocco.
Born in Marrakech in 1963, he grew up with a mother widely known as a mystic healer who conducted trance-inducing ceremonies (referred to as lila or derdeba)– typically all-night affairs in which hypnotic music, dance and chanting is used to heal illness and communicate with or exorcise spirits. Rooted in ancient African Islamic spiritual traditions, Gnawa music captured Hakmoun’s interest at an early age, and by the time he was 14 he was leading his own musical ensemble.
A master of the sintir– a 3-stringed bass lute with a body made of camel skin stretched over nutwood– Hakmoun moved to New York in the late ’80s, becoming a star on the jazz-rock-world music fusion scene. He recorded one album with jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, another for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, and turned icons like Miles Davis, David Sanborn and U2 producer Daniel Lanois into rabid fans. In recent years he’s worked with a diverse array of artists ranging from Latin hip-hop hybrids Ozomatli to his ex-wife, singer-songwriter Paula Cole.
Now, nearly 20 years after his last solo album, Hassan Hakmoun is back with a new CD, Unity, on his own Healing Records label. It’s a rollicking record rooted in Gnawa musical traditions, combining spiritual call-and-response vocals with hypnotic percussion, mesmerizing bass, and deep African blues grooves. I was truly honored to get a chance to speak with a legendary artist I’ve listened to for 20+ years now, covering everything from the healing power of Gnawa music to his favorite places to go in Morocco.