Gnawa: Music and Spirit

Mª Elena Morató

Painter, stage designer and art critic

In the immense conglomerate of African fusions which we can explore today we find a wholly unique case: the Gnawa. The approach to the Gnawa’s musical expression, of profound social and religious implications, reveals to us not only an extremely rich cultural heritage but also one of the chapters that would have greatest effect on the development of North African societies during the last 500 years: slavery.

The term Gnawa refers to the brotherhood groupings (and, by extension, to their manifestations) of a minority ethnic-religious group of sub-Saharan origin but with an important presence especially in Morocco and, to a lesser extent, in Algeria and Tunisia, where they are known as Diwan and Stambali respectively. There is no unanimity on seeing the Gnawiya as a Tariqa or Sufi religious path in the way that some of those more rooted in the Maghreb can be, such as the Qadiriya, Issawiya or Hamdushiya, among others, with which, however, it shares an organisational structure and ecstatic and possession rites,1 in what are considered the limits of Islamic orthodoxy. The establishing of these syncretic expressions took place over several centuries, during which the animist ritual substrate gradually adapted to Islam, with variations which depended both on the geographic area and the social environment to which the different black communities had to adapt themselves.

The Origins

The origin of the Gnawa, a word that seems to come from the Berber term agnaw/ignawen (dumb) in reference to their ignorance of Arabic and Berber2 must first be found in the diverse contingents of black slaves who between the 11th and 13th centuries were taken to the Maghreb strip from the Kingdom of Abyssinia, which occupied a strategic position in the caravanserai routes, and from the old Kingdom of Ghana (which today is part of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal). The traditional slave trade from the great Sudan intensified because of the conquest at the end of the 16th century of part of the Songhai Empire carried out by the Sultan of Morocco Ahmed Al-Mansur, a trafficking that continued until the early 20th century.

The descendants of these slaves, together with other free emigrant black peoples who arrived through the caravanserai routes, mixed with the local population and formed a group that despite its diverse origin acquired its own identity thanks to the figure of Sidi Bilal, the first slave of Ethiopian origin freed by Mohammed and who was the first Muezzin of Islam. These communities would also be known by other names in reference to their geographical origin (Sudani, Bambara), their social status (Ousfan, slaves), their religious affiliations (Bilali) or some of their practices of origin (Bori, in reference to the dance of possession practised by the Hausa taken to Tripoli). The large concentration of the black community in cities such as Marrakech and Essaouira (formerly called the port of Timbuktu) was because both cities had been important slave markets connected to the trans-Saharan route.

These neuralgic centres gave way in the course of the centuries to what we could call schools or styles within the Gnawa tradition itself, which, despite everything, maintains some traces that clearly differentiate it from the other musical traditions developed in the Maghreb. They are based on three main points: responsorial chants (callresponse), reiteration of melodic-rhythmic sequences, and polyrhythm of clearly African inheritances.

Musical Inheritances

Prohibited for a long time in some countries and only tolerated in others, the manifestations of these brotherhoods were also silenced or despised.3 All of these circumstances brought about the creation of an original cult and a distinctive cultural movement in which the different African contributions (Bambara, Songhai, Fulani or Hausa) were mixed with the Arab Berber, in a cocktail whose characteristics would depend on the area where they were developed. As we have pointed out, the Gnawa connection provided the linking elements between the Arab music of the North and the music of sub-Saharan inheritance. Their ceremonies acquired a musical specificity that fused Sufi mysticism with the rhythms of pre-Islamic Western Africa.

It is not difficult to trace these origins, as the same chants that take place during a part of the celebrations, which speak of suffering, captivity and exile and in which these distant communities and the ancestors themselves are evoked, are still sung in the original languages. This makes it clear, moreover, that it is a tradition transmitted orally from fathers to sons. All the ma’allem (or maâllem, musical teacher who leads the ceremonies) are direct descendants of these slaves or have been instructed and initiated by them since childhood, in an apprenticeship that lasts approximately from the age of 7 until 18.4

One of the most important signs that can be traced is the Mandinga and Bambara,5 peoples with greatest presence in one of the main areas of slave supply, on the banks of the river Niger. But equally important are the Songhai, Yoruba and Hausa traces, found more in the East and South. If the former give more importance to chant and accompaniment of the guembri, the two latter left their mark in complex and characteristic percussions, which we can recognise in the rites of Candomble, Macumba or Voodoo, their American heirs.

The Instruments

The importance given to instruments as transmitters of knowledge and social values in the traditional African communities would be reflected in the fundamental role they played in the Gnawiya ceremonies. There are three instruments that sustain the ceremonies: the guembri, the qraqab and the ganga or tabal, a large drum with double membrane played with two different sticks to produce deep and high-pitched sounds. The vehicular instrument, the guembri (also sintir, zouaq or hahjouj) is a three-string bass lute with a wooden soundbox of poplar, mahogany or walnut covered with dromedary skin which is very similar to the ngoni (with four strings) of the sub-Saharan Griots.

The style of their chants has also influenced the way in which the ma’allem transmit the spiritual history and wisdom of their people. The guembri, which is played with a technique both melodic and percussive, is like the voice that whispers and leads the lament, the evocation and the invocation. The qraqab (karkabu or chkacheks), large metallic castanets in the form of an eight, accompany the guembri and are responsible for marking and maintaining constant the time of those attending following the binary and tertiary rhythms that overlap and alternate during the musical evening. They help those attending to achieve the temporal trance and are the leading thread which places them in the Gnawa universe, in which the musicians that play them, disciples of the master, perform the counterchant and the dances.

