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Amine Mesnaoui Dives Deep into Gnawa-Inspired ‘African Prayers’

(Editor’s Note: Today, Vehlinggo has a special guest post from Amine Mesnaoui, in which he does a deep dive into his and Labelle’s beautifully composed debut album, African Prayers, — out today via Lo Recordings. Born in Rabat, Morocco, Mesnaoui is a Moroccan piano player and composer living in Berlin. Labelle is an electronic musician from Reunion Island.)

African Prayers is a “set” of seven very specific pieces. Each one represents a color in the Lila ritual of the Gnawa masters.

The idea was to dive into the world of the Gnawa ritual — not to reinterpret the pieces of the Gnawa repertoire, but to be inspired by the poetics and symbolism of the colors and to use the rhythms scales and forms as tools of a language from which we could write something new and create the seven pieces.

Labelle and I made an initial residency in July 2017, where we discussed the main ideas of the project. We also had the chance to record some of the melodies. We left each other after a few days of work and a few drafts of pieces on one side, sketches on the other.

A year had passed and in summer 2018 we met again to finalize the project. The ideas had matured. We were able to spend a whole week at my place in my studio in Berlin, working day and night. The skeletons of the songs were drawn. All that remained was to give them flesh and life. I remember that normal days ended at 3 or 4 in the morning and resumed at 10.

We were able to finalize the recording of six songs. Only “Bleu Noir” remained. We recorded it finally in Autumn 2018. The morning when I brought Labelle back to the airport he asked me to record six one last time. And that was it, we had everything.

In vein with the experimental composition and sound design of African Prayers, the record was handed to Cesar Urbina (Cubenx) for further mixing, who used techniques more close to ambient and experimental electronic music to amplify the colors and atmospheres that we hear on the finished record. Most of the rules of composition and recording, as well as the different colors that can be found throughout the album, have been put forward thanks to him.

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An In-Depth Description of the Pieces of African Prayers

“Lueur,” which is the moment of sparkle when the sun rises, is the first track on the album. It represents the white color — the color of the saints and color of the religion. We turned white to grey on purpose, as if we were in a moment of waiting and suspension. The choice of the key and chords (B flat minor), as well as the inside techniques and effects used with the piano, accentuate the “heavy” grey tone. The whole track evolves around four chords played on the piano, and sounds created with “inside” piano techniques. We then invited Alaa Zouiten, a master of the Oud, which is an instrument that is played a lot in Morocco. He played the main theme and improvised some counterpoint lines and a solo in the middle. It was important to us that this track was played perfectly to set the tone for the rest of the album.

The second piece is “Périastre” and the second color is dark blue — the color of celestial objects. “Périastre” is a journey into interstellar space. There is a duality between the piano, which symbolizes the traveller, and these small celestial sounds played using “inside” techniques on the piano, that symbolize space and all the objects you could meet during such a journey.

“Forêt,” or “people of the forest” as they are called in Morocco, are mythological people that live in the forest creating all possible sounds in the night. It represents the black color, which in the Gnawa ritual it is the most difficult color to play — it is the symbol of the ancestors, the color of the African slaves brought to Morocco. The original idea was to bring the piano to the forest and make a recording there, but it is logistically almost impossible. We recorded the piano first and then using small speakers we played the recording in the forest. We recorded it there again and used the sounds of the woods and forest in the first three minutes. The idea was that the listener would hear the sound of a piano coming from far away while entering the forest, then at some point be in front of it. The distortion comes slowly and progressively to overtake and dominate the piano sound at the end, almost as a catastrophe that is destroying the forest. The piano then disappears and only remain sounds of little insects at the end.

“Kraze Muneataf Tanzen” is above all a moment of trance. All the colors of the ritual come together here to offer an apotheosis to the listener. “Kraze” is a kind of summary of the album. It was important to push the techniques of composition and play to the maximum. It is composed like an electronic music track. The piece revolves around the ternary rhythm played from beginning to end with mallets inside a Fender Rhodes. I prepared the piano in such a way that it could evoke scales and melodies found in the Atlas mountains in Morocco. There are no notes that would belong to the 12 classical tones that a “classical” piano would offer us, only micro-tones. The combinations of counterpoint and harmonies thus become infinite, but more difficult to manage. The rhythms and percussion used here all come from Maloya tradition from the Réunion island, but in Morocco you would find very close rhythms and percussion sounds.

“Krazé” is also a tribute to the mythical Berlin club Tresor.

“Bleu Noir” is our interpretation of light bleu, which symbolises in the ritual water, the ocean, and its people. In the album’s context it is the moment of joy and healing after going through the forest and its sounds in “Forêt” and the experience of the shamanic dance of Krazé Muneataf. “Bleu Noir” evokes the very poetic moment after sunset when the sky and ocean take on a magical colour between blue and black.

To highlight this healing and aquatic side, we used the Fender Rhodes for the bass line and the small surrounding sounds. We even recorded our voices in choir. The main actor of this
piece is the piano. I tried to evoke this “Jeu d’eau” à la Ravel in the main theme and in the little solo. The ternary rhythm, which is always present throughout the album, continues here but this time evokes heartbeats.

“Six” is the sixth track on the album. It represents the red color, the color of blood and sacrifice. It is a half-binary and half-ternary dance. In Gnawa music one often transposes from a binary rhythm to a ternary rhythm and vice versa. The piece is made up of three different layers. As a pianist steeped in African music, as well as the music of J.S. Bach, this piece would be a transposition of Bach’s universe into the world of the Gnawa, or in other words an African fugue à three voices.

“Naïma” is the last piece of the album. It represents the yellow color. The ritual is coming to an end and the yellow color of the Sun is starting to appear. Yellow symbolizes the feminine spirit. The sun is a feminine word in the Moroccan dialect. Naïma reminds us of the Virgin Mary and the sound we would find in a cathedral. It is also a little lullaby that I wrote for my little daughter Naïma. She was the one who brought me little sticks, spoons, and forks while I was trying to prepare my piano with screws. At first I laughed, but as I tried I thought that the world of little children is so magical that maybe we should listen to them more.

And the circle is complete.

African Prayers by Amine Mesnaoui and Labelle is out now on digital and vinyl formats via Lo Records.

Some quick background on Mesnaouio and Labelle, via Lo: The two met when studying music at the University of Paris. Mesnaoui is a Moroccan pianist, who is trained in both classical music and jazz, while Labelle is an electronic musician and composer from Reunion Island. Their first encounter was at a party by the river bank of the Seine, where Labelle played a Techno set. Mesnaoui attempted to swim in the stream and only Labelle saved him from drowning in the water. They soon became friends and dreamed of playing music together one day — fifteen years later and that dream has become a reality.