African · Criterion Collection · Documentary · Music

#689 Trances (1981)

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#689 Trances

1981 // Morocco // Ahmed El Maanouni

Criterion Collection (LINK)

Watching Trances, a documentary about the musical group Nass El Ghiwane, and listening to the featuring Moroccan music which I’m totally ignorant of alike my experience on the Cuban music in Buena Vista Spcial Club (1999), is an absolutely comforting experience. Directed by Ahmed El Maanouni, whose first feature film Alyam, Alyam (1978) was the first Moroccan film to be selected in Cannes Film Festival, Trances expressively displays the soul of musical performance and the unique status of Nass El Ghiwane amid African music. Like other western concert films, Trances effortlessly blends concert footage, filmed interviews and archival footage, including one on the deceased ex-member of the group.

The four members of the group, Larbi Batma, Omar Sayed, Abderrahman Paco and Allal Yaala, are natural performer on stage and intriguing character to be interviewed. In one occasion, Larbi Batma recalls his experience of witnessing the apparition of Aisha Kandisha, a goddess of lust in Moroccan folk tales. But it’s their music to be the central soul of the film. They use traditional percussive and stringed instruments including darbuka, bendir, guembri and banjo, while singing in an Arabic dialect that is only used in oral tradition and still non-existent in written form. The lyric of their songs focuses more on everyday life as well as inequality and injustice in Moroccan society. From the concert footage, Nass El Ghiwane is as popular in their homeland as The Beatles in the early 60s.

There are scenes that the listeners and the followers of the group are so invested in the music that they are transposed into a trance, almost ecstatic state. As much as I like the music, I can’t imagine someone to be entranced by watching the documentary alone. There are cultural barriers that hinder me from fully recognising the phenomenal achievement of Nass El Ghiwane as an Arabs musical band, and Trances could merely serve as an introduction. The film could easily satisfy your curiosity on Moroccan music or the band itself while offering an enjoyable acoustic trip, but don’t expect anything outstandingly indelible once the ninety minutes are over.

Film Rating: 3/5
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