Half of the seats of the ancient Greek theatre styled El Genaina Theatre were filled. A soothing breeze was coming up, introducing the strong voice of the woman who was going to sing: Nawal, ‘The Voice of the Comoros’. Playing the guitar herself, she was accompanied by two musicians. Sometimes praying, at times reciting dhikr, Nawal, herself a self-proclaimed follower of the sufi path, performs what she calls spiritual music.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
“I’m from the Comoros: four small islands in the Indian Ocean, between Madagascar and the African continent. But me, I feel more like I’m la fille de la terre. The whole world is my homeland. And the Comoros, it’s my family. So I’m rather a universal woman. And I defend universal values. I feel at home almost everywhere.
On the Comoros, there are families that are mixed with Arabs, Indians… My father’s family originated in Yemen, they are descendants of the Prophet. My mother’s side of the family has a mix of African, French and Portuguese roots.”
Maybe that is why you feel at home almost everywhere.
“Indeed, it comes natural. I grew up in France, in a banlieue called Fontbarlettes in Valence. Today I live in Paris. I defend the values of freedom and love. Spirituality has a place everywhere, not only in sacred places. I think that to open one’s heart and to grow beauty within is how one can get closer to God.”
Is that why you have chosen to make spiritual music?
“Yes, you could consider my music to be spiritual. I was born into this to begin with. Even though I grew up in France with other influences, it’s my cultural heritage. It’s also… it’s mine. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m a descendant of the Prophet. We sing about God for generations, at the zawiya. We sing about the beauty of God, about His 99 names.
At one point, I was an atheist. I knew Islam as a religion of the forbidden. I didn’t want it anymore. Then little by little, by living and growing, I had the chance to meet other people who brought me back to it. As a Parisienne, as a woman today, I have found the artistic path to create what I call my gospel. I wanted other people to get to know it too. It’s also a desire to show that there is more than one image of Islam. The image of beauty, love, respect, goodness, and most of all peace.
I think that all of us, even atheists, are one. We are all connected to the earth and breathe the same air. We have a collective memory. Everything that happens in life is a scenario for our soul to grow in, and to regain harmony and balance. It’s true that there are several religions and there’s a lot of fighting about it. But for me, it’s more about loving and sharing, creating the world together.”
How would you describe life in the Comoros?
“You should go there! The country is secular. There is also a new Islam that is actually coming out of the banlieues in France. The majority was sufi from the very beginning, with the four biggest sufi communities being there from the start. Our Islam is based on sharing, exchanging…
Unfortunately history has put the imagination of the people to sleep: slavery, colonialism, the craziness of people who need grandeur… Then there are political issues such as corruption. It doesn’t move forward as fast as I wished but it’s evolving anyway. The youth is waking up more and more to reclaim what we have. We are not yet developed in the sense of what I like to describe as syphilisation, in the sense of an illness, with concrete everywhere, big tourism, and people barging in without establishing contact with the local people.”
You have a song that is called ‘Shalom Aleikoum’. Who are you talking to in this song?
“The Middle East… God can only be good. If he puts us in difficult situations, it’s because we could develop something within us. If God forgives us unforgivable things, horrors, what Israel has done… It’s the power of money that has ruled once again. They have sent Palestinians away from their homes to put other people there.
What I’m saying in this song is that it has to stop. For it to stop, people really have to want it one hundred percent. Our attention has to be focused on peace and peace only. It’s not for us, it’s for the future generation. It has been taking too long. And the most horrible thing is that it’s the same people! It’s the base of three big religions, so it’s the base of humanity there. If it’s not going well there, it won’t go well anywhere. That has to change. I know what I’m asking is hard because we are human. But I believe in human values, and that is what I defend. I think it’s possible. We have to be hopeful.”
What is the message you want to convey with your album ‘Embrace the Spirit’?
“Actually the message is always the same but in a different way. That we are all one. We have come into the world to pursue our own jihad, to put light on our shadows. To see what is not good within us, and transform it.”
We have to start with ourselves.
“Exactly. I can’t change others. But if I change myself, somehow I’ll change others. I recorded ‘Embrace the Spirit’ all by myself. It was during a time in my life when a brother I played music with fell seriously ill. He couldn’t play any longer and it was hard to find someone to replace him. I believe that things happen when certain planets meet. It was a time like that. Some people believed it was the end of the world, but in fact it was the end of a world. At that point, a new world started. Even if old memories still remain, we’ve already moved on – we didn’t have a choice. That’s why I called the album embrace the spirit, carresse de l’âme. Our soul, our nafs, only has its memories and functions with its memory. Then there’s our conscience. I wanted my nafs with all its memories and joy, and my present conscience to meet up. To fuse and to retrace who we are, and to create this world with the help of God.”
Your grandfather, Al Maarouf, was a sufi master. How does his voice resound in your music?
“Actually I got to know him more through Google than through my family. In our family we sing his songs but we don’t say anything more. One day I found a panegyric written by an Egyptian. Al Maarouf said in it that praying is thinking. That if you see defects within somebody else, you have to look inside yourself because you have them too. That you have to place the virtue of love above the law. On my spiritual road I find myself rejoined with him. I want to continue what he said because I have found that we say the same things: universal values that I want to defend continuously. When I read all that, it gave me more power to go on and to believe what I said, which is not always easy. Al Maarouf is in my heart, I feel him in my music and I feel his energy with me. I feel close to him.”
How does it feel to perform in Egypt?
“I have been wanting to come here for a long time. It’s history. It’s the history of all of us. When I will go and visit the pyramids tomorrow, I think I will cry. To feel the energy of this land, I already feel touched by it. I have no words for it. I’m very grateful to the people who made it possible for me to come here.
I don’t know whether it’s that people like bad news, or it’s the media that like to pass on bad news. But they make us believe that we definitely shouldn’t come here. It’s not true. Even if there are things happening. There’s more than that.”
Visit Nawal’s official website for updates.