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.
Author:
Publish date:

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.

bp1009_bassnotes_Sin1_nr

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!

Related

Image placeholder title

Roundup: Short-Scale Basses

THE OLD ADAGE THAT “LEO GOT IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME” WITH THE Fender Precision Bass is hard to dispute; the combination of styling, ergonomics, and tone from that design forms the core of our consciousness as bass players.

Fender: Road Worn ’50s Precision Bass & ’60s Jazz Bass

TAKE THE GROOVE-GOOSING CONFIDENCE you get from gigging with a real “player’s” bass, add the reliability and comfort of playing a new, pro-quality instrument, subtract the anxiety of schlepping a collector’s item that costs more than what you drove to your gig, and what do you have? The new Road Worn series from Fender. For years, Fender’s Custom Shop has been producing top-of-the-line replicas of the vintage basses favored by players like Jaco Pastorius and Pino Palladino. Built with exacting detail of visual cues, like each cigarette burn, dent and ding—as well as tweaky tech stuff, like the tone-control capacitor’s resistance— these masterpieces are phenomenal, but their price tags are downright depressing to most of us. The Road Worn basses take this essential concept to the masses. Each bass is modeled after the most popular designs from the ’50s and ’60s. I just took Fender’s Road Worn ’50s Precision and ’60s Jazz Basses out for a spin, and my heart is still pounding. Here’s t

Warwick Thumb Basses

WITH ITS EVER-EXPANDING ROSTER OF artist endorsees and swelling product lines of basses and amplifiers, Warwick seems to be capturing the zeitgeist of the bass world especially well as of late.

0.bp1109gridlull

Mike Lull: T-Bass

YOU HEAR IT FROM BASS PLAYERS OF ALL stripes: “I’m a Fender guy,” or “I’m a Gibson guy.” It’s as if pledging allegiance to one or the other declares one’s position in the greater congress of bass. On one side of the aisle sits those who celebrate the iconic Fender bass’s contoured body, slim neck, and balanced voice. On the other side stirs a somewhat rowdier crew of Gibsonites, who relish the virtually untamable low end, burly profile, and rebellious attitude of brutal axes like the Thunderbird, the Ripper, and the Grabber.

bp0510_gearfendergrid

Fender 50th Anniversary Jazz Bass(2)

FOR THE GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY OF ITS Jazz Bass, Fender has decided to throw a year-long party; for the rest of 2010, the company’s Corona, California factory will be crafting a limited number of 50th Anniversary Jazz Basses. Rather than replicating a single incarnation of the JBass— which has seen a fair share of design tweaks in the past 50 years—Fender has chosen to combine some of the Jazz’s most beloved features. In doing so, it set out to design a limited-edition bass that would be appealing to players and collectors alike.

Image placeholder title

Soundroom: Veillette Flyer Bass

IT’S JUST NOT FAIR. WHILE MOST OF US WOULD happily pick or pluck away on an acoustic bass guitar in our bedrooms, at barbecues, and even on gigs, with just a few notable exceptions—Steve Swallow and Brian Richie among them—the ABG is rarely employed as a player’s full-time axe.

Bulgarian Bass : Tambura

BEHOLD, THE BULGARIAN BASS TAMBURA. THIS CURIOUS BEAST FROM THE Balkans has a long, fascinating history stretching all the way back to the 6th-century Central Asian steppes. Well, sort of. As it turns out, nearly all of the geetar-type things we now sling on stages share a common ancestor known to organologists—those who study musical instruments—as the long-necked lute. Unlike the short-necked Arabic ’ud (which spawned the Spanish lute, and later, the guitar), long-necked lutes ruled supreme among the Turkic tribes of Central Asia. When the marauding hoards dropped down into the Balkans in the 6th and 7th centuries, they brought with them this type of axe. It’s a legacy that can be seen today in instruments like the Turkish saz, the Greek bouzouki, and the Bulgarian tambura. It seems that foreign invaders aren’t always all bad . . . .