We're listening to gnawa, a type of spiritual trance music found in Morocco and other parts of North Africa. This meditative sound has brought around 500,000 visitors to Essaouira for this year's addition of Gnaoua Festival, a celebration of this centuries-old style that takes over the city for one weekend each year. In addition to the official programme, which runs across several stages overlooking a harbour, musicians play to small groups gathered on street corners, while local vendors sell traditional clothing to sunburnt tourists. During the day, the atmosphere is happy and energetic. Thanks to the appeal of gnawa's endless loop, the population of the usually sleepy Essaouira has doubled.
The visitors are drawn to people like Simo Lagnawi, a musician who's spent his whole life around this ancient style. "Gnawa music chose me," he told me over the phone a few months later. "That's number one." A Moroccan with native Amazigh roots, Lagnawi now lives in London. He opened the city's first gnawa school and plays at festivals across Europe, introducing the style's hypnotic charm to audiences outside Morocco. He wears bright, traditional clothing and keeps his hair in locs that reach his shoulders. As he explained gnawa's qualities, I sensed him smiling on the other end of the line.
Traditional concerts in Morocco, called lila, often go all night, and can even last for days. The band, led by a gnawa master, or maalem, is tuned into the crowd, shifting the tempo according to their response. It's transportive music, a way for listeners to see inside themselves—and find God. "This is spiritual trance music for healing," Lagnawi said. "The rhythm you play depends on the people and how they feel. You have to join hands with the crowd, to help people get their anxieties out."
The hypnotic elements of gnawa also turn up in electronic music. It's usually the realm of producers who work with subtle, ultra-repetitive sounds that you might describe as loops. Most house and techno is made from loops, a term that commonly refers to a repeating section of music. In house and techno, most tracks comprise sections of four, 16, 32 or 64 bars, which means they must work within fairly rigid structures. But what happens within those structures varies wildly. On the one hand, we have tracks like, say, Todd Terje's "Inspector Norse," an upbeat disco-house tune that adds musical elements—squiggles, melodies, white noise—every few seconds, building to an explosion of bright melodies and tones, much like a pop song. Then there are tracks like Maurizio's "M5," a nine-minute dub techno track made up of little more than a bassline and percussion looping for what seems like an eternity. And though nothing much seems to happen, "M5" is among the best pieces of dance music ever made.
Some tracks loop for seconds before a significant shift, others loop for minutes. Some, like the avant-garde composer William Basinski's extended ambient experiments, can loop for hours. In many cases, the tracks we call "loops" aren't really loops, as the music is constantly shifting, if only slightly. But those subtle changes are what draw us into their spell. In the case of ultra-repetitive house and techno, these changes may be slight tweaks to the sound of the hi-hat or bassline—a touch of reverb here, a touch of delay there. A producer might toy with the rhythm pattern, moving a percussion hit slightly off grid, then back again. This creates a feeling of progression, even though there's not much happening at all.
Often just a groove decorated with bleeps and bloops, these loopy tracks are dance music at its most fundamental. Yet producers work magic with this simple approach. Where many artists and DJs target listeners with disruption (breakdowns, white noise), others make their case more quietly. It goes back to house and techno's early years, where pioneering artists in Chicago and Detroit crafted some of the most stunning dance music of all time, often made with only two pieces of equipment: a synthesiser and drum machine.
These influential US producers soon inspired artists in Europe, who embraced the minimalism central to early house and techno. They included the producers Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, the producers behind Maurizio's "M5," who mixed Detroit's steely minimalism with the warmth of dub and reggae, creating a new style of music called dub techno under the name Basic Channel. In Frankfurt, the Chilean-German artist Ricardo Villalobos perfected the art of reduction, channeling a range of influences into a spellbinding brand of minimal house. A scene based around ultra-loopy, endless grooves (and endless partying) thrives in Romania, led by the DJs Rhadoo, Raresh and Petre Inspirescu, who shaped what became known as the "Romanian sound." And away from the dance floor, Basinski uses tape loops to craft moving ambient pieces that stretch for hours. A special emphasis on smooth, endless repetition unites all these styles. That, and the power to be transportive.
But why is it transportive? Put simply, humans love repetition in music. "Repetition serves as a handprint of human intent," Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, a researcher at Princeton University, once wrote. "A phrase that might have sounded arbitrary the first time might come to sound purposefully shaped and communicative the second." That applies to a pop song's chorus as much as the endlessly looping gnawa krakebs. It also might explain why, say, the simple bass notes on a dub techno track feel musical. The more repetitive a track, the greater its potential to hypnotise.
