The ring of the Gnawa

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Steady following: A powerful and passionate expression of music.
Steady following: A powerful and passionate expression of music.


As Morocco gets ready to host the annual Gnawa festival between June 26 and 29, a look at this remarkable genre that combines African animism and Sufi Islamic elements.

Gnawa is music; a rite, a ritual, a dance, a trance, a spiritual invocation and much more.

When in most parts of the world today as men and women increasingly join the swelling ranks of the pinstripe brigade and try to pursue excellence through Excel and attempt perfection at the PowerPoint, there are still parts of the globe where living is not seen as proclivity to productivity but as a propensity to feel passionate about existence in itself. Where, often this passionate response is rooted in the reality of one’s surroundings and conditions.

Sometimes such intense living and longing can find expression in music that is powerful and ethereal and is even capable of dissolving the dichotomy of the performer and listener. There comes into existence a musical completeness resulting in one intensely shared experience.

Poignant origins

The Gnawa of Morocco, whose origins are bound up with the poignant story of black African slavery of the distant past, is one such musical experience. The story of this slavery goes back, way back — perhaps to the 10th century or even before — it antedates the better known slave trade to the Americas. The saga of this slavery involved the capture and forced transportation of black African peoples from sub-Saharan and West African Regions to serve at the will and pleasure of the Sultans and Pashas of Maghreb or present day North Africa. To either become servants or to become Guards or at times just to labour in the villas and palaces of their captors. During the time of the Berber rulers of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties in Moorish Spain, Black African Regiments took part in victorious battles displaying great bravery and valour. They played a pivotal role in the rout of Alfonso VI of Castile in 1086.

And just as the destinies of the captors and captives coalesced to charter a new course into history, the uprooted people caught between the tensions of trying to preserve their ancestral memory and coming to terms with their imposed surroundings while reinventing a new identity, created this unique music. Thus it combines African animism and Sufi Islamic elements to produce this singular blend of rhythm and swing. The Gnawa music is considered to be spiritual. Its practitioners believe that it can heal, soothe and keep the evils spirits away. The displaced Black Africans were from regions that are modern day Senegal, Niger, Chad and Mali — although they integrated into the Islamic cultural and religious mosaic of North Africa and Andalusian Spain; they retained their spiritual distinctiveness by keeping alive their own mystical traditions enshrined in the Gnawa.

Special feature

The trance is a special feature of the Gnawa when contact is established with ancestral spirits seeking their intervention either to bring about a good or to ward off an evil. Thus Gnawa is music; it is a rite, a ritual, a dance and a trance. It is a spiritual invocation and much more. Much closer to the contemporary times, into the 20th century, brotherhood groups like Nass el Ghiwane adapted the Gnawa for writing songs to promote social justice and further the cause of equity. Thus from a marginalised genre it became more mainstream.

You need not know any of this to be swept away and to be caught in its raptures. Or to see yourself swinging only to realise that the music is already inside you. Small wonder then that, over the years, the Gnawa has attracted a steady following from the rest of the world. Cities of Marrakech and Essaouira located in present day Morocco has a concentration of Gnawa artists and the music is extremely popular in these parts. Songs and chants are accompanied to the skilful rendition of the stringed percussive lute known as the ‘guemberi’. The guemberi is central to the Gnawa performance and it is accompanied by the ‘qraqeb’ or metal castanets and drums known as the ‘ganga’.

Parallels are often drawn between the Gnawa and the Jazz/Blues tradition of Afro-Americans. The pain and alienation caused by slavery is seen as primordial to both these musical traditions.

Culturally moored

Quite interestingly, alongside Gnawa, Morocco has been home to other forms of distinct and culturally moored music, such as the Sephardic folksong of the Jews. With the fall of the last Moorish kingdom of Granada in 1492 at the hands of Isabella and Ferdinand, the victorious Catholic Monarchs issued edicts exiling Jews from the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. Like many Muslim subjects, a large Jewish population took flight and found refuge in North Africa. The Judeo-Spanish ballads and folk music traditions survived and flourished in Morocco and adjoining parts. It was the case until the state of Israel was created. As more and more Jews migrated out in response to the demands from Israel, these rich folk musical traditions waned. Gnawa, on the other hand, thrived into modern times and has even caught the popular fancy of the world.

Acknowledging its universal appeal and growing following, the annual Gnawa Festival is conducted every year in June in Morocco as a regular feature. Essaouira plays host to scores of musicians and to hundreds and thousands of Gnawa faithful and fans each year. The wind bathed charming coastal town of Essaouira perched on the Atlantic coast has a chequered history of its own. Having attracted the seafaring Phoenicians in distant antiquity and much European presence later, it became a garrison town, a trading enclave and finally a key staging post during the dark days of trans-Saharan slavery. It is only befitting that the festival should find its home here. This year, being the 11th edition of the festival, special events are planned to mark the 10th anniversary of the Gnawa festival. It is expected that about 5,00,000 people would descend on Essaouira between June 26 and June 29 this year. The feature this year will host other musical performances as well as part of a World Musical event besides plenty of Gnawa. Thanks to the “Festival Gnaoua” as it is called French, the Gnawa has now catapulted to International Fame.



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