Hakmoun was born to a family of musicians who introduced him to the musical world of the Gnawa. By age four, he performed alongside snake charmers and fire-breathers on Marrakech streets. His mother is known throughout the city as a mystic healer. At the age of fourteen he left school to concentrate on music.
His mother is a mystic healer known in Marrakesh for her derdeba trance ceremonies, often all-night affairs involving hypnotic playing and chanting to exorcise spirits. Hakmoun began learning Gnawa music after witnessing his first trance ceremony at the young age of four. Hakmoun proceeded to study percussion after a musical ceremony that healed his sister.He eventually chose the sintir as his main instrument, a three-stringed lute with a body made of camel skin stretched over nutwood. The strings of the sintir are pitched low, enabling the instrument to serve as the bass foundation much like the Western string bass, while its tone is sweet, making it well-suited to carry the melodic line of a composition. By drumming on the body of the instrument, Hakmoun added his own percussion while contributing vocals, thereby creating a unique foundation for his musical explorations and growth. By the age of fourteen, he was an established musician performing at Gnawa lila ceremonies with his own ensemble.
Hakmoun made his U.S. debut in 1987 at Lincoln Center in New York City with Etian and Blanca Lee'’s Trio Gna & Nomadas dance group. He subsequently relocated to New York where he was received by artists such as composer and producer Richard Horowitz. He became a fixture in New York’s rock, jazz and fusion scenes, spanning multiple genres.In 1989 Hakmoun became part of the group Magmouat Hakmoun with his brother Said and relatives Mohammed Bechar and Abdel Hok Dahmad. Later that year, with help from Robert Browning and the World Music Institute, Hakmoun produced and released his debut album Fire Within
, with Adam Rudolph and jazz trumpeter Don Cherry. Together they made a Gnawa jazz fusion recording, Gift of the Gnawa.
Hakmoun began to expand his musical range, adding American sounds to the Moroccan form. This led him to form the group Zahar, meaning ‘luck’, whose music fused elements of rock and jazz with African styles. With the ensemble, Hakmoun recorded his first album featuring electric instruments and continued to perform around New York City. One such instance occurred during a performance at the Knitting Factory, whose audience members included Miles Davis, and Daniel Lanois, who proceeded to introduce Hakmoun to an important future collaborator, pop musician Peter Gabriel.In 1992 Hakmoun joined Gabriel’s WOMAD, founded in 1980. Hakmoun released another album, Trance
, at Gabriel's Real World Studios in Bath, England. From Bath, Hakmoun toured Europe, the Middle East and the U.S. along with other WOMAD artists, including performing under the group's auspices at the Woodstock 94 festival in 1994.His albums Fire Within
, Gift of the Gnawa
topped the charts for World Music Albums, World Music Charts Europe, New World and CMJ’s Radio Top 150 and were selected by Rolling Stone
as one of the “Hot Picks of ’94. His powerful performances and sounds also resulted in letters of admiration from former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, television host Jay Leno and saxophonist David Sanborn, as well as from executives at the New York Times
and the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Later years (2002 present)
In 2002 Hakmoun teamed up with American-born producer Fabian Alsultany to record a new album, The Gift
. The album included the release of the single, “This Gift,” a duet with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Paula Cole. In 2003 The Gift
received an INDIE award for “Best Contemporary World Music Recording” from the Association for Independent Music (AFIM).In addition to producing his own albums, Hakmoun has contributed to other artist’s recordings, adding to such projects as “Caravan” for Dee Dee Bridgewater’s album Prelude To A Kiss
, Ozomatli’s Street Sings
, which won the award for “Best Alternative Music Album” at the Latin Grammy Awards in 2005 and “Lovelight” for Paula Cole’s Courage
in 2007.Hakmoun has also composed and recorded for several films such as Rendezvous in Samarkand
directed by Tim Bridwell, The Past and the Present of Djemma El Fna
by Steve Montgomery and the documentary Footsteps in Africa
. Hakmoun appeared in several movies as an actor, dancer and musician, including Disney’s Jungle 2 Jungle
in 1997 and Rollerball
by John McTiernan in 2002.Today Hakmoun continues to record and perform in major festivals and venues around the globe, as well as give master workshops in universities. Most recently, Hakmoun started a project collaborating with other percussive dancers to create a new style of Gnawa dance.