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Nawal's Afro Sufi music makes space for silence

By Alison Hird

Nawal hails from the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean. She's built on her ancestral Afro Sufi roots to create a unique sound, beyond both music and the material world. The first woman to play guitar in public in Comores, and beaten as a result, she talks to RFI about her unorthodox brand of "Muslim gospel".

Nawal was born into the mystical branch of Islam known as Sufism. Her great grandfather El Maarouf (1852-1904), an eminent Sufi priest in Comores, preached an Islam founded on love, respect and peace.

"He really had the love," she says admiringly, "I can feel him in me."

While she inherited a strong sense of spirituality from both sides of her family, her mother also passed on a rebellious streak.

"My mother is from this generation of peace, love and rock and roll and she was one of the first six women who decided to work and have a job like a man."

A devout Muslim with a deep undertstanding of the Koran, her mother abandoned the veil, and got divorced several times in what was, and still is, a deeply conservative society.

"At this time [1970s] it was a revolution," says Nawal.

Double culture

The singer-songwriter has drawn on this double culture, mixing the influence of Joan Baez, John Lennon and Bob Marley "all these people [who] were speaking about love” with the African and Islamic influences of her native Comorian heritage.

She sings mainly in Shikomor, the Bantu language of Comoros, accompanying herself on guitar, gambusi (a 4 stringed lute from Comoros), mbira and the dar frame drum.

An enthralling stage performer, she gently discourages applause between songs, preferring to "leave space for silence".

She’s now been performing for more than 25 years and her repertoire is increasingly inspired by a Sufi form of chanting known as dzikr.

"The older I get the more my divine power needs its place and also I practice more."

She describes her music as ‘Afro Sufi roots’ or ‘Muslim gospel’. The message is simple but can appear almost counter-culture in these hyper active times.

The song Aman from her second album in 2007 means 'peace of the soul'.

"I’m singing in this song that love is the best medicine against all the craziness from humans and especially now there’s more and more need for Aman, for this peace.

"If we really want peace in the world, we have to go and find this peace inside ourselves, because to be able to love myself I need to be in peace with myself and then I can exchange peace with the other."

Beaten for playing in public

Nawal did not reach this level of self-acceptance overnight. She moved to France at the age of ten, struggled to fit in, but found comfort in music. When she returned to Comores in 1985 and tried to become the first woman to play guitar in public, she was dragged off the stage and beaten.

"My uncle said you know in our family we cannot let the first woman playing guitar like a man be coming from our family."

Three albums later and following successful tours in Europe and North America, she says her uncle is now proud and comes to hear her in concert.

Other female musicians are also making progress.

"Now there’s some young women in Comores who study guitar," she says. "They’re not yet playing on stage but they’re practising and they want to become professional. So I did open the way a bit and that’s great."

Not easy to ‘sing Allah’ in France

Nawal has a loyal following here, but admits singing "Muslim Gospel" is challenging in secular France.

"I tour more outside France," she says. "Believers say I’m not religious enough and atheists don’t want to hear about God," she laughs. "One concert programmer told me I talked too much about love between songs."

She says if she finds a better message, she may move on. But for the moment the religious tolerance found in Sufism resonates the most.

"When I have a heart that’s open, when I don’t judge the other but when I listen to him and have compassion and I’m joyful, then my house becomes joyful and I shine," she says, smiling."If I shine, my neighbour’s going to shine too."


Nawal's latest album to date: Caresse de l'ame. She's currently working on a gospel-style remix of her acclaimed album Aman. Follow Nawal on Facebook

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