Nass el Ghiwane is a musical group of Morocco. Whenever mentioned in the Western literature, they are referred to as The Rolling Stones of Africa, as American Producer Martin Scorsese once put it. They are living legends who merged the rich repertoire of traditional music of Morocco with modern subjects.
Nass el Ghiwane was formed in the late 60's by four young men from the poor district of Hay el Mohammadi in industrial Casablanca. Laarbi Batma (who came from the Chaouia region to Kariane Jdid) met Boujemaa Hagour (who came form the Tata (Morocco) region to Derb Moulay Cherif) through their mutual friend Omar Essayed. They were all performing in the theater troupe of Tayeb Essidiki. While performing the piece "Al Majdoub" for Parisian crowds in the summer of 1969, they had the idea of using traditional music as a way to express themselves onstage. They had written pieces of what would later be Essiniya, Fin Ghadi Biya Khouya, and Ouach Hna Houma Hna. Later in Casablanca, and with the help of friend Allal Yaala, who was also in the theater group doing musical arrangements, Nass el Ghiwane was officially founded. They have already started gaining momentum with live appearances in the Radio Television Marocaine when they hired talented traditional arts student Moulay Abdelaziz Tahiri. Abdelaziz was a close friend and collaborator of Boujemaa. He was very interested in reviving the MalhunMarrakech to be a founding member of Jil Jilala. Within Nass el Ghiwane, he played the Guembri, instrument of the Gnawa people of Morocco, in addition to singing. Then for a brief period (less than a year), Allal would leave and a friend of Abdelaziz, Mahmoud Essaadi, would replace him. He was playing the lute strings with a 1/2-step mandoline, and would leave very soon after, to reemerge later with Jil Jilala. repertoire of traditional Moroccan music and he would later leave Nass el Ghiwane to his hometown
 Music style and scope
Nass el Ghiwane specialized in writing colloquial poetry about topics related to the social and political climate, and arranging its music in the Moroccan tradition. So we find songs that take from a certain type of music, like the AitaMalhun (Han wa Chfeq, Mezzine Mdihek, Qalet...), and Gnawa (Ghir Khoudouni, Lebtana, Mahmouma, Essadma, Ouach Jralek...), the Hmadcha (Laayate Aalik), the Jil Jilala (Allah ya Moulana, Haoulouni) (Echems Ettalaa, Elhassada, Sif el Bettar, Ghadi Fhali...), the
Although there were recordings of the band with Disques Gam and the RTM being played on the radio and on TV, what is always considered their first release is Essiniya (Disque D'Or) with Disques Ouhmane in 1974.
In a time where the only music available was middle-eastern pop music that sang about love, Nass el Ghiwane had prepared something new for Morocco: they mixed the Sufi chants and litanies of Zaouias (brotherhoods) like the Hmadcha and Aissawa with the elegant colloquial poetry of Melhoun adding to it the ancient rhythms of the Berbers and the healing dances of the mystical Gnawas. Morocco has just had its independence from the French and its population, still uncertain of what the future is hiding, was shocked and moved by the texts of Nass el Ghiwane: corruption, injustice and degradation of society. They were the first Moroccan band to mix such a diverse and rich heritage and to speak their minds even about the most forbidden subjects, public discussion of which may have led to imprisonment at that time. By the release of the immortal Essiniya album, it was just a matter of time before they became veterans of Moroccan music. They were the voice of the oppressed lower class and were banned on some occasions to sell their records and play on venues for the incredible amount of energy (and rebellion) they delivered to their public.
Soon after the release of Essiniya, Abdelaziz left the band due to artistic disagreement. He was replaced by the great Abderrahmane Qirouche, also known to the west as Abderrahmane Paco or in Morocco as Maalem Abderrahmane Baca. He was a Gnawa Maalem from Essaouira working also as a carpenter. He is also believed to have played with Jil Jilala for a brief period of time in their early years. Although in Abdelaziz they lost a great Melhoun writer, in Paco they gained a solid Gnawa artist.
The instruments they used were all simple: drums and strings. They did not use any form of technology, except of course for amplification. They used percussions like the Bendir, Derbouka, Daadou', Ta'rija and Tbila, as well the Guembri and the Arabic lute. Nass el Ghiwane were all about simplicity, far from mainstream schmaltzy middle-eastern music. They came to remind Moroccans of their country's rich musical legacy and of the reason music was played at the first time.
Although Allal is skilled at playing the Arabic lute, he chose to use a fretless banjo for playing his steel strings because it has accurate metal tuners and can be easily strapped on-stage, as opposed to the lute which can be a real hassle to tune (12 strings with wooden tuners) and whose bulkiness requires the player to always sit down in order to play effectively. So he removed the frets to be able to play 1/4-step, just like the Arabic lute. His sound is so unique it is immediately recognizable! Listen to the intro to Haoulouni (Lotfia) to know what I mean!
