Trances: Power to the People

On Film / Essays — Dec 16, 2013

Here at last comes the time of ecstasy, of trances. Those who refuse to their senses the gift of trances shall wither. Brothers in trances, when will freedom come? They threw me out of my land and country. May my star shine. [. . .] May love live. May peace reign. —From the song “Al hal” (Trance), by Nass El Ghiwane

Filmmaking in Morocco began at cinema’s birth, with a Lumière actualité, or newsreel, of a goatherd in 1897. It continued through the next decade, including images by Félix Mesguich of a battle between the French and the Moroccans in Casablanca, on the eve of the French and Spanish protectorates (1912–56). The first French colonial feature was Jean Pinchon and Daniel Quintin’s Mektoub (1919), about the son of a rich desert pasha who must repress a local rebellion. Between the two world wars, the Spanish and particularly the French produced numerous films there, notably Jean Benoît-Lévy and Marie Epstein’s Itto (1934), the first talkie in Morocco, and Marcel L’Herbier’s Les hommes nouveaux (1936). The importance that the French—and the Moroccan sultan—placed on cinema is confirmed by the establishment in 1944 of a regulatory film board, the Centre Cinématographique Marocain, in Rabat.

Many of the films produced during the time of the protectorates explored escapist orientalist themes and were more or less overt about their propagandistic ends. During cinema’s first half century, Hollywood likewise became enamored of the orientalist genre. The Morocco and Maghreb of these films are largely imaginary, however, re-created in the California desert or on a studio lot, as in Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930) and Michael Curtiz’s wartime classic Casablanca (1942). After World War II, the widespread influence of Italian neorealism encouraged Hollywood filmmakers to seek greater verisimilitude by shooting in exotic locations, and starting with Henry Hathaway (The Black Rose, 1950), Orson Welles (Othello, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1952 under the Moroccan flag), Alfred Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956), and, of course, David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962), numerous international filmmakers chose Morocco as the scenic backdrop for their films.

Meanwhile, a truly national cinema emerged timorously in the wake of the country’s hard-won independence in 1956 and the return from exile of the Moroccan king, Mohamed V. And although a fiction film, Mohamed Osfour’s Le fils maudit (1958), is generally recognized as the first homegrown production, Moroccan cinema evolved through documentary filmmaking, and the documentary impulse in the country remains strong to this day.

In the 1960s, the CCM began commissioning newsreels to cover current events henceforth with a native eye, freed from the colonialist gaze. After being trained abroad, that first generation of Moroccan filmmakers, including Ahmed Bouanani and Mohamed Abderrahmane Tazi, who both studied at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in Paris, returned home to work for the CCM. A few years younger and a graduate of the Belgian state film school, Ahmed El Maânouni made the bona fide debut of Moroccan cinema at Cannes with his first feature, Alyam alyam (Oh the Days!, 1978), which included a song by the musical group Nass El Ghiwane. In France, Alyam alyam was distributed by the Moroccan-born Izza Génini, who ran the private screening room Club 70 in Paris.

Another film Génini distributed was Keith MacMillan’s Exodus (1978), a documentary on Bob Marley. Around the same time, Génini attended the first concert in Paris of the extraordinarily popular Nass El Ghiwane. Although not a musician and a fledgling producer, she immediately intuited the importance of documenting on celluloid this groundbreaking group, whose mass appeal in the Arab world approached that of their Western pop counterparts. It was Génini who brought El Maânouni on board as director of what would become the documentary Trances (1981).

After an earlier incarnation, Nass El Ghiwane was formally established in 1971, their name meaning the disciples (Nass) of a chanted philosophy (El Ghiwane). So, modestly, began a cultural revolution that would quickly sweep Morocco and the rest of the Arab world. Nass El Ghiwane rejected Egyptian-style music (âsriya), with its languorous love songs in the Classical Arabic that then prevailed. Instead, these minstrels of contemporary Morocco sought their inspiration in autochthonous poetry, ancestral rites, and everyday life, denouncing the unemployment, corruption, and social inequality endemic to Moroccan society in particular and to Arab societies in general. At a time when young Moroccans wanted no more than to listen to the latest album by the Rolling Stones or the Who, Nass El Ghiwane made it cool to listen to the local product. Moroccans began to feel proud of their musical heritage.

