Premiere: Les Rhinocéros’ Heavy Take On Gnawa Music

By Ellen Rolfes

On a new song, D.C.'s Les Rhinocéros make spiritual music headbang-worthy.
On a new song, D.C.'s Les Rhinocéros make spiritual music headbang-worthy. "Grandpa" Sol Coltun


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If you find yourself in a trance after listening to Les Rhinocéros’ third album, well, that’s kind of what the band was going for.

On the song “Jacob (Scenic 6)” (listen above), bass and ambient sound slowly build, and then layers of guitar, drums and effects reinforce a simple and hypnotic motif.

"Les Rhinocéros III" is out June 23.

“Les Rhinocéros III” is out June 23.

It’s a tribute to gnawa music from Morocco, which founder Michael Coltun, 23, first heard in a New Orleans taxi nearly four years ago. The music used to be performed exclusively during healing rituals but has become extremely popular in the North African country.

Coltun, the band’s bass player and effects man, went on a deep dive into spirituals, poetry and rhythms from West Africa. Online he found a lot of mp3s ripped from old cassettes.

“It’s like crazy 40-minute pieces of the same riff, the same song. I just kind of found that really enjoyable,” Coltun said. “And so this song is sort of based on a simple [gnawa] rhythm that we kind of added more of ourselves into it, which is loops and more heaviness.”

Les Rhinocéros’ nomadic sound may be influenced by the band’s own transience. The group has humble beginnings at a Rockville, Maryland, high school, but its current members — Coltun, Amit Peled and Jonathan Burrier — split their time between D.C., Baltimore, New York and Israel. Songs are hashed out on the road and fine-tuned during performances.

“Nowadays, we practice once before a tour,” Coltun says. “We say that if we can’t figure the songs out in 30 days, then maybe we shouldn’t be a band.”

Reggae, rock, klezmer, jazz, world music and experimental sounds are woven throughout Rhinocéros III, due out June 23 on John Zorn’s experimental imprint Tsadik Records.

“One person described it as world music from a country that doesn’t exist, but I don’t really like to put something into a box,” Coltun says. “It is what it is. It’s music.”

Les Rhinocéros plays an album release show at Paperhaus June 13.