Although Gnawa music is often viewed as an essential aspect of Moroccan culture, the name Gnawa is believed to be a corruption of Guinea (many other theories exist). The Gnawa people are an ethnic group in Morocco who originated in West Africa. The community are likely to have arrived in North Africa as a result of the medieval trans-Saharan slave trade from around the 11th century.
Gnawa culture is distinct in their blending of Islamic and pre-Islamic sub-Saharan African traditions. Since the 1960s the Gnawa people have transformed from being a marginalised minority to a symbol of national pride within mainstream Moroccan culture. The music of the Gnawa people is popular throughout Morocco and North Africa and in recent years international artists, including Robert Plant of British rock band Led Zeppelin, have collaborated with Gnawa musicians bringing the music to brand new audiences.
Since 1998 the Gnaoua World Music Festival has been held in Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast which attracts up to 500,000 people over 4 days. It has become a significant cultural event, not only for Gnawa people but for world music enthusiasts throughout Africa and worldwide.
This music is a part of ancient and rich African heritage, which has been growing and prospering for centuries as a thriving music project in Morocco. It is a fascinating combination of poetry, music and dancing. Its secret also lies in its religious, spiritual dimension, which gives it a kind of therapeutic power. Anass Fassi Fehri, Professor Assistant at Fes Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University
The Traditions of the Gnawa People
Gnawa music is an intrinsic part of the wider culture and religious traditions of the Gnawa people. The Gnawa practise a spiritual form of Islam (a blend of sufism with pre-Islamic African elements) and the music is believed to have both a healing effect on the participants as well as being a form of communication and peacemaking with the spirit realm.
The main ceremony involving music and dance is called the lila. These all-night celebrations involve music, dance, incense and elaborate costumes and participants aim to enter a trance-like state so that they can communicate with the jinn (spirits or demons of Islamic mythology). These songs involve invocations to Allah, Muhammad and Muslim saints, but also remember the history of the Gnawa people, the ancestral lands and experiences of slavery.
Being a Gnawa musician is generally the preserve of men. Women do contribute to the ritual element in the role of moqqaddema which are comparable to mediums who communicate with the spirits. In recent years, however, female Gnawa musicians have begun to emerge, including Algerian gimbri player, Hasna el Becharia who has been performing in both North Africa and Europe for the past 30 years.
Instruments used in Gnawa Music
Qraqeb are a type of large iron castanets and perhaps the most iconic of the instruments of Gnawa music. They are said to mimic the sound of horses hooves heard when the Gnawa people were abducted from their homes as well as the sound of the shackles that they wore as slaves. They are played rather like miniature cymbals crashed together. There are up to 20 qraqeb players to one gimbri player in a band.
The gimbri (also called a sintir or hajhuj), is a three stringed bass lute. The body is carved from wood and covered with a membrane, usually made from camel skin. Versions of the instrument exist across North Africa but the Gnawa gimbri tends to be longer in body. A metal ‘feather’ with dangling metal rings is often attached to the neck of the gimbri to emit a rhythmic buzzing sound.
The gimbri player in the Gnawa band is referred to as the maalem, meaning ‘master of ceremonies’, and is traditionally the band leader.
Also known as a ganga, the tbel is a double-headed bass drum, usually played with two sticks, one straight and one curved.
Gnawa music has inspired the development of popular Moroccan music in general and is analogically similar to the African-American spirituals, gospels, and eventually the genre known as “the blues,” also founded by former slaves. Gnawa music provides a perspective through which we may view the history of blacks in. It is a medium to discover and recover the African roots that still live on in Morocco. Dr. Chouki El Hamel, Professor of History at Arizona State University
Notable Gnawa Performers
Due to the religious and cultural significance of Gnawa performance, few artists have extensive recording careers. The performers listed here have recordings accessible around the world but to truly experience Gnawa you may need to book a flight to Morocco!
Maalem Mahmoud Guinia
Mahmoud Guinia (1951-2015) was a renowned maalem, singer and gimbri player. Born in Essaouira in 1951, Guinia came from a family of Gnawa musicians, his father being Maalem Boubker Guinia. In 1994 he collaborated with American saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders on the album Trance of Seven Colors. He also worked with Carlos Santana and reportedly provided lessons to Jimi Hendrix.
Hassan Hakmoun (b. 1963) is a Marrakesh-born New York-based gimbri player and singer. By the age of fourteen he was maalem and was performing at lilas with his own band in Morocco. In 1987 he relocated to New York, where he has lived ever since, bringing Gnawa to the rock and jazz fusion scene there. Since meeting British musician and world music pioneer, Peter Gabriel, Hakmoun has also been very involved in the WOMAD organisation and has participated in festivals across the world.
Wagna are from the new generation of Gnawa performers. They state that their name was chosen as they wanted to turn Gnawa on its head (hence the anagram). They have pushed the fusion sound even further and are broadening interest in Gnawa with the younger generation.
Audacious, ambitious and promising, Wagna’s electro-gnawa music is worth the detour. Eastern African influences, Arabic, jazz and electronic intertwine to create a hybrid atmosphere made of tradition and novelties.
Find out more about Gnawa music
Gnawa music: From slavery to prominence – Ahmed El Amraoui for Al Jazeera
The Gnawa and Their Lila: An Afro-Maghrebi Ritual Tradition – Timothy D Fuson
Gnawa Music – The Music of Morocco
Festival d’Essaouira Gnoua – Official Website