Tag Archives: gimbri

Imran builds his ngoni…

From his peaceful pocket of Bamako Waou answered my question, “you want to build a ngoni? It’s very hard!”.

With a little convincing he patiently showed me how to hand build an ngoni, the grandfather of the banjo.

Step 1: Taking a large tree trunk we chopped a log to the rough size of my future ngoni’s body.

Chopping the raw log

Step 2: Putting down our axes we carved out the inside to make a canoe shape and then sanded its rough surface.

Axe and feet

Imran and Waou

Carved body of the Ngoni

Step 3: Then we drilled about 16 holes around the edge of the body before creating a groove at one end for the neck to lay.

Step 4: Cutting bamboo poles we made around 20 wooden nails.

Step 5: Then for the smelly job, we sliced the cow skin (which had soaked overnight) to the shape of the body.

Step 6: Using the bamboo nails, we stretched the skin across the body and pinned it into place.

Stretching the skin

Step 7: Using a chisel tool we carved the neck to the shape of a broom handle with a spike at one end. We then cut holes into the skin and inserted the neck of the instrument.

Waou at work

Step 8: We then left the whole thing to dry in the blistering 42 degree heat of the Malian sunshine. With the scorching sunshine the skin-drying only takes a few hours!

The ngoni dries in the sun

Step 9: Using a hack saw we cut off the bamboo pins to the body.

Step 10: The instrument finished, we moved onto the strings

“What was used before nylon fishing line was available?” I ask.

Horse hair” explains Waou, his eyes scarcely stray from his work. Remembering a story of European violin players having to hunt down cats to make strings from their guts, I tell Waou that his ancestors were far more civilised than their European counterparts.

Trying to get that intricate knot right!

Waou attaches a string to the neck

After attaching all the strings to the instrument (six in this case), he proudly checks it over, fine tunes it and gives it a play. It is difficult to imagine that a day earlier it was little more that a log of wood, a fragment of calabash, some cow skin and a few metres of fishing line

For all the photos, click here.


Banjo Berbère…

We love to cycle, otherwise we would not be cycling thousands of kilometres. However we are but man, and man must laze, eat and laze some more.

And laze we have done, though it’s fair to say we have invested in our musical time here in Essaouira. Everyone here is a musician and taking time to hear what everyone has to offer has been worthwhile.

Medina street

Take Ibrahim; a twenty something gimbri player who works in a music shop by day and plays Gnawa music by night. Ibrahim made time for us, was patient with Imran as he showed him the ropes of Krakeb playing and was keen to share his love of music. Until we met Ibrahim our short time in Essaouira had brought us to be pessimists, verging on snobs. Until we reached Essaouira, we had grown accustomed to being the only tourists in town and we found the crowds of mini-skirt parading tourists undignified. However, Essaouira wisely taught us a lesson, not to judge too sharply and to keep our eyes open.

Ibrahim playing gimbri

Imran and Ibrahim jamming...

It does seem strange that it would take a banjo for us to fully warm to Essaouira. But it has indeed been the banjo Berbère that brought us to enjoy a Moroccan jam session. After playing music and meeting various musicians around the small city we were packing our bags to leave. But in the time it took for a handful of photos to be printed we had been introduced to half a band; waiters by day and musicians by night.

True to the Moroccan spirit we were invited to rest in a quiet lounge style room with low lying couches in deep reds and gold- within a few minutes we were sipping tea and listening to the sound of the gimbri once again.

Abdul playing Gimbri

But this time the feel of the music was transformed by the resonating sound of the 4 string banjo and a gimbri. We had seen banjos for sale in various music shops but remained unenlightened as to why there presence here seemed so strong.

Mohammed playing BanjoHere the banjo is creatively played as a lotar style instrument. The lotar is a 4-string lute with a hollow tear-drop shaped carved body. Unique to musicians in the regions of the High Atlas Mountains of southwestern Morocco, it has a similar tone to the banjo. This is not a concidence, as some banjo enthusiasts or ethnomusicologists will already know that the banjo, gimbri and lotar can all trace their ancestry to the West-African ngoni.  Seing the banjo played alongside its cousin, the gimbri, was uncanny.

As they finished work the musicians around us grew in number, occasionally running away from a tune to serve a customer. We were encouraged warmly to join in and with such a supportive environment both of us felt at home.

Mikaela looks challenged by Gimbri

But every laze must come to an end, and ours will end abruptly in Tan Tan. Annoyingly our Mauritanian visa requires us to enter before the 5th November, thus we need to pick up the pace a little to allow us time in Dakhla to organise our border crossing safely. All of this means its time to take a bus, just to Tan Tan, conveniently missing some of the high mountain peaks! With freshly laundered clothes, a bag full of coconut macaroons and a couple of Kebabs we begin the next chunk of the voyage, the road into the Sahara

The beauty of Gnawa music…

With the advice of the gimbri carver we met in the park yesterday we take a bus towards the Kasbah of the Udayas expecting to hear some gnawa music in a concert like venue.

Using the Moroccan GPS we make our way towards what tranpired to be a private address in an old part of the city. As we grow closer to te house the location of the music we were looking for becomes very clear. The rhytmic crash of the krakebs hits the night air and stops us in our tracks, this was unmistakable sound of Gnawa music. We take timid steps closer to the house where we are spotted looking intrigued and are swept into the house through a large timber door. The building, an old riad style house has an open terrace carpetted with traditional rugs and littered with Moroccan antiques. The walls tell the stories of history, swords and daggers, gold leaf paintings with pensive looking warrior characters. The terrace is cushioned with satin pillows and low laying intricately carved tables. In the welcoming palm of each table and cushion sit ornate silver teapots, the smell of their sweet mint tea filling the air.