 The Evolution of the group
In 26 October 1974 came the first deception when Boujemaa died. Some say he was assassinated by the government, and some say he was poisoned. However, Omar claims that he died of an ulcer in the stomach in his (Omar's) house. Boujemaa was a charismatic character with a distinctive and powerful alto voice. He was also skilled at writing music; he contributed to the bulk of the band's early material. He was the symbol of Nass el Ghiwane.
The next album was a tribute to Boujemaa and had songs written with him that were sung on-stage but never recorded. The rest of the band which now comprised Laarbi, Omar, Allal, and Abderrahmane was the most stable line-up and would be very active for the next twenty years. In the song "Ghir Khoudouni", they changed the words at the end to say that "Boujemaa may moute, el Ghiwane mat moute": Boujemaa never dies, and the Ghiwane never die. In the background you can hear Abderrahmane do the usual weeping Gnawa do when they are paying tribute to a defunct Maalem. Nass el Ghiwane left a microphone standing alone in every concert to pay him tribute.
In 1981, Al Hal, a movie dedicated to their musical journey produced by Ahmed el Maanouni was released worldwide, and can be found here. For the years to come, they would stick to the same simplistic and honest attitude that made their fame, and produce a steady series of innovative albums and ecstatic live shows. By the end of the 80's, Nass el Ghiwane weren't a phenomenon anymore, they became legends! Laarbi provided the band with his unstoppable beats and his deep voice that reminded the sadness and despair of a young man coming from the country-side to a big city hoping for a better life. Omar was known for his muezzin voice and sense of diplomacy: he was the spokesperson of the band. Paco with his Gnawi attitude and his Guembri bass-lines, added to Nass El Ghiwane a crucial component: the trance of the Gnawa Music of Morocco. Allal being the quieter one and the least one to sing, simply embellished their music with string melodies of Melhoun and classical Arabic. Many popular bands emerged (and disappeared) after them. Examples include Jil Jilala, Lemchaheb, Essiham, Izenzaren, Aflak, Bouchnak, Arsad...
Up until 1993, Nass el Ghiwane have indulged into long (over 12 minutes) and rebellious Gnawa epics, thanks to Paco. Examples include Nerjak Ana, Essadma, Lebtana, Mahmouma, Taghounja, Ouach Jralek, Rod Balek, Mani Ghrib, Chab Rassi and many more. Practically all the songs penned by Paco were driven by his angry words and his Guembri. This is anti-commercialism at its best!
Unfortunately, in 1993 Laarbi was diagnosed of lung cancer. There was a slight divergence within the band concerning the direction they would take. Paco deemed the band was not financially viable for him. He also grew more interested in Traditional Gnawa music of Morocco and the whole band agreed that it was in everybody's interest that he leaves the band. Paco relocated to the old fortified sea-port town of Essaouira where he founded his own "troupe of traditional dancers and healers" with his two sons. Along with Marrakech, Essaouira is known for hosting a large number of Gnawa shrines. He released a number of recordings including some traditional Gnawa hymns, some original work, some covers of Nass el Ghiwane, and a tribute to Nass el Ghiwane, Boujemaa and Laarbi called "Kounna Khemsa": We were five. To this date he plays private healing sessions in Essaouira as well as the yearly summer "Festival d'Essaouira de la Musique Gnawa".
Nass el Ghiwane hired Redouane Arif on the backing vocals and Guembri and continued, once again, as a four-piece. Redouane had the huge legacy of Paco pending on him. Not only he did not do any lead singing, but his Guembri playing was sloppy, out-of-tune and for a good reason, buried in the mix. When Paco once laid the driving music with his Guembri and came forth doing lead singing and writing, Redouane was barely filling shoes which were bigger than him. All the songs after Paco left the band are characterized by being short (rarely above 6 minutes), and mostly reminiscent of the style of the Chaouia. This doesn't mean that Nass el Ghiwane stopped making quality music. On the opposite, the music was still pure Nass el Ghiwane, and the texts spoke of the same matters.
In 1999, Rachid Batma saves the band from extinction and takes over his older brother's Tbila. Not only that, but he also tries to sound like him! They recorded "May Doum Hal" during the same year, and included the same song as a tribute to Laarbi. They toured afterwards reaching world festivals in USA, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Tunisia and more. They re-recorded some of their most notorious songs for a best-of compilation "Ghiwaniate" in 2000.
They released a new album in 2002 titled "Haoud Enna'naa". Another younger brother of Laarbi, Hamid Batma, replaced Redouane in playing the Guembri. Hamid and Rachid previously played in Mesnawa, a band from the Batma family village, 'Abda Oulad Mesnawi. In January 2005 they received the Golden Rebab prize of achievement.
More than thirty years after their inception, Nass el Ghiwane are still faithful to themselves and to their fans; they still play the same traditional instruments and sing about the same matters disregarding the tendencies of "modern" music. Although they will never be same now that only Omar and Allal are left from the classic years, their musical output is always of the utmost quality, and is still worth bearing the name Nass el Ghiwane.
Abderrahmane Paco is currently ill. He is in complete paralysis. We wish him well.