Moroccan Sintir, North Africa’s Bass Banjo

KNOWN AS SINTIR, GUIMBRI, AND THE ONOMATOPOEIC hejhouj, this instrument comes from the Gnawa people of North Africa. Descended in part from slaves taken from Sub- Saharan Africa, the Gnawa occupy pockets stretching from Morocco and Mauritania in the West to Tunisia and Libya in the East, and belong to the Sufi sect of Islam in which music and trance are essential components of religious worship. Played in support of a vocalist and usually accompanied by polyrhythmic clapping and large iron castanets (quarkabeb), the sintir vamps on short ostinatos with the intent of putting devotees into a deep trance.
By Brian Fox ,

KNOWN AS SINTIR, GUIMBRI, AND THE ONOMATOPOEIC hejhouj, this instrument comes from the Gnawa people of North Africa. Descended in part from slaves taken from Sub- Saharan Africa, the Gnawa occupy pockets stretching from Morocco and Mauritania in the West to Tunisia and Libya in the East, and belong to the Sufi sect of Islam in which music and trance are essential components of religious worship. Played in support of a vocalist and usually accompanied by polyrhythmic clapping and large iron castanets (quarkabeb), the sintir vamps on short ostinatos with the intent of putting devotees into a deep trance.

While attending the annual festival of Gnawa music this summer in the coastal Morrocan town of Essaouira, I came across this sintir in a small shop off the town’s main drag. The shop’s chief luthier Hamid was happy to show me his instruments, many of which were painted and etched with elaborate tribal designs. [For photos and video, go to bassplayer.com.] But it was this more humble- looking hejhouj that really caught my eye. Nodding his head in approval, Hamid pointed out that this was in fact the oldest instrument in his shop, and a fine piece, indeed.

Carved from a single block of fig, fit with a long round neck, covered in camel skin, and strung with three goat-gut strings, the sintir looks and sounds like a cross between a bass and a banjo. Tunings vary, but this one is roughly set at C–C–F, with the short C string in the middle functioning as a drone and sounding an octave higher than its lower neighbor. With a technique akin to slap-and-pop, sintir players strike downward on the strings with their index-finger nail, thumping the camelskin head as a kind of percussive accompaniment. Also, many sintirs are fitted with a metal rattle at the end of the neck, producing a jingle when the instrument is shaken in rhythm.

Gnawa music is mostly pentatonic in nature: C–D–F–G–Bb. To get the sound in your head, play through a C minor pentatonic scale, then lower the minor 3rd a half step. Try using this scale next time you’re called on to play a funky groove—without the chord-define minor third, it sounds supremely spooky and fresh!

As with trance music all over the world, the alternation between “simple” repetitive statements and complex polyrhythmic cadences creates a tension that sends listeners into an ecstatic state. To experience it yourself, track down some authentic Gnawa music and try counting along—I’ve nearly given myself an aneurism trying to keep time to the music, which sits simultaneously in duple and triple meters. A musician friend in a local Moroccan band described it this way: “Imagine playing eighth-note triplets in 4/4 time, putting the emphasis on the middle note in each triplet.” Now there’s a way to expand your groove horizons!