Watching an overflowing crowd in Carthage cheering, clapping, chanting, “We sacrifice blood and soul for you, Ghiwane!” the enveloping and participatory nature of Nass El Ghiwane’s music becomes clear. A mix of live performances in Tunisia, Morocco, and France and intimate interviews and conversations featuring band members (including frontman and poet Larbi Batma, Abderrahmane Kirouche, Omar Sayed, and Allal Yaala), the documentary Trances offers an intimate glimpse into a pivotal time for the Moroccan avant-pop group and a newly decolonized nation. Directed, shot, and written by Ahmed El Maanouni, the hypnotic 1981 film provides a closer look at the legendary band that was a phenomenon not just for Moroccan youth, but for most of the Arab world.
Nass El Ghiwane translates to “disciples of the Ghiwanes,” referring to a Sufi brotherhood of storytellers and musicians. First formed in 1969, the band merged their background in political theater in Casablanca along with Berber rhythms, the sung poetry of melhun, and religious Gnawa dances to create and popularize a sound that hadn’t existed in Morocco before. Creating their own version of soul music, they played traditional acoustic instruments like the bendir, guembri, and darbuka, and, from the West, introduced the fretless banjo.
El Maanouni captures emotion by focusing on the band’s entranced facial expressions rather than solely zeroing in on technique. “It’s a work that, I hope, brings as close as possible a viewer who didn’t have the privilege of being with them,” he offers in a supplemental interview on the new release from the Criterion Collection, “as close as possible to their work, to their expression, and to their emotion.”