Born September 16, 1963, in Marrakesh, Morocco. Addresses: Record company--Caroline Records, 114 West 26th Street, New York, NY 10001.
Moroccan-born Hassan Hakmoun is among the most eclectic of popular musicians. Though schooled in the deeply traditional sounds of the Gnawa people in his native Marrakesh, since moving to the United States in 1987, Hakmoun's music has absorbed elements from a variety of popular styles including jazz, rock, funk, and hip-hop. His fan base has broadened with his musical range. And his participation in the European-based organization WOMAD (World of Music, Art, and Dance) and collaborations with other musicians, such as the Kronos quartet, have brought him further into the spotlight.
Hakmoun's musical origins are rooted in the African folk music of the Islamic Gnawa sect. The Gnawa people are descended from West African slaves who were brought to North Africa several hundred years ago. Their music combines complicated West African syncopations with long and sinuous North African melodies. Tracing their roots back to the Bilal, the slave of the Islamic prophet Mohammed and the first to sing an Islamic call to prayer, Gnawa musicians often express their religious devotion through their music, using it to enter spiritual trance states and to heal the sick and injured. Hassan began studying the music at a very young age. As he told Gene Santoro of New York's Daily News, "My sister was one year old when she had burned her whole belly. The Gnawas came and played all night ... and asked for forgiveness for what she had done to cause this to happen. They healed her, which drew me into the music. I was five years old."
Hakmoun began to grasp the Gnawa form by rote repetition, copying the old masters. "To learn this music," he said in the New York Times, "you have to go and listen to the musicians playing. You cannot write this music, you have to be friends of the musicians and listen, listen, listen to it first. Then you get your instrument, and you buy a tape of the music and listen to it, and go back to the musicians, and ask how you can use your finger to get this note."
While still a youngster, Hakmoun chose the sintir as his main instrument. The sintir is a three-stringed lute with a body made of camel skin stretched over nut wood. The strings are pitched low, so the instrument can serve as the bass foundation, much like the Western string bass. But the tone of the sintir is sweet, so it is also well suited to carrying the melodic line of a composition. By drumming on the body, Hakmoun adds his own percussion, while also contributing vocals. Moreover, he is schooled in the traditional trance-inducing dances.
Gnawa musicians frequently earn their living on the streets, and Hassan started performing there a few years after beginning to study. "I was ten or eleven years old when I began, and it was very hard," he told Paul Roland of Folk Roots magazine. "At first I was just happy and excited to be playing to people, usually in front of their houses. But when I was fourteen, I formed my own group."
Hakmoun first visited the United States with a group of Gnawa musicians in 1987 for a government-sponsored concert at Lincoln Center in New York. The experience was so positive that he decided to stay. He spent his first few years working at a T-shirt factory to supplement his performance income. He performed both by himself and with others. When performing by himself, he frequently would dance for his audience to a tape of his own playing.
In 1989 Hakmoun became part of the group Magmouat Hakmoun with his brother Said and two other relatives, Mohammed Bechar and Abdel Hok Dahmad. While the music they performed included both sacred and secular pieces, the emphasis was frequently on the sacred. "It is spiritual music," he told the New York Times. "People in Morocco cannot use [the sintir] when they are drunk or when they are not clean. It's like you're going to mosque; the words we are singing should be respected. We are singing about gods and prophets, and it is very serious." In 1989 the World Music Institute produced Hakmoun's debut album, entitled Moroccan Gnawi Songs.
For both musical and commercial reasons, Hakmoun began to expand his range, adding some American sounds to the Moroccan form. He told Paul Roland of Folk Roots magazine that he "came to America playing traditional Moroccan music, but I didn't find a large audience so I mixed it with jazz, reggae, funk and salsa and Western instruments. Then I formed my own band with the help of my new American friends, but I had to rehearse and teach them for a long time."
With his "new American friends," Hakmoun formed the group Zahar. An early version of the band included only Hakmoun, Hahn Rowe on electric guitar and violin, and Yuval Gabay on drums; the ensemble grew to eventually include seven musicians, among them three percussionists, Anthony Michael Petersen on electric guitar, and Sabir Rizaev on soprano saxophone. Their music fused elements of rock and jazz with African styles, resulting in a completely new sound. The Calgary Herald attested, "[Their music] spans centuries. It blows through the streets of New York where [Hakmoun] now lives, incorporating rock and funk, percussive Afro-jazz grooves, buoyed by wild guitar riffs and sax solos. It is exotic and yet familiar." Newsday called Hakmoun's work a combination of "polyrhythmic funk, harmelodic jazz, and tough dancehall-reggae attitude."
In 1992 Hakmoun joined WOMAD, which had been founded in 1980 by pop musician Peter Gabriel. Under WOMAD's wing, Hakmoun has been spreading his Moroccan fusion outside of the United States. He cut another album, Trance, at Gabriel's Real World Studios in Bath, England. From Bath, Hakmoun toured Europe, the Middle East, and the United States with other WOMAD artists. In 1994, he performed under the group's auspices at the Woodstock '94 festival before a huge audience. In fact, Hakmoun's increased exposure has resulted in letters of admiration from former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, television host Jay Leno, and saxophonist David Sanborn, as well as from executives of the New York Times and British Broadcasting Corporation.
Despite the stylistic growth of Hakmoun's music, he remains committed to the traditional sounds of his childhood. "Traditional music is like my key," he said in the New York Daily News, "and I can't get home if I lose it. It's my best friend, my gift from God." Of his popularity outside of Morocco, Hakmoun explained, "People follow me ... and afterward they feel good, even though they don't understand the words I'm singing."
by Robin Armstrong
Hassan Hakmoun's Career
Began formal study of Gnawa music, c. 1968; street performer in Morocco, c. 1973; formed own group, c. 1977; made American debut at Lincoln Center, New York City, 1987; worked in T-shirt factory, late 1980s; performed at Ethnic Folk Arts Center, New York City, 1988; opened World Music Institute's fall season at Symphony Space, New York City, 1989; joined group Magmouat Hakmoun, 1989; formed group Zahar; recorded with WOMAD (World of Music, Art, and Dance) artists at Real World Studios, Bath, England, 1992; toured with WOMAD, 1992--; collaborated with Kronos Quartet, 1993; with WOMAD, performed at Woodstock '94, 1994.
- Selective Works
- Moroccan Gnawi Songs, World Music Institute, 1989.
- Gift of the Gnawa, Flying Fish Records, 1991.
- Trance, Realworld/Virgin, 1993.
- (With Kronos Quartet), Pieces of Africa, Elektra Nonesuch, 1993.
- Billboard, September 5, 1992.
- Calgary Herald (Alberta, Canada), December 19, 1993.
- Detroit Free Press, June 3, 1994.
- Folk Roots, September 1993.
- Newsday, October 17, 1989; March 22, 1994.
- New York Daily News, January 14, 1994.
- New York Times, January 26, 1988; September 29, 1989; June 1, 1990; June 4, 1991; December 13, 1993.
- USA Today, July 12, 1994.
- Washington Post, October 2, 1989.
- Additional information for this profile was provided by Caroline/Real World Records.