In 2016 I wrote an article called The Sacred and the Profane, describing the two forms of Gnaoua music ( see http://sannyassa.co.uk/sacred-profane-gnaoua-world-music-festival-essaouira-2016/ ).
In that article I identified the paradox that lay ahead for the Gnaouia; to survive it had to become more popular, but by becoming popular it denied its sacred form and would slowly kill itself. Today, profane ( or popular ) Gnaoua can be heard throughout Essaouira. I was told that there are now 1000 malleem musicians in the city and private Gnaoua parties are common.
Correspondingly, the sacred form of Gnaoua is now rare. When held, it is mostly found in zaouias, for example that of Sidna Bilal, in Essaouira, or the zaouia of another brotherhood, such as the Hamadcha. It is mostly private and deals exclusively with the interaction between maleem and the jnoun. Of the 1000 malleem reputedly in Essaouira, I have also been told there are less than 10 who are sufficiently skilled or capable of conducting a truly sacred ritual.
On the advice of both Youssef Outanine, gimbri player and member of the famous Gania family from Essaouira, and Jeanette Clopton, adopted Souiri from Californai, I visited one of those ‘less than 10 ‘ malleems today. His name is Najib Soudani, a 64 year old man who earns his living making musical instruments, especially the guimbri, in a little premises ‘just off Derb Oujda, to the left’ as Jeanette adroitly describes it.
His shop is visible from Derb Oujda; the coloured skins of the drums, the large upright guimbris, rolls of uncoloured diaphonous skins which collectively and colourfully line the alley walls announce his workshop. Najib sits at the old wooden worktable in the middle of all the debris, flicking yellow paint on black qraqebs. Behind him a doorway leads into a shop where his music, and the music of other Gnaouia musicians, can be purchased. Here also varied and wonderful completed instruments stock the walls and hang from the ceiling.
Najib breaks into a quick and easy smile. There is no hint that he is a malleem musician, or one of the cultural guardians of a displaced culture ripped from the heart of Africa several generations earlier. The Gnawi have no written history; their history is a living history re-enacted every time they play their music.
This is a brief account of his story as described in a Gnaoua friendly online resource :
Najib Soudani is a maâlem (Master) practicing among the gnawa of essaouira, Morocco
The six Soudani brothers carry a family tradition passed from father to son for 400 years. His great-grandfather, m ‘ Barek, was removed from his village in Chnafou, Sudan, and sold on the other side of the Sahara. His grandmother was also taken from the Bamako region, Mali.
Najib’s Father, maâlem hajjoub “Goubani” Soudani, passed away in 1997. He was the moqadem of Sidna Bilal, the zaouia of Essaouira representing Gnaoua, and the master of many gnawa, still distinguished today. Musicians from all over the world, like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, went to Essaouira to play with the maâlem Goubani.
The gnawa of each region are distinguished by their original musical style: the style of Essaouira is particularly funky. Najib Soudani plays in a unique way, marked by a propelling virtuosity, a balanced rhythmic attack, and a sense of tone in dark blue. Eager to pursue traditions by remaining the guardian of the ancient holidays, Najib continues to develop his personal musical style, faithful to his Sudanese roots.”
At least one of his 5 brothers, Allal Soudani, is also a malleem musicians. Allal, known as ” the dreamer” states “When I play I no longer feel my body, I empty myself. And when I reach the state of trance I become nothing more than a leaf on a tree blowing at the mercy of the wind “.
Najib has been involved in wider projects, such as “The Sudani Project”, a jazz/gnawa dialogue in collaboration between saxophonist/composer Patrick Brennan, Gnawi maâlem Najib Sudani, and drummer/percussionist/vocalist Nirankar Khalsa. Brennan has pointed out that the metal qraqeb and gut bass strings of the guembri parallel the cymbal and bass in jazz sound.
There are suggestions online that he seems to be known as a rebel, trying out new sounds, blending styles…he is curious, creative, and adventurous as a player.
Brother of Allal Soudani, Najib Gbani is the descendant of a line of Gnaoua. He grew up in the zaouia des Gnaoua ( Sidna Bilal ) where he played with his father who passed on the rites and canons of “tagnaouite” to him.
He has participated in several national and international events.