Margulis's research suggests that, as music repeats, listeners shift their attention across musical repetitions, focussing on different aspects of the sound with each new listen. For the first minute of Robert Hood's "Self Powered," you might focus on the bassline. But as it loops, your attention may shift to the hi-hats and the subtle ways they're manipulated. A great loop techno track hooks a lister with simple pattern. A listener who allows themselves to fall into the track actively follows the progression, whether they realise it or not. Subtle changes, like a slight filter effect on some bleeps, shifts the sound, bringing the listener even closer. The best producers, perhaps inexplicably, know exactly when and what to tweak, to the point where a simple series of tones and a four-on-the-floor kick becomes intensely powerful.
A lot of this music is labelled minimal, but that only tells part of the story. Almost all minimal dance music is loopy, but not all loopy house and techno is minimal. The work of pioneering house and techno artists makes that clear. Take K-HAND and Gerald Mitchell, producers who make rich, soulful tracks that don't build up or down but are incredibly impactful. K-HAND's "Somebody," for instance, is a steamrolling track engineered for peak time. For five minutes, the groove is constant and the arrangement is busy, with bleeps, piano keys and a synth drone weaving between the beats. Barely anything else happens, which means every subtle tweak—like when the melody briefly drops out—feels earned. "You want it to sound loopy but not too monotonous," K-HAND said. "You can run a four-on-the-floor kick for three minutes and call that a track, but people are going to wonder what's going on."
Artists in Detroit made repetition and careful manipulation of a single chord an artform, twisting abstract sounds into tracks that touched listeners all over the world. It's a long way from the skeletal, calculated sound that would come to define the European minimal that followed, where a clinical approach to production led to a colder, less human aesthetic. For Robert Hood, a producer who helped shape the early sound of minimal techno, the approach is far from clinical. "It's spiritual," he said. "You have to be instinctively in tune with your spirit and sound to know when it doesn't need anything else."
Talking over the phone from his home in Alabama, Hood spoke carefully but remained easygoing, getting more excited as the conversation progressed. We could have been analysing a new signing to his favourite sports team. He's spent the past 25 years working with music at its most reduced, so you might say he's spent most of his life searching for the perfect loop. Active since the early '90s, Hood is one of electronic music's key minimalists, having set an early benchmark for lean, reduced techno with his 1994 album Minimal Nation. A few months later, Internal Empire set another. Both are ultra-reduced, pairing snappy drum machine beats with bleeps, blops and squiggles of synth. Yet, like his Detroit peers, his sound is deeply emotional. It's music for the body and mind.
"When you hear an Aretha Franklin acapella, or Whitney Houston, you don't need anything else," Hood said. "That melody, the pureness and the tone in the voice, is enough. You thought you needed all these other elements for security, but when you strip all of that away, the clutter, then you find life. It's about destroying the box. I like to call it God's hammer."
Hood's instinctive approach to production feels at odds with his sound. His music is made with surgical precision, yet its emotional potential feels limitless. Elements are introduced one by one, each sound tweaked with the precision of high-end machinery. Yet Hood and many of the artists who make reduced dance music speak of letting go, or giving in to the machines. "Sometimes I'll sit for an hour-and-a-half and just let the loop tell me what to do next," he said. "Once it's moving my soul, I know it will move other people's souls. It's the spiritual connection I make between the drums, melodies and hi-hats."
Another pioneering Detroit artist, Gerald Mitchell, makes a similar point. He grew up attending black gospel churches in Detroit, where bands laid down extended, swinging grooves to sing along to. Like Hood, Mitchell is a loop master, proven across dozens stunning house and techno tracks. Dance music doesn't get classier than the psychedelic grooves of "Soulsaver" and "Multi-Dimensional Drama," which Mitchell released as The Deacon, or tracks like "Quetzal" and "Olmec My Brother" as Los Hermanos. These tracks, and plenty others, are little more than a groove with snatches of melody, rolling for upwards of five minutes without the energy shifting up or down. But the way Mitchell tweaks the chords, or manipulates the atmosphere, makes them transportive. It's house and techno stripped down to its essentials, yet it has the warmth of a full band.
Much of Mitchell's best work appeared on Underground Resistance, the shadowy Detroit collective that helped lay the foundation for techno in the US. And like Hood, who was also part of Underground Resistance, Mitchell recognises the power of a great loop. "First of all," he told me, "I'm a musician. One thing I learned from soul music, growing up in Detroit, was that there was always a basic groove. When I first heard techno, I didn't care for it because it was loopy. And it didn't go anywhere. And it was boring. But then I started to understand what the groove is about—that one groove, without moving, without the change."