Patrick Brennan: Rhythms of Passion
AAJ: How did you meet the Gnawa musicians of Morocco with whom you have collaborated both in performance and on record?
From left: Patrick Brennan, Lisle Ellis
PB: While living in Portugal in the '90s, I woke up to the opportunity that Africa was only a couple days travel away if Morocco was the destination. I'd heard recordings of Gnawa music which had deeply impressed me, and I'd noted some maybe not so distant parallels with some of Coltrane's early '60s modal music. The Sahel aspects of both the Gnawa and the blues sound were one thingMetallic polyrhythmic percussion was another. And the kinship between the gut string sound of the sintir or guimbri and Jimmy Garrison, a major hero in my bass pantheon, was just uncanny. But I'd also read that Gnawa were not easy to come across in public, and, not being the pious sort, I was just a bit intimidated that theirs is an explicitly mystical and possibly exclusive practice. So, I carried no expectations; and being suspicious of cultural tourism, I left my horn behind too.
But Morocco circulates a completely different attitude than either America or Europe, which you can feel as soon as you step off the boat. This is Africa, and music means more than entertainment, spectacle or decoration. I'd meet Gnawa performing in public squares or in their shops and homes, nearly always open, warm, down to earth, full of a playful humor. Over and over, I was encouraged to come back and play, which is exactly what I did on my second visit. So, here's this ethnically Irish-American guy meeting comments from serious musicians, "How come you know our music so well?" This was profound. I didn't know their music the way they knew it. I was just playing out of the ethics of our own sonic community and surprised that my contribution was more than welcomed. That gave me a lot to think about and says a lot about the extraordinary reach and depth of Pan-African musical attitudes.
AAJ: When you recorded with Najib Soudani and Nirankar Khalsa on Sudani(Deep Dish, 1999). What was their experience in spontaneous music?
PB: Khalsa, of course, was born in Chicago and comes from what I call musical aristocracy: generations of blues, gospel and jazz musicians. His father, William Henderson Jr., drummed for Ahmad Jamal. And Nirankar was later a regular member of Horace Tapscott's Pan-African Peoples Arkestra in L.A. He's lived in Madrid for a good while, which is where we met. And that was the just part of the good fortune. He's a superb, multifaceted musician who plays traps, bamboo flute and sang impromptu blues with Najib during the session. I couldn't imagine anyone more perfect for that situation.
Some of my new friends in Essaouira had been urging me to get together with this Gnawi, Najib Soudani. He was supposed to be something special. They were right. Previously, I'd been careful to respect the mostly pentatonic sonic palette I'd been hearing in the singing and playing of the Gnawa I'd met. Najib's rhythm, however, was hotter, with a different funk to it; and I was hearing all these un-tempered tritones, flat 9s and major 7ths, which resonated a lot closer to my own hearing. That, by itself, took me out, and I followed those sounds. And soon enough I was playing more and more from my own personal sound sense. The more "out" it got, the more he smiled. That was something elseand the beginning of a strong and continuing mutual friendship.
One time, Najib and his compatriots took me down the coast to a shrine at Sidi Kouki, where we spent the night playing together. I was watching closely how he led his band in relation to my contributionsdynamics, tempos, changes of directionand had to wonder just how different this really was from Count Basie. They're playing Black Music, and we're playing Black Music. There's call-and-response, rhythmic pocket and an intent to "lift the bandstand." A Gnawi m'allem has to correspond with dancers who become inhabited by spirits during the Lila. Spontaneous flexibility is a part of the relationship as it is in our musical practices.
Since that core aspect of the tradition is intact both here and there, it's simply been a matter of meeting on that common ground. While I was hoping that the recording might, among other things, help Najib to get more work outside Morocco, I was bemused by the exoticism buzz that gathers around a "world music" collaboration. Nothing I've recorded called "jazz" has ever received that much attention. And I mean, Gnawan people are not exotic to themselves. Then this exoticism tag gets tied into this popular mythology of "fusion," which presupposes fixed "styles" that find a new life in recombination. But musicians fuse ideas and sounds all the time. There's nothing new about "fusion" at all. We weren't playing styles or trying to affect a new one. Nobody was pretending to be somebody else. It was an interaction, not a stylization. Najib brought something into my musical world, and I brought something to his, and likewise with Nirankar. Each of us spoke with the others in terms of our own distinctive histories, experience and imagination.