The hajhouj or guembri is the Gnawa lute. The Gnawis are the descendants of black slaves who were first taken from the Sahel region to Morocco in the sixteenth century, if not earlier. In Morocco their ritual trance music is still very popular and in the West it has inspired numerous rock musicians. The mim recently acquired this hajhouj. The excerpt that follows, which is taken from Curator Wim Bosman's musical diary, tells how the instrument came to be in Brussels.
Fes (Morocco), April 9th and 10th 2009
Thursday. After the intoxicating smells and colours of the tannery souk, we continue our stroll along the Mohassine alleyway in a northerly direction. Soon we come to a shop selling musical instruments. We go inside. Like all Moroccan instrument shops, it is crammed from top to bottom with instruments of every description. My eye is drawn to a beautiful guembri or hajhouj, the 'bass guitar' of the Gnawa people. This one, it seems to me, would be perfect for the mim. The shopkeeper built it himself, and - even more interesting - it turns out he is a maâlem (gnawa master). His full name is Mohammed Ben Boujamaâ Filali, Ben Boujamaâ for short, the son of Boujamaâ. I tell him I want to buy the hajhouj, but that I would also like to make a recording of it. Ben Boujamaâ has a suggestion: I pay a deposit now and come back the next morning at 10 o'clock for a short gnawa session in his workshop. He will make sure the cantor of his group is there.
Friday morning in Ben Boujamaâ's little shop. The singer has already arrived. He's called Hassan and he earns a living making babouches. Twelve-year-old Khalid is there too, the son of a friend of Ben Boujamaâ. Both Hassan and Khalid are enveloped in blue tunics and sporting a typical gnawa hat decorated with scores of little cowrie shells and a thick, chest-length tassel hanging down on both sides. Ben Boujamaâ is wearing the other, fez-shaped model of gnawa hat with a single tassel at the end of a long cord which sits in the middle of the top of the hat. In true gnawa tradition, the master has lit joss sticks to get us in the mood. And the tea is ready. The men begin with the traditional words of welcome at a gnawa session: Salam aleykoum. They provide a good cross-section of gnawa music, with and without metal qarqaba castanets. For some numbers Ben Boujamaâ places a tin sersara rattle on top of the neck of his lute. Now and then he performs a classic gnawa trick, swinging the tassel of his hat round with his head, like the blades of a helicopter. The young Khalid dances, turning on his axis and bending through his knees, occasionally joining in briefly with a clapper. It seems the lad has well and truly caught the gnawa bug.
The body of the instrument I buy was carved out of a block of walnut. Its 'face' is made of skin from the neck of a dromedary and the strings from the gut of a billy-goat. Cow horn is used for the inlay. The skin is decorated with henna. "Will the henna last?", I ask him. He shows me his father's instrument which he tells me must be a hundred years old. The henna decoration is still there. Ben Boujamaâ is proud of his origins: "I am the son of maâlem Boujamaâ, and my grandfather Sadek was also a gnawa master."
And then it is time for Ben Boujamaâ to leave for the mosque for Friday prayers. The young Khalid accompanies us a good part of the way back to our hotel. He insists on carrying the instrument.