The intoxicating sound of the Gnawa music is encaptivating and as we stare around the room in awe of the scene sorrounding us it felt as though we might be beautifully invisible. No one is stirred by our unusual presence. We are not questioned as to why we have come. Each individual seems caught in their own moment, the hypnotic rhythm of the krakebs and the soulful tone of the gimbri.


Gnawa music is ancient in its origins, and there are intertwining influences between West African music and the Gnawa tones. Descendents of Sub-Saharan slaves the Gnawa are well known for their traditions of trance like music. The krakebs have an intoxicating effect on the mind, and it’s easy to see how it can induce a trance state. The empowering volume alone is impressive, but it’s the rhythm that tricks the mind. Rhythms are either a loose 4/4  comparable to samba, or a 2 against 3 feel. Short in cycle, you subconsciously hear a different rhythm each time.

A break arrives in the music and we are invited to sit with the musicians who are keen to tell us more about their culture.

‘The thing you must know is that the music we play is a pure form of Gnawa, there is nothing commercial in this. This music is part of our belief system and the people who have come here today are here to heal spiritual ailments.’

The gimbri player, Sadiki sits next to us and prepares his hashish/tobacco mixture before puffing gracefully at a long wooden pipe. Next to him the three krakeb players sip their mint tea quietly and listen to th conversation nodding in agreement at intervals.

‘We are here weekly and local people know of our music and this house. They come here specifically to be healed.’

The break is over and they return to sit and play. Many moments seem to have passed us but we are unaware of how long we have been sat for. Slowly, one by one, the people around us crawl towards the musicians. In trance they move to the rhytyms, shaking their heads, crying and swaying from side to side vigourously. The women who work and live in the house cover them in silk scarves of seven different colours (representing the seven different spirits) and for every person who joins more incense is added to the smoking embers.

The music seems to reach a climax but then draws back again before entering a series of prayers, then another series of songs are played. Finally, as each participant calms and their movements simmer the music so too follows, more prayers are said and a break is taken.

The musicians again join us for tea, this time they are grinning in our direction as they humourously stretch out their hands and fingers, they have been playing now for some 45 minutes continuously.

‘This will continue all night. You see, we are not simply playing songs, every piece is part of a complex set of musical passages which we must finish playing. We will be here all night.’

A warm welcome in Morocco…

After a brief struggle in the post-strike mayhem of the ferry port we were on our way to Nador on a 30 hour journey across the choppy Medittarean. The time passed us by quickly, we napped, we ate, we napped some more and before we knew it we had arrived.

Ferry napping

We found our way to the train station to take the Rabat service before nightfall, only to be approached by the guard who informed us that we would not be able to travel as there was no room for our heavily loaded bikes. The kind guard immidiately offered to show us the way to the bus office at the end of his shift (which happened to be 5 mins away). With some concerned looks from the office staff who realised that weighing our bikes (standard practice for all bus luggage) was not going to be feasible, we were helped to negotiate a price and loaded our bikes on board, eating up about a third of luggage space!

Loading bikes onto bus

Twelve hours and a sugary-tea stop later we arrived in Rabat to see the sunrise.We telephoned Kamal who we would be staying with in Rabat, and proudly announced that we had a GPS and thus would be able to find his house with a simple address. Five minutes later we called him back explaining that the GPS did not show his house, Kamal was calm and simply told us that we should use the ‘Moroccan GPS’. This complex system followed this format…

‘Salam Aleikoum, do you know how to get to 2 Avenue El Fath..?’

(Scratches head in knowing fashion) ‘Ouais, Ouais… turn right and follow the street and ask someone’.

‘Salam Aleikoum, do you know how to get to 2 Avenue El Fath..?’

(Rubs chin in knowing fashion) ‘Ouias, Ouais, straight ahead until the roundabout, head towards the sea and ask someone’.

‘Salam Aleikoum, do you know how to get to 2 Avenue El Fath..?’

(Nods with the look of a man of local wisdom) ‘Ouias, Ouais, left at this corner and in maybe 2 km ask someone’.

The instructions continue until, to our utter suprise and shock we actually arrive at our desired location (this system has now worked for us on countless occasions, even with just the name of a household).

Kamal greeted us with a big smile introducing us to the warmth of Moroccan hospitality with a beautiful lunch and condensed tour of Rabat; his local knowledge and gentle manner made our first day in Morocco perfect. Kamal also introduced us to his close friend and neighbour Driss and his wife Nissrine. True to Moroccan hospitality they immediately offered us their spare bedroom, rather than us sleeping in Kamal’s livingroom. Overwhelmed by their generosity we have begun to feel like part of an extended family here, the regular gatherings of family with large feasts of lamb, fish and tagines have done nothing to distract from this feeling.

Imran and Kamal

Kamal showed us around the city to admire the Chellah (dating back to 1339), taking a leisurly stroll around the artesan market and ending our day sipping sweet Moroccan tea looking out across the sublime Kasbah of the Udayas.

Udayas Viez

With its beautiful garden and amazing terrace overlooking the river and port, it was not surprising that it is known as a hub of creativity. To our geeky delight we spotted a young musician carving wood to a shape suspiciously like that of a gimbri (a Moroccan lute of West African origin). We got chatting and asked if he knew of any Gnawa music in Rabat, he suggested we go along to a soirée and gave us an address. It seems as though the music we have been cycling for may be near by…

Carving a gimbri