One would need 500 sets of ears to fully appreciate the musical talent and dynamic culture rippling throughout the Detroit area. Imagine trying to ingest a world full of sound. But as communication and commerce leave their telltale footprints across the globe, human curiosity in music and culture follows quickly behind.
Picking up on this desire for international experiences, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History presents its 18th annual African World Festival Aug. 18-20. Starting with a Parade of Nations at 5 p.m. Friday, Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit will be transformed into an international marketplace with 200 vendors, traditional dance and craft lessons, and five stages of local and international musicians. A few of the artists scheduled include Femi Kuti, Sister Carol, Buju Bantan, the Ohio Players, Ras Kente and the Take No Prisoners Posse and Hassan Hakmoun. DJs, MCs, dancers, bebop orchestras and art demonstrations are planned as well. The theme for this year’s free event is “The Souls That Bind Us: A Celebration of Our Similarities.” And to Hakmoun, that resonates “peace, and learning about each other and teaching each other.”
The sintir player (a basslike, three-stringed lute) is known worldwide for his spiritually moving performances of the tagnawit (the traditional arts, folklore and rituals of the Gnawa people). His performances are almost levitating, as his music was originally performed in the homes of people who needed to be healed or rid of invading spirits. He moved to New York City from Marrakech, Morocco more than a decade ago when he was 22 years old, walking out of the airport and into a foreign land where he didn’t know the language — or anyone. Eventually, he met up with a fellow Moroccan who helped him out.
“I used to work and play music in restaurants,” Hakmoun explained. “I would give him my dinner and he would give me 10 words a night. I wrote them down and the next day, he’d have 10 more.”
Since those early days, Hakmoun’s comfort level has increased considerably. He now relates stories with a hearty “heh-heh” chuckle and speaks tenderly about his current girlfriend (and fellow musician) Paula Cole, whom he met while on tour with Peter Gabriel.
Moving from Morocco to New York and touring the world, Hakmoun has witnessed firsthand the cultural trading between the various countries. And while many individuals in the “world music” community shun the title because it mixes styles that don’t necessarily go together, Hakmoun shrugs off the controversy.
“In Brazil, American music is called world music. It’s not just music from Third World countries.”
Hakmoun says that Europeans in particular are catching the “world music” bug at the moment.
“I think people have a right to know what’s going on out there. People have choices. I don’t think they have as many choices here in America, because they only show you what they want to show you, what they want to sell you. That’s the policy in America, but I think some day it will change.”
Hakmoun learned the dances, songs, drumming, litanies and chants of the Gnawa people from his mother when he was 7 years old. The Gnawa were former slaves from the Sudan who converted to Islam upon arriving in Morocco. Individuals who participate in the tagnawit act as entertainers and also intermediaries between earth and the spirit world. Many of Hakmoun’s songs are based on the derdeba, a trance ritual held to placate spirits within people or places. The mesmerizing music is rhythm based, with sharp percussion and overlying chants.
As a teenager, Hakmoun studied under Gnawa masters in France. After returning to Marrakech, he learned songs of Arab and Berber origin. He then moved to the United States in 1987 and performed in a fusion band called Zahar. Now, he mostly performs solo or with a quartet, which includes his brother.
“I never have the same show,” Hakmoun says. “I never write set lists. I just go in and play. Usually I play with my family, and in a show if I cough, they know what to do. We really know each other very deeply. It’s very spiritual. People who go to (our) shows, they say they feel they’ve been very close to God.”
With the worldwide marketplace comes change and, even though outside influences stream through an artist’s work, Hakmoun doesn’t see a dumbing down of tradition in order to attract a wider audience. In the information packet for the African World Festival is a photograph of young Zambian children creating traditional banana-leaf art with metal shears in button-up cotton shirts, corduroys and leather shoes. Their “Western” clothing and “modern” tools don’t give their art any less authenticity.
It’s all representative of an ever-changing environment and respect for tradition — a celebration of our similarities.