ASMAA HAMZAOUI, BNAT TIMBOUKTOU
Much fuss is being made over the young Gnawi maalma (female maalem) Asmâa Hamzaoui, who, still in her early 20s, is performing and recording her interpretation of a repertoire traditionally led by men such as her father, maalem Rachid El Hamzaoui. Asmâa was a toddler when she began attending lilas (all-night healing ceremonies) and was playing gimbri (three-stringed bass lute) in her father's troupe by the age of six. In 2017, barely out of her teens, she made her live debut at the Essaouira Gnawa & World Music Festival, dressed in traditional cowrie shell-bedecked garb, sporting multicoloured hair extensions and joined by five young women chanting and clacking qaraqab (metal castanets). It was so-so; she was still finding her voice.
Now comes Oulad Lghaba (Children of the Forest), and what a difference two years makes. Her voice is crystalline and might, deployed with conviction on 11 tracks from the black repertoire, which fuse mystic Islam with West African animism, namechecking sub-Saharan ancestors, communing with djinns, shouting out to Allah. Her bandmates ululate and call-and-respond, finishing each tune with a single satisfying snap of qaraqab. Asmâa Hamzaoui, with her silvery voice and driving gimbri rhythms, feels warrior-like. There are big things to come.