A soundful encounter: the Gnawa of Morocco

Walking the streets of Essaouira or Ouarzazate, groups of men wander with quite a sense of fashion: bright colours, embroidered hats, shining jewelry and singing through the rhythm of their percussion, these men are not beggars or mere street performers. They are truly much more than that.

They are Gnawas.


The Gnawa Festival: Festival Gnaoua et Musiques du Monde d’Essaouira

Originally from the Western Sudanic Empire (today’s Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Ghana, Niger…), the Gnawa brotherhood settled in several Moroccan regions after being enslaved by the Moroccan powers around the XVIth century. The word, derived from Berber, means “those from the black countries” and actually gave its name to Guinea. Forced to convert to Islam although keeping most of their own rituals, the Gnawa claim to be descendants of Bilel Al Habashi, a slave and the first muezzin of the Muslim tradition.

Pictures of Gnaouas taken in Essaouira, in the mid-1920s

Strongly anchored in the traditional religious practises although quite unconventional according to Islam, the Gnawas believe they have been invested with supernatural power, allowing them to speak to the djinn (demons, but not all evil ones) in a special night ritual: the Lila. In this Lila is performed a certain type of music, coupled with practises believed to be of great help to heal psychological trouble, and physical ache. A cure through music and spirituality, if you will, but nothing like your 10.00am yoga class.  Have a look for a minute or two, to have a clearer vision of the setting:

Essaouira quickly became the capital of the Gnawa, where a festival celebrating their musical heritage has been organized for several years now. But before taking a look at the festival, let’s first explore their musical universe.

The musical performances of the Gnawa are spectacular to say the least. In the tradition of trance, the musician-dancers offer a peculiar form of entertainment. It has been a fundamental inspiration for many other Moroccan musical genres and Gnawa music is considered the cornerstone of Moroccan popular music, inspiring other religious brotherhoods, but also pop culture and non-religious bands. Many drew a comparison between the Gnawas and Gospel music, tackling the same topics of slavery, suffering and spiritual liturgy.

Their distinctive sound and the Qraqeb percussion rhythm is sustainably present in Cha’bi music (folk music) but also in modern Ragga-fusion bands, the prominent modern Moroccan musical genre, led by Hoba Hoba Spirit.

Gnawa Music Festival

But most importantly, the re-use of the Gnawa music and culture is an ode à l’amour to the “africanness” of Morocco in all its complexity. The Essaouira Festival is the perfect meeting point for musicians, music-lovers and those in constant search for more things to learn and to share. It is a collection of days of beautiful celebration of one of the greatest cultural riches of Morocco, just as it is a celebration of the music of the world.

Be sure to join us next year! Jimmy Page and Robert Plant already have – take a look at the incredible footage:

What do you think?

Our Correspondent
Cult Morocco correspondent
Amina - Marrakech

I was raised in the dazzling sun of Marrakech in Morocco, and if it probably shows on my skin, it quite genuinely illuminated my perception of things. I can't say I am of those who think outside the box, there was never ...

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Continent: Africa
Capital: Rabat
Population: 31,627,400
Area: 446,550 km2
Currency: Dirham
Languages: Arabic

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