Hoofed Seductress, Anti-Colonial Assassin. Musician SamiR LanGus Invokes A Childhood Legend
Aicha Qandicha is a terrifying and complicated legend in North Africa. Children know that staying out after dark means risking the wrath of the camel-footed jinn. During Spanish and French colonization of Morocco, the boogeywoman was retold as an anti-colonial warrior who seduced then slit the throats of military men.
Gnawa musician SamiR LanGus grew up in fear before embracing the nuance of her character.
SamiR LanGus (Arabic: لانگوس, Tamazight: ⵙⴰⵎⵉⵔ ⵍⴰⵏⴳⵓⵙ) plays Gnawa, a North African genre of trance music with the same name as the ethnic group that introduced the intricate 6/8 rhythms to Morocco. LanGus grew up surrounded by the music, following marching street musicians, losing himself in the neighborhood. Originally from Agadir, Morocco, he now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. In his single released in June 2021, LanGus shares the story of Aicha Qandicha in "Lala Aicha.”
LanGus’ reworked version weaves together jazz countermelodies with a traditional Gnawa bassline and call-and-response vocals. Collaborating on the track are Oran Etkin on bass clarinet, Ran Livneh on upright bass, percussionist Nizar Dahmani and vocalists Carolina Mama and Arta Jēkabsone.
LanGus joined host Caitlin Leggett on Changing Channels for a conversation about Gnawa culture and lore.
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Caitlin Leggett: Can you tell us a little bit about the culture behind the music?
SamiR LanGus: It's not just the music, it's a culture. Because you cannot just go to music school and just pick the gimbri, your instrument, and you're just going to study it. No, it's like, if you want to study jazz, you have to know the history of the whole jazz. If you want to do blues, like you just study the whole culture. It's not just one instrument.
So basically, Gnawa music is healing, very spiritual music that's been played in these long night ceremonies, we call them lilas, which is a night. And back in the day it used to last seven days, but now people cannot afford to have seven days. You can just do one night. And they play all the colors. Basically, we have seven colors, and each color has its own spirit.
When you go to a lila, that's the last color that they play before sunset. It's the black, so they play Aicha Kandicha.
A subset of the Amazigh, the Tuareg ethnic group has received global acclaim for bearing the torch of the Desert blues genre. Tinariwen blends trance vocals and Amazigh lyricism with West African rhythms.
A generation after Ali Farka Touré, Tinariwen is yet another call and response from within the West African diaspora. The North Africans echo back their remix of Mississippi Delta Blues and British Rock n Roll. As a result of the global influence and indigenous Tuareg roots of their music, Tinariwen has faced violence from funamentalist Islamist groups in Mali.
On the origins of Gnawa’s diverse rhythms:
When they brought the slaves from West Africa to Morocco, they were divided, like people from this tribe, they didn't care. They just mix everyone, and they separated them based on the way they want. So a lot of people who are separated from their loved ones, separated from their families — the only way to look for them and see which town they may be at is by playing the music and going and touring the whole country. Basically just during the whole country and playing that rhythm that's very specific for this tribe.
CL: What other sounds do you hear Gnawa influencing?
SL: When the Gnawa settled in Morocco, they adapted to different styles of music that was already in Morocco. Like if we talk about the Amazigh people, we have a different style of music, like the rhythm is very complicated — it’s a little bit different. So once you hear it, you're like, “Oh, click, okay. That's an Amazigh rhythm. So we adapted that into some of the rhythms. And we also adapted some of the other traditions that we have.
... Gnawas are genius. Yes. I always say this, you know, because they came and they dominated the whole market. So now, the only music that represents Morocco overseas is Gnawa music. So if you go anywhere, and you talk about Morocco, they are like, “Oh Gnawa music!” Or like if you talk about Gnawa music they are like, ”Oh, Morocco!”
Even "traditional" music is oftentimes a blend of various styles. Maalem Hamid El Kasri blended the Gnawa traditions of North and South Morocco.
El Kasri's interpretation of “Lalla Aicha” features the traditional rhythmic section of krakebs, iron castanets that represent the shackles of enslaved Gnawese West Africans trafficked to North Africa in the late 1700s.
CL: Can you tell us about the new single about Lala Aicha?
SL: Growing up as a child, I used to be scared of her. And, I swear to God, I posted on my story and asked, “What do you know about Lala Aicha?” And, just like five people answered. They know so many different stories, but no one wanted to answer. ...Because, growing up, our parents used to scare us from going out late at night.
My mom used to scare me like, “Look, son, if you pass this border, Aicha Kandicha will come and get you…Yes, she's beautiful. She has long dark hair. And she wears white long clothes. And she has like cow feet.” And I'm like, ”It doesn't make sense, mama. How does she have cow feet?” ... Even now, like when you go to a lila, that's the last color that they play before sunset. It's the black, so they play Aicha Kandicha.
The Amazigh group Ahwache Houara offer a massive rhythmic energy to the call and response. While this Ahidus style features different instrumentation than Gnawa, the same accented 6/8 rhythms propel the call-and-response vocals.
Northwest Africa is an intersection of trade routes stretching back to the late Roman empire. This long history of exchange continues to pollinate musical traditions like flamenco, hip-hop and samba with Gnawa and Amazigh styles.