The Styles

It is the greater or lesser presence of these Central African traces, together with the geographical and social space in which the brotherhoods are developed, which mark out their specific musical character. We can broadly identify two main styles: on the one hand, those located in the ambit of the power centres (the imperial Moroccan cities, mainly, in which an important contingent of black soldiers were concentrated known as Abid el Boukhari), where the influence of cultivated music is clear in a greater preponderance of the guembri and its instrumental variations, and, on the other, those located in the rural ambits, with greater influence of Berber folklore and predominance of the ganga. It is enough to listen to recordings such as that made by Lecomte6 of the rituals of the Saidiya brotherhood of Mostaganem by Nigerian descendants in this city of the East of Algeria and compare it with some of the Gnawa ceremonies in Casablanca or some of the groups located in the desert areas, for example, to appreciate these fundamental differences.

Beyond that only with more experience can we distinguish the particularities of the more or less defined diverse styles, such as the Marsaui (in reference to the port of Essaouira), Shalhaui (Berber), or Shamali (of the North) among others, differentiating themselves according to local traditions, dialects or the musical arrangements used.

The Ceremony

As in the other Sufi brotherhoods of the North of Africa, the Gnawa hold both initiatory and therapeutic group ritual ceremonies in which the music plays a primordial role to achieve this state of trance. These ceremonies are known by the name of layla (or lila, night) de derdeba,7 also called the rite of the seven colours. They are conducted over a whole night (the complete ritual can last up to seven days) during which the musical master is in charge of weaving together the profane and sacred repertoires that will finally lead to interior illumination and spiritual and physical healing (life-death-life transit) with the help of a clairvoyant-therapist or Muqadima.8

Three fundamental parts make up the layla: an introduction or a’ada in which the drums, after leading the faithful in procession to the place of the ceremony, purify the space and open it to cosmic influences. Next, with the musicians already in place, the ma’allem begins by performing a profane repertoire (the kuyu) which always begins with a series of chants called uled bambara (sons of Bambara) in which the distant origins of the Gnawa people are recalled in the original languages, although today few remain who can understand them. After this festive introduction the trance session properly speaking or muluk begins in which the ma’allem intones a series of chants that refer to the seven spirits or main supernatural entities.

The performance of these chants follows a pre-established order in which each spirit has its emblem and musical style, its colour (associated with a cosmic element) and its particular smell, which is present thanks to the incense. During the night the spirits of light and the saints (white), of water (clear blue), of the air (dark blue), those of blood (red), the masculine (green), those of the earth and the forest (black) and the feminine spirit (yellow) are invoked.9 During the ceremony, all those who go into a trance are covered with a scarf in the colour of the spirit possessing them.

Gnawa on Stage

It was inevitable that all the hypnotic power exercised by Gnawa music was somehow decontextualised from the rite and moved to the stage with greater or lesser respect, with greater or lesser fortune. It was in the 1960s and 1970s that pioneering groups such as Nass el Ghiwane and later Jil Jilala, Muluk el Hawa and Nass Marrakech (in the 1990s) made their own mixture of these styles based on classical Moroccan traditions, Berber rhythms and Gnawa dances. This first revolution revealed to us musical horizons hitherto unsuspected, while in its own context it meant the reassertion of the local.

This tendency now continued unstoppably with other groups who did not hesitate to include the influences of an expression that had been silenced and take it beyond its borders. The baton was also picked up by Americans and Europeans who approached these sources in search of new airs for their compositions. From that moment, the Gnawa mark became increasingly more visible through its presence in festivals thanks both to its musical particularities and to its stage presence. This circumstance, however, has contributed to its folklorisation in improving the potential of music and dance to the detriment of the ritual ends, creating a product adapted to this profane taste spread by the progressive professionalisation of the ma’allem. As in any kind of religious musical expression that irrupts on the stage, the decontextualisation has generated certain controversy, although there is no lack of arguments to justify it.

Alongside this evolution, greater recognition of the Gnawa world was seen, and in 1998 the Essaouira Gnawa Festival10 was created, an authentic and essential meeting point for all kinds of expression, from the purest (Mahmoud Guinea, Abdeslam Alikane, Abdelkebir Merchane, Hamid El Kasri, Mustapha Bakbou, Hamida Boussou or Allal Soudani, among others) to the most hybrid (the group Gnawa Diffusion would be the most characteristic example). Among the exponents of this new expression perhaps the best known is Hassan Hakmoun who, despite maintaining his unequivocal Gnawa stamp, on occasions presents compositions very removed from it, but we also find surprises as pleasing as that of the group Séwaryé (intelligent and formidable jazznawi beat) or individual pearls such as Hasna El Becharia, the only woman who plays the guembri.

There are many young groups, both in the Maghreb itself and in France, who are inspired by Gnawa heritage for their new concepts, taking from it rhythms and accents that can form part of truly interesting works of fusion. Some of the tens of names that incorporate the word Gnawa can after all host more or less successful combinations of Arab or Maghrebian traditions properly speaking (both classical and popular), pop, hip hop, rock and even jazz. A sufficiently wide range for us to lose ourselves in. But the path, the paths, of Gnawa music are many, although its spirit is but one.