Album review: Fanga/Maâlem Abdallah Guinéa – Fangnawa Experience

A curiously strong Afro-fusion confection with a somewhat chalky consistency.

Genre: Afrobeat with jazz and Gnawa influences
Country: France
Release date: November 12, 2012
Label: Strut
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: STRUT096LP
Yves “Korbo” Khoury – lead vocals
Julien Raulet – guitar
Martial Reverdy – saxophone
David Rekkab – keyboards
Rajaneesh Dwivedi – bass
Samuel Devauchelle – drums
Eric Durand – percussion
Abdallah Guinéa – lead vocals, guembri, percussion
Said Boulhimas – qraqeb, backing vocals, choreography
Youssef Outanine – qraqeb, backing vocals, choreography



Noble Tree











Total running time:


Are Western Europe and Africa the last redoubts of instrumental music? Everywhere else, it seems like various forms of electronic music and composition have swept aside thousands of years of traditional instruments and musicianship almost completely in a couple of decades. In the US there are still rock, jazz, and classical musicians making new releases, but “new” is a relative term here—all three of them are legacy genres, built on old men making the same music as their fathers, and their fathers’ fathers; indeed, one could sort of call all three “classical” in the sense that classical things are dead things. For the most part, to seek instrumental music at the turn of the 2020s is to step into an artistic mausoleum, a shrine to long-past glory days and musty, moldering traditions, and the constant repetition of long used-up musical ideas becomes especially tired in an age where it is a matter of course for music, once an ephemeral and transitory thing that was remade over and over because it had to be, to be recorded and preserved indefinitely, which means “tribute” acts compete as much with the artists they pay their tribute to as their fellow tributaries, and almost always come up short compared to the originals.

No such problems arise with Fangnawa Experience, which, while drawing on both the traditions of Afrobeat and Gnawa music, creates something novel and exciting in their fusion and the sounds the two conjoined bands, the French afrobeat band Fanga and the Moroccan maâlem (classically trained Gnawa musician) Abdallah Guinéa and his band Nasse Ejadba, make together. Originally, the two groups had met at a the Détours du Monde music festival in Fanga’s home town of Montpelier in France (though singer Yves Khoury hails from Burkina Faso), and, as practitioners of styles of music revolving around long, trance-like songs riding a groove, found their respective styles mutually compatible and collaborated on a one-off project.

Gnawa, to Western ears, often sounds something like a funhouse-mirror reflection of the blues (indeed, may have been an important influence on the blues), with Islam instead of Christianity and Islamic classical melodies rather than European chords and functional harmony, but unlike the blues, Gnawa is sacred music, connected deeply to the hybrid Islamic and animist traditions of the Gnawa people, and the hypnotic, trance-like elements of American blues are greatly intensified in Gnawa music, the better to induce the desired spiritual state in the participants of a Gnawa ritual. The Gnawa, like African-Americans, are the descendants of enslaved people, and many of their ancestors come from the same places, only they were sent north to Morocco instead of west to the Americas. Afrobeat, a secular, political genre, combines American jazz, soul, and R&B music of the ‘60s with Nigerian highlife and traditional music, meaning Fangnawa Experience combines at least three different traditions originally from West Africa back into one.

Gnawa fusion is not a new idea, of course. Abdallah Guinéa’s more famous brother Mahmoud recorded Colours of the Night in 1994 with American jazz gurus Pharoah Sanders and Bill Laswell, which was very austere, traditional Gnawa music with some jazz elements merely draped on top, and this feels almost like an intermediate between that material and Algeria’s massively popular Gnawa Diffusion, which is more or less a reggae/dancehall/Euro-pop band with Gnawa elements (not that that’s a problem; their masterpiece Fucking Cowboys is enormously fun to listen to). Fangnawa Experience is not quite erudite but not quite pop either, and can just as easily be listened to and appreciated from both perspectives. It cannot quite satisfy either perspective to the heights of a more specialized album, but its versatility is a quality all its own.

