Album Review: Simo Lagnawi & Gnawa London – Africa Soyo [February 2020]

In recent decades, the music of the Gnawa has transitioned from a repertoire of ritualistic trance-inducing songs – performed exclusively for the adherents of its night-long healing ceremonies – to a more profane yet equally transfixing professional type of music, played on festival stages and in venues the world over. Due not only to the inherent, magnetic appeal of the style itself but also to the growing diaspora of maalems (master musicians) resettling across the globe, Gnawa has established itself as one of the world’s great folk music exports.

One such cultural ambassador is London-based master musician, Simo Lagnawiwho has devoted himself to the precious task of both preserving a rich musical heritage whilst simultaneously bringing its unique spectacle to a new and diverse audience across the UK and beyond. It is a task that the London-based Moroccan takes to with a fastidious devotion. Since the release of his 2013 debut LP Gnawa London (Waulk Records), Simo Lagnawi has adapted his show for the festival stage, appearing at a number of high-profile UK events – including Glastonbury, Secret Garden Party, Latitude and BoomTown. His recent collaborations with diverse acts from across the musical spectrum demonstrate his willingness to break from tradition and entertain modern interpretations of Gnawa music.

As well as his work with side-projects Electric Jalaba and Gnawa Blues All-StarsSimo has collaborated with renowned kora players, pianists, desert blues guitarists and, more recently, UK electronic beatmakers Speakman Sound.

Africa Soyo, however – Simo Lagnawi’s fourth solo work – is an unmistakable return to the evocative, raw components of Gnawa music. Played out somewhere between the terrestrial and the spiritual realms; racing castanets (qraqebs), feverish percussion and the stuttering bass rhythms of the lead guembri coalesce with supplicating antiphonal vocal chants. The title track ‘Africa Soyo’ is an invocation to a continent brought together by sound and dance; a reconnecting of Gnawa music – the music of an enslaved and displaced people bereft of their cultural identity – to its spiritual origin as a tool for unification and healing.

Across twelve tracks, Africa Soyo delivers traditional rhythms with unadulterated poignancy; stand-out tracks are ‘Subeisub’ (where the guembri master drifts into meandering improvisations as the qraqebs lull themselves into a rare retreat) and popular Gnawa standard ‘Boulilalila’. However, true to the nature of the lila (the liturgy synonymous with Gnawa musical tradition), Africa Soyo should be enjoyed uninterrupted in its entirety for full entrancing effect. The galvanising finale ‘Soyo Ganga’ brings the ceremony to a frenetic close; Lagnawi’s guembri falls silent whilst the pulsating qraqebs, redolent of clattering manacles, intensify to a fevered finish. 

Simo Lagnawi is a devoted and understated maestro who, together with his troupe Gnawa London, has delivered an immersive arrangement and another fine album to his burgeoning discography. This latest offering is a sonic phantasm of colourful vibrancies; a sublime and intoxicating exhibition of one of the worlds truly remarkable musical cultures.