Director Ahmed El Maanouni’s captivating portrayal of avant-garde folk-soul band Nass El Ghiwane screens at the UW Cinematheque March 25.
Header image: The four members of the Moroccan revolutionary group Nass El Ghiwane sing and play traditional instruments while devotees passionate about their music dance with abandon.
The vibrant, intimate and bewitching trances (1981) immediately envelops viewers in a dense, otherworldly soundscape by Moroccan avant-garde folk-soul band Nass El Ghiwane. Director Ahmed El Maanouni’s experimental documentary opens with an eight-minute sequence of the band singing and playing traditional instruments in front of an enthusiastic audience of thousands. At the time of the film, Nass El Ghiwane consisted of frontman (and Frank Zappa lookalike) Larbi Batma, Omar Sayed, Abderrahman “Paco” Kirouche, and Allal Yaala.
Capturing the four musicians at the height of their popularity, trances intricately weaves clips of the band’s phenomenal live performances in Tunisia, Morocco and France, grainy black-and-white archival footage, candid conversations and impressionistic scenes that reveal the texture and rhythms of Moroccan life . With his lyrical, fluid cinematic style and vivid look at a culture rarely represented on screen, trances delivers an ecstatic audio-visual experience. Presented with support from UW Madison’s Middle Eastern Studies Program, the UW Cinematheque screens the 2007 digital restoration of El Maanouni’s film on Friday, March 25 at 7 p.m.
The first title selected for preservation in Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, trances could have been relegated to obscurity without the help of the influential filmmaker. He saw the poetic documentary on television by chance in 1981 and became passionate about both El Maanouni’s film and the music of Nass El Ghiwane. In an introduction to the Criterion Collection version of trances produced in 2013, Scorsese recalls, “I learned later that they were more than just a band; really, they were the singing soul of their country, Morocco.”
Nicknamed “The Rolling Stones of Morocco”, Nass El Ghiwane was officially founded in 1971, their name meaning the disciples (Nass) of a sung philosophy (El Ghiwane). The band began performing in the melting pot of Hay Mohammadi, a sprawling, poor working-class neighborhood in the city of Casablanca, where they created a new urban fusion of traditional and modernist forms. In the test “trances: Power to the People”, film expert Sally Shafto talks about the group’s origins, international success and singular influence:
Thus, modestly, began a cultural revolution that would quickly sweep Morocco and the rest of the Arab world. Nass El Ghiwane rejected the Egyptian music (âsriya), with its languorous love songs in classical Arabic which prevailed then. Instead, these minstrels of contemporary Morocco drew their inspiration from indigenous poetry, ancestral rites and daily life, denouncing unemployment, corruption and social inequalities endemic to Moroccan society in particular and Arab societies in general. .
El Maanouni’s film dispenses with verbal narration and unfolds in a series of stunning tableaux that allow Nass El Ghiwane’s sublime music to take center stage and tell the band’s story. Coming from political theatre, Nass El Ghiwane concocts an intoxicating acoustic mix that mixes subversive lyrics, melodic poetry sung by Malhun, Berber rhythms and Gnawa dances.
One of the extended interludes of trances centers on Paco, the charismatic native of Essaouira, a port city on the Atlantic coast, who brought the centuries-old tradition of the Gnawa into Nass El Ghiwane’s sonic palette. A ritual genre of music derived from sub-Saharan African slaves in Morocco, Gnawa involves a nocturnal religious ceremony, a lilac, dedicated to the spiritual healing of participants. Throughout the film, the delighted audience members of the band are often seen dancing with abandon in a trance-like state as the boundaries between performer and audience dissolve in utter ecstasy. Witnessing the deep spiritual connection between the musicians and their on-screen fans while absorbing the rich sound of Nass El Ghiwane has an equally mesmerizing effect.
At once offbeat film-concert, moving ode to artistic creation, inspired tribute to its subject and timeless evocation of the mystical power of live music, trances warmly invites viewers to join in its jubilant celebration of Nass El Ghiwane. El Maanouni’s resounding film also defies easy description, as words seem utterly inadequate to express its meaning. As Frank Zappa once said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”