Even with the extra Nasse Ejadba musicians, they’re still fewer in number than Africa 70 or Antibalas.

Afrobeat bands typically have very large rosters that make heavy use of horns and backup singers, but Fanga number only seven, with rhythm, guitar, and a single sax instead of the three or more used by bands like Antibalas or Egypt 80. To this relatively small (for Afrobeat) ensemble are added the trademark instruments of Gnawa, a three-stringed lute known as the guembri, and iron castanets known as qraqebs. It is probably for the better that the horns do not appear on these albums, as the Gnawa instruments have their work cut out for them trying to be heard against the louder, purer tones of the European instruments. Its fretless neck gives it a softer, suppler tone than a European lute or guitar, more similar to the Arabic oud or West African ngoni. As a large instrument with only three strings, the guembri does not lend itself to instrumental showmanship, and Abdallah Guinéa’s playing is expert but strictly functional, focusing on holding down the rhythm rather than taking flashy solos like an oud player. Effectively, it acts as a second bass, displacing Rajaneesh Dwivedi’s electric bass in the more Gnawa-influenced portions of these compositions.

However, the real Gnawa secret sauce is in the qraqebs, the most unassuming instruments on the entire album. They clack on continuously, very subtly varying the tempo and giving a loose, hypnotic quality to the rhythm, weaving the mystical atmosphere of a Gnawa ritual or record. The effect reminds me of the use of guiros to maintain the pulse of cumbia on the previously reviewed El Gran Poder by Lagartijeando, but in four beats instead of two. The qraqebs, wander as they may, always snap right back into time for the first downbeat of every measure, reinforcing the James Brown-inspired “all in on the one” timing that is the foundation of Afrobeat. Unfortunately, they are neither loud nor resonant, and easily get lost in the other instruments.

With such an imbalance of sonic power between the two sides of the ensemble, it would have taken a very sensitive and experienced engineer to make them gel in the mix. Unfortunately, while Fangnawa Experience is less compressed and more spacious than the harsh Loudness War mixes seen on Natural Juice and Sira Ba, it is not as well-balanced as it needs to be to make this blend of two very different forms of music gel. When they all get going at once towards the end of a song and start playing loud and hard, it is clear Fanga’s instruments can be played much louder and harder than Guinéa’s guembri, let alone the qraqebs, which get absolutely annihilated by booming kick drums and astringent, noisy cymbals. This leads to a sensation of the songs “falling apart” towards the end, as there is simply not enough room in the mix to capture the entire arrangement as it was meant to be heard.

For that reason, the entire ensemble seldom plays together, and the music mostly alternates between “Gnawa sections” and “Afrobeat sections”, sometimes with a big loud all-in finisher at the end. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that three of the four tracks on the vinyl edition are reworked versions of Fanga originals, which had little need or room for Gnawa musicians in the first place. Fanga seem to not quite know what to do with the Gnawa material at times, exacerbating the sense of a band coming apart. The scales don’t quite match, which is exacerbated by Fanga’s very conservative chord choices; a keyboardist with a bolder presence could have gone a long way to hide the seams; Martial Reverdy’s Hammond is a fair forgery of Fela Kuti, playing the signature licks…and nothing else.

For that reason, “Gnawi”, an adaptation of a traditional Gnawa song, emerges as the standout track of the album. It starts with only Guinéa’s guembri, and all throughout it is the Gnawa musicians, not Fanga, who form the foundation of the music, building up from that with instruments from Fanga and then breaking it back down, propelled along by a rhythmic figure from the guembri that is backed up by rough-voiced call and response singing in the Gnawa style, not all that dissimilar from the approach used by “desert blues” bands like Tinariwen. With Nasse Ejadba in the driver’s seat, Fanga’s role is to make this Gnawa music sound truly sumptuous. It starts very subtly with some subtle percussion accents on the offbeats, but then, seamlessly, come afrobeat tenor guitar strumming, long, rumbling notes breathed from the sax, and delicate psychedelic organ sounds that see Reverdy stepping away from the Fela impersonation. Each repetition of the Gnawa vocal section wipes the slate clean of instruments only for them to come back stronger each time, until the music starts getting faster and faster and Fanga come in with their full power in a blazing jazz-funk interpretation of the earlier themes, whipping the song up into a whirlwind of kinetic energy no traditional folk ensemble could muster.

