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2017 Folk Fest Pick: The Ecstatic Players of Innov Gnawa are Focused on Authenticity

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The Gnawa music of Morocco is deeply religious and immediately accessible.

The country has been ground zero for popular world music since Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones recorded there in 1968. The last Gnawa musician to play the Richmond Folk Festival — the energetic and charismatic Hassan Hakmoun — was one of the standouts of the 2012 weekend. All of this bodes well for this year’s appearance of Brooklyn-based Innov Gnawa.

Samir Langus, a Moroccan expatriate living in North Carolina, moved to New York after meeting band founder and master musician Hassan Ben Jaafer. While he and many of his bandmates aren’t ethnically Gnawa, they were drawn to the music’s power, both as an art form and a healing force.

“I quit my job,” Langus says. “I don’t have time to do both. I gave up everything to try to learn from the maestro.”

“What we are doing is traditional Gnawa, spiritual music,” he says. “It is very traditional, only the gimbri (a three-stringed lute) and castanets.”

Langus points to Hakmoun’s use of a full drum kit, which gives the music more rock-’n’-roll punch — in his view, at the cost of authenticity. “What [Hakmoun] does is good, but we want to do the real thing. We have a saying, ‘If you run away from your roots, you are going to search for them.’”

He emphasizes that the band is not commercial: “We don’t care about bigger gigs. We are the ambassadors of Moroccan music in America.”

In the early days, the group played everywhere it could — in small clubs, private parties, in various subway stations — all over New York. Innov Gnawa has played healing ceremonies, called lila, in Sufi centers across the country. Unlike Moroccan lila, which traditionally last 12 hours, the American version is truncated, and lasts from 8 p.m. to midnight. But their force was intact, he says.

“Most of the audience was Americans,” Langus says. “I looked at this guy in front of me and his eyes were white, turned up in his head. I wondered how do you get into a trance if you don’t understand Arabic? But music is the language. If you listen, it will touch you.”

Langus says audiences should expect everything: screaming, jumping, people lapsing into trances. All from just a few strings, clanging metal and vocals.

“How can you have only two instruments and the music be so powerful?” he says. “Because it is healing music. It’s strong because it is real.”

Innov Gnawa performs on Saturday, Oct. 14, from 3:30 to 4:15 p.m. at Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion and from 6:15 to 7 p.m. on the WestRock Foundation Stage. It performs on Sunday, Oct. 15, from 1:15 to 2 p.m. at the CoStar Stage.

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