Nass El Ghiwane quickly won a fervent, international following. Particularly momentous was the group’s decision to sing in Moroccan Darija, an Arabic dialect influenced by Amazigh that still doesn’t exist in written form, despite its rich oral tradition; they were the first to do so. (It’s worth emphasizing the linguistic schizophrenia that the protectorates bequeathed to the kingdom, where four or five languages continue to coexist: Amazigh, Darija, Classical Arabic, and French and/or Spanish.) Nass El Ghiwane’s decision to sing in the everyday language of the Moroccan people can be likened to Dante’s to write The Divine Comedy in vernacular Italian instead of Latin.

Filmed in 16 mm (and subsequently transferred to 35 mm for its release) on a derisory budget over a period of four months, with El Maânouni doing most of the camera work himself, Trances interweaves concert footage (from Carthage, Tunisia; Agadir and Essaouira in Morocco; and Paris), filmed interviews, and black- and-white archival footage. El Maânouni takes us on a route that reveals both the shared heritage of the band members—at the time of the film, Omar Sayed, Larbi Batma, Abderrahman Kirouche (nicknamed Paco), and Allal Yaâla—and their individual identities, thus creating a memorable portrait of the group and Morocco. The film opens with an eight-minute bravura set piece that immediately pulls us into its orbit: the musicians sing and play traditional instruments to a wildly enthusiastic audience in Carthage, made up of thousands, overflowing onto the stage, which is patrolled by policemen. Western viewers may categorize the movie in the genre of filmed concerts, like the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter (the Rolling Stones, 1970) or Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (the Band, 1978). Still, even if Génini’s point of departure was a documentary on Bob Marley, it’s clear that such cross-cultural comparisons have their limit. To understand Trances and the music of Nass El Ghiwane, we need to delve into Moroccan culture.

After the opening concert scene, we hitch a ride with Larbi, the group’s front man (and a Frank Zappa look-alike), to Hay Mohammedi, the Casablanca slum where the group got its start. While Casablanca (meaning, literally, “white house”) is well-known for its white, colonialist architecture, El Maânouni dares to expose the city’s less glamorous underbelly—in images that were nearly censored, until the musicians intervened. Despite its poverty, this neighborhood produced many creative talents in the sixties and seventies, including the choreographer-filmmaker Lahcen Zinoun. The opening of factories in Casablanca in the twenties created the need for workers’ housing, and Hay Mohammedi was the first of such shantytowns. In the early fifties, the area witnessed a bloody nationalist uprising in favor of the sultan and future king, led by the Istiqlal pro-independence party, that the French mercilessly vanquished. As a pacification measure, the colonialist authorities inaugurated several social clubs to improve the lives of Hay Mohammedi’s denizens. The band members, most of whom grew up just houses from one another, dropped out of school and became regulars at the Dar Chabab, a kind of YMCA or maison des jeunes, where, with the well-known theater director Tayeb Saddiki, they engaged in sung theater.

Trances devotes an interlude to Boujemâa H’gour, an important early member of the group who died in 1974, with archival footage of him performing. In a direct-address interview, Omar Sayed, who became the group’s de facto leader after Boujemâa’s death, explains that it was Boujemâa who convinced him to abandon Egyptian music for bssat, Moroccan folk theater. Another long sequence focuses on the charismatic Paco, who grew up not in Hay Mohammadi with the others but in Essaouira, formerly known as Mogador, on the Atlantic coast (where Welles partially filmed Othello). Trained as a maâlem, or Gnawa music master, Paco infused Nass El Ghiwane with the centuries-old Gnawa tradition, which originated with sub- Saharan slaves in Essaouira. Associated with a voodoo religious rite, Gnawa culminates in an extended, trance-inducing ceremony, a lila, intended to liberate its practitioners from evil spirits. From there, we cut to archival footage of the funeral of the beloved Mohamed V, who died prematurely in 1961, at age fifty-one. El Maânouni’s editing makes analogous the movements of those lost in a Gnawa trance with the mourning of the residents of Hay Mohammedi, a neighborhood so closely associated with the king and the independence movement that it was the first place he visited upon his return from exile. What’s clear from watching Nass El Ghiwane in public is the highly participative nature of their concerts. People perform a trancelike dance onstage and often embrace the four musicians. The spectator is an essential part of the equation.