Despite Fangnawa Experience coming on two LPs and the complete CD of the album totaling only 56 minutes, two songs, out of this absurd, wasteful, environmentally destructive conceit that ten-minute sides supposedly sound better or are more luxurious. Four tracks averaging right around ten minutes are given the same amount of vinyl as Tales from Topographic Oceans or Beethoven’s 5th. It’s absurd, and worst of all, the two missing tracks are mostly new material, as opposed to the warmed-over songs from previous albums that comprise most of the vinyl’s runtime. This is not 1987; an expensive double album should not be a downgrade from a CD! The decision to do so could only have been made with a truly Dilbertian combination of stupidity and cynicism.

The first missing track, “Dounya”, appears on the digital version between “Kelen” and “Kononi”, and sounds nothing like the epic two-parter “Dounia” from Sira Ba. For one, it is only about three and a half minutes long, and it contains neither of the main riffs from “Dounia”, so for all intents and purposes it is an original. It is essentially the hand percussion break from a Fela song without the main song, and synthesized with Gnawa percussion and vocals, with occasional brief interjections from the drum kit in a very Ginger Baker-ish style. There is no melody or harmony beyond the voices on this song, with Guinéa’s wavering, melismatic tone being met by the plainer response of the qraqeb players, whose instruments are finally plainly audible the entire way through the song. It is a much less obvious way to mix Gnawa and Afrobeat musical vocabulary than the Gnawa-flavored Afrojazz of “Noble Tree”, “Kelen”, and “Kononi”, though like many of the other compositions, it feels a bit directionless, chasing its own tail through a few cycles of development before suddenly petering out and collapsing. If nothing else, it is novel and interesting, and more cohesive than the covers.

The digital edition closes with “Wouarri”, which feels like the achievement of the sound the covers had been working toward. Initially it appears as a very simple Afrobeat song, but that impression does not last long as layer after layer is woven onto the musical canvas, with the bass and guembri “playing bass” for opposite sides of the foundational Afrobeat cross-rhythm, and the album’s only rock guitar solo, which isn’t amazing but not that terrible either, with a ringing, open sound kind of like The Edge from U2, but what really sells me on this part is the eerie, dissonant chords played by the organ, which cast the solo in an a more exciting, sinister light, a curiously dark interlude in an otherwise ebullient and joyous album. Unfortunately Yves Khoury’s vocals here don’t impress, he barks out a bunch of French in a monotone, nasal growl that sounds like a Burkinese Dave Mustaine in full “Sweating Bullets” mode. It is a relief when the Gnawa singers brush him aside for the big, bombastic finisher. However, the vocal performance does not seriously detract from “Wouarri”, which is good enough that it makes at least one of the covers redundant. Its omission from the vinyl version is outrageous.

I find myself falling back on “curious” a lot when trying to describe this album—it’s a novel and experimental combination but lacks the emotional power of the more traditional Gnawa fusion artists or the raw energy of the pop- and reggae-influenced, more mainstream stuff. I also find Fanga’s take on neo-Afrobeat a bit rote and predictable compared to the masters of the genre. In the best moments of Fangnawa Experience, it is often Nasse Ejadba that carry Fanga. The omission of two of the best tracks also ruins the vinyl version as a physical product. I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Fangnawa Experience; both of the participating artists have made better music on their own. But for people interested in the music of the African diaspora and the interwoven strands of culture and history, it’s worth a listen, or several.

Rating: 67%

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