BIG EARS

Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society

Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society

The Gnawa music of Morocco was in the news recently when The New York Times reported on efforts to save Dar Gnawa. The famed Tangier house where Sufi music and rituals thrive has also drawn jazz pilgrims from around the world for fifty years. One of them was the Chicago bassist, composer, and improviser Joshua Abrams. In a string of acclaimed releases over the last decade, his band Natural Information Society has fused Gnawa music with jazz, minimalist composition, and experimental rock to quite literally entrancing effect.

Gnawa music is evidence of the resourcefulness and unquenchable spirit of enslaved West Africans in Morocco, who found ways to create transporting ceremonial music with simple means like the gimbri, a fretless three-string lute, and qraqeb, or metal castanets. Natural Information Society’s version can be as slow and sublime as Mandatory Reality, which featured the likes of Hamid Drake and Ben Lamar Gay, or as fast and kinetic as descension (Out of Our Constrictions), where free-jazz saxophone legend Evan Parker joined them for “a single piece that stretches to seventy-five minutes and seems to pass in no time at all,” Pitchfork said.

Abrams busked with the The Roots in Philadelphia before he moved to Chicago and became a pillar of the scene, playing bass in Tortoise and Town & Country and recording with Jandek and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Though his credits run three columns deep, they all point back to Abrams’s quest to dig up what The Wire called “an ur-music, primal, body-centered, [and] essential”—the very stuff that Natural Information Society incants at hypnotic length. 

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