Larbi, the group’s poet, then tells the story of Aïcha Kandicha. A historical figure from the sixteenth century who was often regarded as a djinn, she was rather, he tells us, the country’s first female resistant. A woman of great beauty, Kandicha, after being raped by a Portuguese soldier, killed him and then later died in battle herself. She’s Morocco’s Joan of Arc. The inclusion of her story reminds us of the country’s dolorous history of determined European colonization and of fierce Moroccan resistance. While Larbi recounts her valor, we watch archival footage that shows shots of bare-breasted prostitutes intercut with images of French legionnaires and other foreign military.

Nass El Ghiwane’s success coincided with the near forty-year reign of Hassan II (1961–99), Mohammed V’s son. Following two attempts on his life in the early 1970s, the monarch implemented martial law in the kingdom, imprisoning many political dissidents; nearly every Moroccan family knows someone incarcerated under his iron rule. While some interpret Nass El Ghiwane’s lyrics as a call against those leaden years, the reality is more complicated. Hassan II was a music lover and a fan of artists, and under him, the Moroccan film industry made great strides. (In 1986, Trances’s coproducer, Souheil Ben Barka—cousin of the left-wing politician Mehdi Ben Barka, who was “disappeared” in 1965—was appointed the director of the CCM by the king. He remained in that position until 2003, when Nour-Eddine Saïl, its current director, took over.) Nass El Ghiwane, reports Omar Sayed, enjoyed cordial, almost amicable, relations with Hassan II. On several occasions, he invited them to perform, and also aided the group when they were threatened with censorship.

With Trances, Izza Génini found her calling. In addition to her ongoing and untiring promotion of Moroccan and African cinema with her company Ohra (formerly Sogeav), she has devoted herself since 1987 to exploring the wealth of Moroccan musical culture in a series of eleven films she both directed and produced, entitled Maroc, corps et âme (Morocco, Body and Soul). As for El Maânouni, his post-Trances filmography has focused on documentaries, including, notably, one on the life and reign of Mohamed V, made in 2000 for Moroccan television. His return to feature films in 2007, Les cœurs brûlés (Burned Hearts), won the Grand Prix at Morocco’s National Film Festival.

Not surprisingly, a country focused on jump-starting production—as Morocco has been since gaining its independence—gives short shrift to its archives. Morocco can boast of a strong tradition of cinephilia, which these days is transmitted via the country’s abundant film festivals, but what the kingdom needs now is a festival dedicated to the restoration and exhibition of older Moroccan films, like Italy’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, run by the Cineteca di Bologna. Thankfully, Martin Scorsese—who first saw Trances in 1981—has gotten the ball rolling by inaugurating his World Cinema Project with the restoration of that film, one that has played a pivotal role in his own career and that he calls “the soundtrack of my life.”

In spearheading the project to film Nass El Ghiwane, Génini and El Maânouni made an inestimable contribution not just to Moroccan and world musical patrimony—Nass El Ghiwane were in the vanguard of what is now popularly called “world music,” and their influence extends to such Western musicians as Peter Gabriel—but also to human rights. The well- known Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun understood this when he saw Nass El Ghiwane perform in Paris in 1978. The audience, he tells us, was made up primarily of immigrant workers and their families, enraptured by the group’s “singing of the earth and dreaming of ‘a generation where there will be neither master nor slave.’ ” Today, a Western audience can easily grasp that Nass El Ghiwane were an early augur of the recent Arab Spring. As Marcel Duchamp once famously said, “It’s spectators who make a work of art.” And the revolution.

The author would like to thank Ahmed El Maânouni, Izza Génini, Souheil Ben Barka, Ahmed Affach at the CCM, James Chabert, Jean-Marc Lamotte at the Institut Lumière, Kasha Pieprzak of Williams College, Miguel Abreu, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, and to acknowledge the assistance of Omar Sayed’s Nass El Ghiwane (Les Editions du Sirocco, 2011), Tahar Ben Jelloun’s “Regard les larmes heureuses” (Le monde, October 30, 1978), Moulay Driss Jaïdi’s Histoire du cinéma au Maroc: Le cinéma colonial (Rabat, 2001), and Abdelmajid Hadjji’s Arabs in American Cinema (1894–1930): Flappers Meet Sheiks in New Movie Genre (2013).