The Gnawa are descendants of former slaves originating in Sub-Saharan African territories (Niger, Senegal, Mali, Ghana, etc.) that the Arabs and
Berbers Imazighen from Morocco and Algeria found in Western Africa. Although some scholars find the roots of their spirituality in voodoo, the Gnawa are today Muslim mystical brotherhoods mostly known for their musical style, one of the main genres of Moroccan folklore.
Their name derives from the word GUINEA (former Empire of Western Sudan) even if only part of the population comes from this region of Africa. In the Maghreb, the word “Soudani” is used to refer to all people of sub-Saharan Africa or black Africans and, by extension, denotes “slave or descendant of a slave”, whatever the country of origin (and not just Sudan). The term “ABDE or ABID” clearly means “slave or descendant of a slave or person with black skin”.
They were then mixed with the local population and were trained in brotherhoods (with a master and a particular style of dress) to create a music and worship mixing African and Arab-
Berber Amazigh traditions, as well as pre-Islamic musical and spiritual expressions. These brotherhoods, rooted in Moroccan culture, explain creativity and vitality to the success of Moroccan Gnawa with their compatriots, tourists and musicians from the West.
Gnawa dancing and singing have a mystical-religious aspect. With their “krakeb” (metal cymbal) and their percussion, singers and dancers can sometimes go into a trance. The style is captivating, and their folklore is beautiful and fertile.
In Morocco, the birthplace of Gnawa music is quite unique to the region of Essaouira, where we also find Gnawa and
Berber (would it have killed him to say) Amazigh Jewish.
For economic reasons, some Gnawa (who are not all “Maalem”, masters of music and mystical ceremony) of Morocco come to present their music to a wider Moroccan audience; inspired by troupes of acrobats that can be seen in the Jemmaa el Fna square in Marrakech or in the “Moussem” (regional religious celebration), they will develop and invent stunts (which are not part of the ritual) and enrich their dresses with bright robes, hats with a long tassel, the “gri-gri” white sewn onto the dress and the hat, in order to attract, entertain and distract the audience. Outside Essaouira and before they became renowned, the Gnawa had been long regarded as public entertainers.
In Morocco alone, Gnaoua music is now also represented by women’s groups of Essaouira (called “Mqadamate”, feminine of “Maalem”). Their music is played with “darbukas”, metal trays and sometimes “krakeb”, but the “gambra” is not played anymore today. Their clothes resemble that of men’s and their dance is consistent with that form of ritual.
This kind of music exists, with some differences, in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and Libya, with specific names in each of these countries. However, unlike in Morocco, where relatively accurate information is available, the different kinds of Gnawa in these other countries show grey areas and have varying degrees, both historical, cultural, and societal. The gnawa rites are surrounded with an element of mystery and access to “lilas”, the ritual of syncretic possession, remains private.
Many Moroccan and world musical traditions, such as jazz fusion, blues, Reggae, rap, chaabi, or raï, have been inspired by this Gnawa musical heritage in order to enrich their work. Thus, great Moroccan classics, such as “Allah, Allah Moulana”, are found in many compositions.
If you want to experience Gnawa music first hand, come to Marrakech or Essaouira and enjoy this enormously rich and profuse musical heritage. Many riads in Marrakech [http://uk.espace-maroc.com/] host Moroccan traditional music every evening, including Gnawa music, and you can also stay in a riad in Essaouira [http://uk.espace-maroc.com/lst-riad-essaouira-4.html] to attend the Gnawa and World Music Festival, the main event devoted to Gnawa music in the world.