Mustapha Baqbou, Djema El Fna

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

The world's earliest incarnation of the bass guitar is an instrument of devotional transport among Morocco's Gnawa, the descendents of 16th-century Malian slaves. A master musician (or maalem) plays the sintir, a three-stringed contraption made of camel skin and wood, during nightlong ceremonies wherein audience members slip into trance states to communicate with mlouk, djinn and other spirit species. Maalem Mustapha Baqbou earned his wings in Marrakech and later became a member of Jil Jilala, one of Morocco's most prominent folk-rock bands. This endearingly raw 1999 recording (the title refers to Marrakech's central square, the "meeting place of the dead"), though, finds him leading a Gnawa troupe through a series of increasingly intense sacred songs. He's accompanied by several sets of qarqabu (metal castanets) and tbel drums. Recorded live, Baqbou's music has a haunted, moaning quality, and each of the five tracks eventually builds to a climax worth hanging around for. The 11-minute "Bouderi Bel'A" and album closer "There Is No God But God" most effectively demonstrate that bass is indeed the place — no matter where you are.