Historically, the term Gnawa (Gnaoua in French) refers to the descendants of black slaves in Morocco, the mystical Islam they practice, and the music used in their religious ritual.
Slaves were brought into Morocco from Sub-Saharan West Africa beginning around the end of the 16th century. Enormous gold-wealth and thriving trade networks fueled two great empires, first Ghana (parts of modern Mauritania and Mali), from around the 8th century to the 11th century, and then the Empire of Mali, from the 11th century to the end of the 16th century. In 1591, Timbuktu, a major city of the Mali Empire and a center of Islamic scholarship, was conquered by mercenary armies for Morocco. Mali declined steadily from there and Morocco began to import its people to work as soldiers and imperial domestic slaves.
West Africa had been converted to Islam since the 9th century through trade. The form of Islam largely practiced there was a blend of Sufism (mystical Islam) and African Shamanism. Slaves brought their regional traditions with them to Morocco and their descendants, the Gnawa, are very much defined by these mystical, shamanistic beliefs and practices. Although popularized in recent decades and influential in more mainstream music traditions, like Jazz, Blues and Rock and Roll, Gnawa music is primarily ritualistic.
The main Gnawa ritual is the Lila Derdeba. Traditionally, it is a healing ceremony in which musicians play and dance and those seeking healing dance. The master musician, the Maalem, plays a 3-stringed lute called a guembri, which magically calls spirits to the ceremony to possess the afflicted ones and drive out the negative possession that ails them. Besides the stringed guembri, Gnawa groups traditionally use krakebs, a kind of metal castanet, and drums. The rhythmic and repetitious music, with vocals more like chanting than lyrical singing, together with incense and intensely colored costumes, presents a frenzy of stimuli and sends the focus of participants inward toward surrender to the healing spirit.
Lilas last all night and consist of different phases in which specific colors and rhythms are used depending on the desired healing effect. The priestess, Moquademma, arranges and directs the Lila, designing the ceremony as a kind of prescription. Baraka is the positive life force which flows from Allah, and a huge part of Gnawa being is to dwell in Baraka, to foster and share it. The Lila is one way to do that.
Out of economic necessity, Gnawa music today is performed for tourists across Morocco, especially in Jemaa el Fna square in Marrakech. Gnawa groups also record and go on tour.
At least since the 1920s, American and European musicians have been inspired by Gnawa music, traveling to Morocco to learn from and collaborate with Gnawa musicians.
Here’s a 1994 video of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page jamming with a Gnawa group in Marrakech:
If you like that, there’s more here.
On Morocco’s Atlantic coast, the Essaouira Gnawa Festival happens annually in late June-early July.
Color has spiritual significance in Gnawa tradition; seven colors in particular represent different mystical states and spirits. The work of Gnawa painter Mohamed Tabal expresses the mystical and mundane experience of his community in intense color and surreal composition. His work is available at the Damgaard Gallery in Essaouira.
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