Speaking to Nawal is a joyful experience in more ways than one. On the one hand, her lilting accent adds beautiful musicality to her words. And then those words are expressed with an eloquent, quiet strength that speaks to her message even more clearly.
Born in Comoros, (a country also known as Islands of the Moon, four small islands in the Indian Ocean between eastern African and Madagascar), Nawal was raised in both Comoros and Paris. Although singing plays a fundamental role in the life of women in Comoros’ matriarchal society, it is not a performance art and Nawal is actually the first Comoran woman to perform publicly. This was a difficult achievement for an African-born Muslim, as she explains, speaking by telephone from her Paris home: “The only Islam I knew when I was young was the one that told me I did not have the right to do this or that as a woman”.
She has since returned to Islam but in the Sufi tradition, after rediscovering it’s tenets partly through the works of her grandfather, El Maarouf, a Sufi master, and Sufi chants frequently make their way into her compositions. Her music, Nawal explains, is inspired in this and other Comoran traditions, including both the heavy, intense African sound that she terms “masculine” and the delicate Indonesian, Persian and Arabic sounds that she considers “feminine”.
As to her the topics of her compositions Nawal declares: “For me to pray is to sing, so I think all my songs are prayers.” The songs range from delicately nuanced trance tunes to lively danceable rhythms, which for World Music Fest will be performed by an all female quartet that also includes a pianist. I had the chance to experience the quartet at Albuquerque’s Globalquerque Music Festival just days ago, and can attest that Nawal’s music is quite unlike anything you might have ever heard previously.
This is likely the result of all her influences, says Nawal. A self-taught musician, she has always been attracted to bringing together apparently incompatible traditions. She remembers at about age eight making a guitar out of wood and fishing line, and then attempting rock songs she had heard her uncles play, like those of artists like The Doors. Today, she sings and plays the guitar as well as several traditional Comoran instruments, including the gambusi, a long-necked lute that she is passionate about preserving – apparently even the knowledge of even how to build gambusi has been lost (check video).
Nevertheless, preserving traditions does not mean keeping them in some state of purity, she clarifies: “My music has one foot in Comoros and the other foot is everywhere! It’s all mixed, I am from everywhere now.” But it is about how the memories music awakens in us, she says: “We humans are sound…the first thing we do in this world when we come from the belly is make sounds. We are energy and memory and there is nothing like music to make us remember the beauty inside.”