Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace by Deborah Kapchan (review)
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Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace. By Deborah Kapchan. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. Pp. xiii + 325, 19 black-and-white illustrations, notes, bibliography, discography, filmography, index.)

Traveling Spirit Masters presents a rich counterpoint of vivid, often lyrical (and very occasionally, slightly arch) descriptions of places, performance events, and human interactions with each other and with spirits, juxtaposed in alternate chapters with a dense invocation and deployment of theory concerned with music, trance, consciousness, memory, and performance across a wide spectrum of disciplines, such that reading the book’s bibliography and notes is itself a kind of odyssey. The work is grounded in direct participation over decades in Moroccan life and Gnawa possession ceremonies, as well as travelling with musicians to world music performance venues in Europe and the United States. Kapchan’s reflexive exposition of her roles in the activities she describes, including a few glimpses of trance and dream experiences, is articulate but restrained, sometimes teasingly enigmatic, as when she describes in passing her choice of an Arabic personal name, “Najma,” meaning “star,” in honor of her grandmother, Stella, “a Hungarian immigrant with special powers” (p. 166).

The trajectory of themes in the book is peripatetic or perhaps, helical. Topics and theoretical approaches are opened, developed somewhat, then left aside only to reappear later in other contexts: for example, thematically, the importance of parallel experiences of racial marginalization, African diaspora and slavery in the ethos and aesthetic of Gnawa performance and of African American blues and jazz (pp. 177, 188, 208–9, 233, and elsewhere); or theoretically, as in approaches to the language-related aspects of Gnawa, invoking ethnopoetics and indexicality/pragmatics theory from Jakobson (on ethnopoetics, pp. 83, 85) to Peirce, Morris, Silverstein and Caton (pp. 176, 226), in chapter 9 regarding “epiphanies,” with linguistic discussion at the beginning and end of this chapter but not so much in the middle. Merleau-Ponty on pre-linguistic—but not pre-cultural—formations (e.g., pp. 55–6, 118–9, 186) and Kristeva’s definition of the abject (pp. 72–3; 186 inter alia) also make cameo appearances on several occasions, more fully revelatory once the reader can stitch them together. There are some examples of concepts or cases cited (invoked) without enough discussion to achieve meaningful application (Susan Slyomovics on “memory maps” in Palestinian memory books of vanished villages, p. 225, or Kay Turner on folk altars, p. 222). Perhaps these works were suggestive for the author but even for a reader who knows them, such un-elaborated in-text citations create a sensation of theory name-dropping, not just paying one’s intellectual dues. Overall, though, the discussion’s thematic motility seems somehow appropriate to the topic, in the sense that perspectives on trance, possession, and the spirits of Gnawa belief and experience (Kapchan’s, as well as others’) are developed progressively, experientially, and emergently in reiterated communication with others so engaged. Linear, categorical explanations are not really what possession trance is about.

Whatever the order of going, one learns a lot from this book about the cultural specificity of trance experiences and the complexities of recent and ongoing translations from performative practices grounded in specific local spiritual experiences and belief systems (Moroccan Gnawa) to international entertainment genres and performance spaces (“trance music” as a world music category, and world music as a performance circuit). While there are musicological commonalities supporting some intercultural collaborative [End Page 91] performances (e.g., Randy Weston with Gnawa musicians) as both possible and exciting, as Kapchan reiterates at several points, trance practices are diverse in origin, form, and ethos, in their local development over time and in practice, though the world music industry markets “trance music” as a kind of primordial, holistic category or genre (“ageless, timeless music that reaches into the heart of Africa,” from liner notes by Barnwell and Lawrence, Trance 2, Ellipsis Arts, 1995, quoted on p. 147). Here she aptly but briefly brings Johannes Fabian (Time and the Other, Columbia University Press, 2002) to our intellectual rescue.

Further, regarding the problem of commodification, she points out that Moroccan Gnawa performance has always included monetary exchange...


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