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Poetic music documentary “Trances” embraces the singing soul of Morocco

Director Ahmed El Maanouni’s entrancing portrait of avant-garde folk-soul band Nass El Ghiwane screens at UW Cinematheque on March 25.

Header Image: The four members of the revolutionary Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane sing and play traditional instruments as wildly enthusiastic devotees of their music dance with abandon.

The vibrant, intimate, and mesmerizing Trances (1981) immediately envelops viewers in a dense, otherworldly soundscape of the Moroccan avant-garde folk-soul band Nass El Ghiwane. Director Ahmed El Maanouni’s experimental documentary opens with an eight-minute sequence of the group chanting and playing traditional instruments before an effusive audience of thousands. At the time of the film, Nass El Ghiwane consisted of frontman (and Frank Zappa lookalike) Larbi Batma, Omar Sayed, Abderrahman “Paco” Kirouche, and Allal Yaala.

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Capturing the four musicians at the peak of their popularity, Trances intricately weaves together clips of the band’s phenomenal live performances in Tunisia, Morocco, and France, grainy black-and-white archival footage, candid conversations, and impressionistic scenes that reveal the texture and rhythms of Moroccan life. With its lyrical, freely flowing filmmaking style and vivid look at a culture rarely depicted on-screen, Trances offers an ecstatic audiovisual experience. Presented with the support of UW Madison’s Middle East Studies Program, UW Cinematheque is screening the 2007 digital restoration of El Maanouni’s film on Friday, March 25, at 7 p.m.

The first title selected for preservation in Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, Trances might have been relegated to obscurity were it not for the influential filmmaker’s assistance. He happened to see the poetic documentary on television in 1981 and became passionate about both El Maanouni’s film and the music of Nass El Ghiwane. In an introduction to the Criterion Collection release of Trances produced in 2013, Scorsese recalls, “I later learned they were more than just a band; really, they were the singing soul of their country, Morocco.”

Dubbed “The Rolling Stones of Morocco,” Nass El Ghiwane was formally founded in 1971, their name meaning the disciples (Nass) of a chanted philosophy (El Ghiwane). The group started performing in the melting pot of Hay Mohammadi, a sprawling, impoverished, working-class neighborhood in the city of Casablanca, where they created a new urban fusion of traditional and modernist forms. In the essay “Trances: Power to the People,” film scholar Sally Shafto discusses the group’s origins, international success, and singular influence:

So, modestly, began a cultural revolution that would quickly sweep Morocco and the rest of the Arab world. Nass El Ghiwane rejected Egyptian-style music (âsriya), with its languorous love songs in the classical Arabic that then prevailed. Instead, these minstrels of contemporary Morocco sought their inspiration in autochthonous poetry, ancestral rites, and everyday life, denouncing the unemployment, corruption, and social inequality endemic to Moroccan society in particular and to Arab societies in general.

El Maanouni’s film dispenses with verbal narration as it unfolds in a series of stunning tableaux that allow Nass El Ghiwane’s sublime music to take center stage and tell the band’s story. With roots in political theater, Nass El Ghiwane crafts a heady acoustic brew that blends subversive lyrics, melodic Malhun sung poetry, Berber rhythms, and Gnawa dances.

One of the extended interludes in Trances centers on Paco, the charismatic native of Essaouira—a port city on the Atlantic coast—who introduced the age-old Gnawa tradition to Nass El Ghiwane’s sonic palette. A ritualistic genre of music derived from sub-Saharan African enslaved people in Morocco, Gnawa involves a nightlong religious ceremony, a lila, dedicated to the spiritual healing of participants. Throughout the film, enraptured spectators of the band are often seen dancing with abandon in a trancelike state as the boundaries between performer and audience dissolve into total ecstasy. Witnessing the deep spiritual connection between the musicians and their fans on-screen while absorbing Nass El Ghiwane’s rich sound produces a similarly hypnotic effect.

At once an unorthodox concert movie, a stirring ode to artistic creation, an inspired tribute to its subject, and a timeless evocation of the mystical power of live music, Trances warmly invites viewers to partake in its jubilant celebration of Nass El Ghiwane. El Maanouni’s resonant film also defies easy description, as words feel wholly inadequate for expressing its significance. As Frank Zappa once famously said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

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